Keystone Cops Bump Heads in Lax Effort to Stop Illegal R.I. Business from Polluting

By FRANK CARINI

PROVIDENCE — Three governors, three mayors, two attorneys general, two Department of Environmental Management directors and the state’s sworn protector of coastal resources have allowed a scrap-metal business to operate illegally since 2009. During the past seven, and counting, years, Rhode Island Recycled Metals has been brazenly polluting the city’s waterfront.

In fact, the state has even allowed the illegal operation to expand. Now, a second metals — plus electronics collection — yard on the city's waterfront is committing storage and stormwater violations. The 278 Allens Ave. operation also began operating without the necessary permits.

The current and previous owners of the company never received permits from the city or the state to operate a scrap yard. The original business, at 434 Allens Ave., opened as an illegal car-crushing operation, and, not long after, received a temporary permit from the Coastal Resources Management Council to dismantle a submarine. How did an unlicensed business even get a permit in the first place? Like the 38 Studios debacle, we’ll never know.

Unsurprisingly, after being granted a permit from the Ocean State’s coastal defender, albeit a temporary one, Rhode Island Recycled Metals began accumulating, without permission, additional boats and barges to dismantle. A tugboat is now reportedly swimming freely in the channel.

For seven years, this Allens Avenue metals recycler has contaminated the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay with polluted runoff and fuel from derelict vessels the company has no business storing. The business ignores cease-and-desist orders and state law, and Rhode Island addresses the problem with little urgency.

The 6-acre property, a heavily polluted site taxpayers already helped clean up once, originally became contaminated between 1979 and 1989, when state officials failed to regulate the computer and electronics shredding facility operating there. The site has tested positive for toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl, a carcinogen commonly used in electronics.

Among the violations filed against Rhode Island Recycled Metals include disturbing the soil cap at the site with trucks and heavy machinery, and failing to manage runoff — a bad combination for both the environment and public health, considering the nasty stuff the property contains.

The matter is in court, again, where a special master was recently appointed to oversee the cleanup of the illegal business. Both DEM director Janet Coit and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin noted in a July 28 press release that they “applauded the order.”

“We take our job very seriously in enforcing environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act,” Coit is quoted in the release. “DEM has put significant resources into resolving this matter and forcing action to get this site cleaned up.”

If only the state agency moved as doggedly against an habitual environmental polluter as it does when it comes to arresting individuals for failure to fin clip striped bass. In a July 8 press release announcing the arrest of two men on that charge, you would think the Winter Hill Gang had just been apprehended.

“The striped bass fishery is an important one in Rhode Island. And preserving it and all our marine resources are responsibilities we take very seriously,” Coit is quoted in the release. “These regulations are the latest step in our efforts to thwart illegal fishing practices in Rhode Island. I am extremely proud of our DEM Division of Law Enforcement and the commitment and professionalism our officers demonstrate every day in responding to illegal activity and bringing the people responsible to justice.”

Perhaps DEM could send a few of its officers to Allens Avenue and help in the Keystone Cop investigation into the whereabouts of Edward Sciaba Jr. It seems the facility’s general manager is good at evading attempts to serve him papers to appear in court. Visits to his home and businesses in Massachusetts, as well as his Allens Avenue office, have reportedly been fruitless. Whitey Bulger was easier to find.

Rhode Island is good a scooping up the minnows, but doesn’t handle whales very well. In fact, when it comes to protecting the Ocean State’s environment, the state likes to leave the heavy lifting to homeowners, nonprofits and businesses with a conscience.

In fact, businesses with long histories of environmental degradation — for example, General Electric, which is wholly or partially responsible for nearly 80 Superfund sites — are wooed to Rhode Island with tax stabilization agreements and backroom deals. Real local businesses, especially the ones obeying Rhode Island’s environmental laws, are, for the most part, ignored. They certainly aren't wined and dined. Homeowners aren't allowed to negotiate their tax bills.

The same officials who allow Rhode Island Recycled Metals to pollute Narragansett Bay — the very same natural resource they like to say means so much to the Ocean State — expect homeowners to haul their household hazardous waste to special collections.

Homeowners also are encouraged to install rain barrels, and underfunded nonprofits are honored for building rain gardens to absorb stormwater. Perhaps the state could get one of these community nonprofits to plant a rose garden at Rhode Island Recycled Metals.

While the combined powers of the city and state can’t close, or are afraid to really try, an illegal business polluting the waterfront at will, residents of Providence’s South Side have been put under surveillance because recycling trucks have been rejected at the Central Landfill because of contamination. Local residents have been fined for not recycling properly, but Rhode Island continues to ignore the many businesses that fail to comply with the state’s decades-old recycling law. There’s no enforcement on the business side. There never has been. For the businesses that do recycle, all they get for their law-abiding efforts is to be put at an economic disadvantage.

It’s easier to catch minnows than harpoon whales.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.