Funding Scarce to Make R.I. Less Toxic

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Terry Gray from the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) began his presentation by describing the Superfund as “a program that works to protect people from the messes created by their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”

At the recent Superfund Research Program seminar hosted at Brown University’s Barus and Holley Hall on Hope Street, Gray, assistant director of waste, air and compliance for the DEM, and Matthew DeStefano, DEM’s supervising engineer for federal programs, educated and updated attendees on the history, progress and future of the federal Superfund program and its state-run counterpart.

Until the 1970s, there was a complete lack of environmental regulation in place in the United States. This began to be remedied with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December 1970. Then, 10 years later, Congress saw the need to create a fund that would allow the EPA to identify parties responsible for contaminating the environment and forcing those parties to clean up the mess. The act was named the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, but is more commonly referred to as the “Superfund.”

The fund got off to a slow start during the laissez-faire economics of the Regan administration, but was bolstered in 1986 during an amendment process that increased funding, improved the technology being used at Superfund sites and made clean-up requirements more rigorous. Unfortunately, since that time, the program has declined as a priority in the federal budget, and is now grossly underfunded.

Program funding has been reduced to the point where the adoption of new sites by the program has become rare. With the exception of large-scale mining operations in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges that are contaminating hundreds of miles of streams and watershed, and require hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up, no new sites are being added to the Superfund program.

In Rhode Island, a Superfund site hasn’t been added since 2000, when the Centredale Manor Restoration Project in North Providence was initiated.

"The Superfund was never meant to go into perpetuity when it was conceived by Congress back in 1980,” DeStefano said.

That being said, the Dec. 2 seminar made it clear that it’s hard to justify eliminating the program completely, considering the high number of contaminated sites requiring attention in the United States.

The topics of the seminar included the Picillo Farm site, the Rose Hill landfill, and the state’s efforts to pick up the slack after it realized, back in 1993, that the Superfund program couldn’t handle all of the state’s contaminated sites.

Picillo Farm, in Coventry, is certainly one of the state’s most interesting Superfund sites, because of how it became contaminated. During the mid to late 1970s, Picillo Farm began supplementing its pig farm revenue by accepting any and all contaminated waste and burying it in trenches across the property. The farm accepted barrels containing hazardous waste and explosives, and even an 18-wheeler that was backed into a trench and then buried after detaching the rig.

The money was pouring in until 1977, when the chemical waste and explosives all came together in a blast that is rumored to have been visible from Providence 15 miles away. The farm’s owner skipped town for Florida, and Rhode Island was left with a serious mess.

Picillo Farm was listed as a Superfund site in 1983, and is still listed today. To clean up the site, all of the waste had to be dug up and removed. Much of the contaminated waste initially was shipped out of state. The site was so contaminated that clean-up workers had to wear head to toe decontamination suits in which the environment could be controlled and air could be supplied to workers by oxygen tanks on their backs.

After the waste was removed, the sites were paved to stop water from penetrating the contaminated soil and becoming contaminated itself. Next, a pumping station and wells were built to remove the groundwater so that it could be decontaminated at an on-site treatment station and then discharged into the environment in a nearby swamp. Other wells were built to extract contaminated soil vapor. The project at this point is basically on cruise control and is expected to remain that way for many years, according to officials.

Without the Superfund program, however, the site would have remained contaminated for centuries.

The Rose Hill landfill in South Kingston was added as a Superfund site in 1989. The site got its start as a 70-acre gravel pit, and later was turned into a 30-acre landfill. While in operation, landfill managers accepted mostly anything, which resulted in contaminated waste barrels finding their way into landfill. The site was polluted enough to turn water from a nearby river from clear to orange as it flowed past the landfill. While the level of contamination at Rose Hill was nowhere near the level experienced at Picillo Farm, a major clean-up effort was still required.

First, much of the solid waste had to be dug up to test the site's levels of contamination. Then, the multiple landfill sites on the property were collected into one giant site so that it could be more easily managed. The areas where all the waste was moved away were then filled with uncontaminated soil and monitored, while the new mega-landfill was capped. It’s now in a long-term “operation and maintenance phase.”

Clean-up costs are high. The Picillo Farm site has cost tens of millions of dollars to date, while the less-intense Rose Hill site has cost $13 million to clean up, which has been absorbed by the Superfund program and the party responsible for the contamination. These high costs weigh heavily on the Superfund budget.

In response to the Superfund’s inability to handle all of the contaminated sites in Rhode Island, a state-initiated program was developed in 1993 to pick up the slack. Currently, there are 13 listed Superfund sites in Rhode Island, while its state-level counterpart is managing 1,800 sites, including the Cranston sanitary landfill and the Gorham site. In almost all cases, the state program requires the contaminating party to pay for the entire cleanup, but the process can be slow depending on the amount of litigation required before cleanups can move forward.

With the Superfund program no longer accepting new sites, more and more pressure is being placed on the state to take care of these environmental messes on its own.

“We try to be proactive whenever possible,” DeStefano said. “In addition to cleaning up previously contaminated sites, we want to stop new contaminated sites from happening in the first place.”