Video and text by KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT — The city recently held what was billed as a public forum to address the results of completed soil tests at Queen Anne Square, which is slated for a controversial redevelopment that gained national attention last year after local philanthropists and a local nonprofit foundation put forward a plan for a redesign by renown Vietnam War memorial conceptual artist Maya Lin.
However, ecoRI News has confirmed that construction originally slated to be completed ahead of the America’s Cup event in late June has been postponed until the fall. The state Department of Environment Management (DEM) is requiring additional soil tests and further study of the project’s potential impact.
Rather than present a report regarding the lead, petroleum and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons discovered in park soil by contractor Sage Environmental, or discussion of clean-up options and other public concerns, the purpose of the meeting, according to Bill Riccio, director of city services, was for “information gathering” only, as mandated by the DEM. The public comment period ends April 16.
After some grumbling and confusion in the packed Newport Public Library conference room, Jane Harrington, Newport’s new city manager, said the city is required by the DEM to gather information from outside sources including input on the types and uses of buildings that were once present on what is now Queen Anne Square.
As stipulated in a contract signed in December following a controversial 5-1 vote by the City Council, the Maya Lin-designed redevelopment of the park is now controlled by a newly formed corporation called the Doris Duke Monument Foundation.
The Doris Duke Monument Foundation shares the same address and phone number as the Newport Restoration Foundation and both are led by NRF Director Pietor Roos.
Now that toxic materials have been found on the site, the Doris Duke Monument Foundation is required by law to collect historic information about the site before ground can be broken.
The testing of the soil by Sage Environmental became mandatory last year after the DEM sent a letter alerting the city about the possibility of hazardous materials on the site, a concern raised by a witness who had remained anonymous until last week.
Local resident John McNulty first contacted the DEM last November after he heard Queen Anne Square was going to be dug up. He was concerned about what might be unearthed in the process.
McNulty, a registered building contractor in Newport in 1977, has described barrels full of cleaning solvents and other suspected toxic materials that were dumped or covered over when Egan Cleaners was dismantled and moved from what today is the lower section of the park near Mill Street to a site on Aquidneck Avenue.
Though no traces of toxic dry cleaning solvents have been found in the first round of testing of park soil, tests completed in February revealed high levels, exceeding DEM allowable limits, of lead, petroleum and polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs), all common contaminants found in urban land fill used in the 1970s when the park was built.
At this most recent meeting, local resident and well-known architect Lawrence Cutler raised concerns about the control he claimed the city had ceded to what he called “a private shell corporation” indemnified by contract against any liable claims.
Cutler also told of nearly losing his son to Leukemia after he was exposed to PCBs from an old transformer Cutler found in the basement of his family’s previous home in Massachusetts.
“There was no testing of PCBs at all,” he said, referring to the Queen Anne Square project.
Indeed, according to company officials present at last week’s meeting, PCBs were not tested for by Sage Environmental. DEM has limits relative to PCBs, but Martella said there is no historic or anecdotal information suggesting that power transformers or others sources of PCBs were present at the site.
He did say, however, that it is a legitimate concern and does warrant investigation.
David Clapp, of John Street, representing a local group called Citizens for Queen Anne Square presented a slide show featuring questions that have been raised by residents. Clapp also is the lead complainant in a formal filing made with the attorney general’s office claiming the City Council violated several provisions of state open meetings law in its handling of the Queen Anne Square redevelopment project.
Questions presented by Clapp in his presentation included:
• Why did Sage Environmental not test for PCBs and Dioxins?
• Why was Sage Environmental chosen to conduct the soil testing?
• Was the soil testing work competitively bid?
• Does the DEM believe that soil testing should be extended beyond the current perimeter?
• What will the impact be on the property values of the abutters to Queen Anne Square?
• If redevelopment of the Square halted immediately, how would the DEM classify the site?
Since the “forum” was an information gathering event only, these questions and others raised by Clapp were not publicly addressed during the meeting by DEM officials, Sage Environmental representatives, city officials or the Doris Duke Monument Foundation.
After the meeting, Martella said the site would require remediation even if the project were to be halted. Since contaminants have been found close to the surface of the soil cleanup is required by law, he said.