What's Percolating Beneath Truk-Away Landfill?

Some Warwick residents are worried their health and the health of the Buckeye Brook watershed are being threatened by unknown waste dumped there years ago.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

WARWICK, R.I. — No one knows for sure what is buried beneath 34 acres in the middle of the Buckeye Brook watershed. During the past 36 years, reports have contradicted, among other things, the size of the impacted area, and cleanup has amounted to no more than a few feet of loam being spread around.

Everyone seems to agree that the former Truk-Away Landfill closed in 1977. Beyond that bit of information, however, little is truly known about what was buried and dumped there, even after the landfill was long closed. A review of the state Department of Environmental Management’s sizable Truk-Away Landfill file tells a troubling story, from a lack of oversight in the 1970s to tentative action through the 1980s, '90s and 2000s.

A March 2001 limited environmental site investigation report conducted by a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm accurately states waste materials left at the site “are not well documented.” It mentions rubbish and construction demolition debris, and the reported removal of batteries.

As for the presence of more-hazardous materials, the report erroneously claims, “No evidence has been presented to (the firm) to suggest hazardous waste disposal has occurred at the site.” A simple glance at the Truk-Away file or a call to the DEM would have put that ridiculous notion to rest. The Massachusetts company had been hired by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) to "study" the possibility of building four 30,000-square-foot cargo buildings on the adjacent property. The project never developed, largely because of the uncertainty of what lies beneath the ground on Industrial Drive.

During a June 1982 state inspection of the property, a former Truk-Away Landfill employee told the state Department of Health (DOH) he had been responsible for overseeing the disposal of hundreds of drums of chemical waste. Those drums contained, among other things, benzyl chloride, spent solvents, chlorobenzene, dyes, pigments and intermediate compounds made from benzene reactions, phenols, hydrogen peroxide and benzenesulfonyl chloride.

Those drums represent just a slice of what was and may have been dumped at the landfill. This ongoing uncertainty, combined with minimal remediation efforts during the past three decades, continues to upset and frustrate neighbors, environmentalists and property owners.

No swimming
Philip D’Ercole lives within the Buckeye Brook watershed. In fact, he’s a Buckeye Brook Coalition member. He and his wife, Carmen, have lived at their home on Edgehill Road for 10 years. The proximity of Warwick Pond made the location an attractive place to retire. The couple enjoys boating and fishing on the pond, but they don’t eat any of the fish they catch, and they don’t go swimming.

Despite water-quality sampling that says Warwick Pond is safe for swimming, D’Ercole doesn’t recommend his guests bring bathing suits. “The landfill was operational before strict landfill regulations were in place,” the Cranston native said. “People dumped all kinds of stuff there, and the problem remains largely ignored. There’s a lot of water in Warwick and I’m sure there are chemicals leaching into the watershed from that old landfill. Who knows what’s in the water. Do we even know what to test for?"

Three waterbodies — Brush Neck Cove, Little Pond and Buckeye Brook — are all less than a mile from the closed landfill. In fact, wetlands surround the landfill to the north, east and south, and appear to drain toward Buckeye Brook. Dark red- and orange-stained soils, evidence of leachate outbreaks, have been documented leading from the landfill’s edges into the surrounding wetlands.

There are, however, no public groundwater supply sources within 4 miles of the landfill, according to reports.

In August, D’Ercole set a letter to the state Department of Administration (DOA), the current owner of the entire 52-acre property, expressing his concerns, most notably the reported leaching of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the closed landfill. He got no response.

ecoRI News contacted both the DOA and DEM to speak with officials about remediation plans for Truk-Away Landfill. Neither agency responded, except to say the request had been received.

D’Ercole is dumbfounded that a landfill smack dab in the middle of sensitive wetlands was approved, “even back then,” and is angered little has been done to identify the true extent of the contamination.

His concerns aren’t limited to the environment and public health. He admitted he’s also worried about his property value and that of his neighbors. When he moved into the neighborhood, D’Ercole was well aware of the environmental concerns posed by the operation of T.F. Green Airport, but he knew nothing of the potential problems associated with a closed landfill that operated in its heyday under apparently limited oversight.

A few years after moving into his retirement home, a local newspaper article brought the Truk-Away Landfill issue to his attention. Soon after, D’Ercole was volunteering with the Buckeye Brook Coalition. He has since become a fierce defender of the watershed and the wildlife that calls it home.

Stained history
Truk-Away landfill is abutted to the west by industrial use, to the north by a T.F. Green runway, to the north and east by wetlands, including Buckeye Brook, and to the south by more wetlands and some residential development.

During its operation, the landfill accepted municipal and industrial waste from 1970 until its closure seven years later. The earliest known use of the property was as a sand-and-gravel operation. The landfill was started in a gravel pit, and waste was directly dumped into the water table.

In 1970, the site was operated by the Sanitas Disposal Co., and began accepting municipal and industrial wastes under the name of the Warwick Sanitary Landfill. By 1976, the company had changed its name to Truk-Away of Rhode Island Inc.

In 1977, the property was sold to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and ceased operations because of the hazards posed to air traffic by sea gulls attracted to the landfill. The landfill has never been “clean closed,” meaning not all hazardous waste has been removed.

The list of material dumped there is long and concerning — medical waste, electrical waste, paint cans, mercury film packs and fly ash. The presence of PCBs have been confirmed in surface water and three VOCs (chloroethane, methylene chloride and trichloroethylene) have been found in site sediment. Chloroethane was detected at the highest concentration — 95 part per billion (ppb).

In 1990, 13 years after the landfill was closed, the property reportedly continued to be used for illegal dumping, thanks to breaks in a not-so-well-maintained chain-link fence.

The landfill is listed on the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Information System (CERCLIS). Simply put, Truk-Away is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site.

Here is a look at some of the material dumped at Truk-Away over the years and other documented issues related to the landfill, according to a 1993 site inspection prepared for the EPA, a 2008 site investigation conducted by Warwick-based EA Engineering, Science and Technology Inc. and various other documents:

An old oil disposal pit on the eastern boundary of the property was identified as a possible source of unidentified water-quality contamination in a July 1974 letter from the state to Sanitary Waste Disposal of Rhode Island.

During its operation, the landfill was subject to several complaints. In 1974 and ’75, for example, the DOH was informed of a roach problem at the landfill. The Warwick Department of Public Works sprayed the property with chlordane to address the problem. Other complaints dealt with odors associated with decaying organic matter.

In August 1977, the DOH denied a City Council request to test for potentially harmful liquid waste because there was no evidence any such waste had been dumped there.

Some 432 cubic feet and 39,050 gallons of “low hazard material,” such as paint waste, still bottoms and hydroxide sludge, was dumped there by Recycling Industries Inc. of Braintree, Mass.

In 1988, medical waste was discovered at the landfill. The waste, which was discovered by an employee of a nearby business during a lunchtime walk, included dirt-covered blood bags, rusty syringes and torn X-rays.

In March 1991, DEM investigated the property because noxious odors were offending workers at the airport’s control tower. DEM said leachate from the landfill was causing eutrophication in Buckeye Brook. “A reddish bacteria was observed coming from a shiny blanket on the bottom of the brook,” DEM reported.

DOT allegedly dumped street sweepings and other debris at the landfill after it had ceased being one.

In a document titled “Internal Comments: The Former Truk-Away Landfill” there is a sentence that reads, “Drainage and infiltration of surface and groundwater through waste may be a major problem.” The next sentence reads, “With these issues in mind, a RCRA D Cap may not be effective in keeping water from infiltrating through the waste.”

In September 1995, a brush fire ignited buried waste at the landfill. Firefighters worked into the night to extinguish the underground chemical fire, and as a precaution 35 people involved in the effort were taken to the hospital, where their blood and urine were tested for possible chemical exposure.

In April 1991, DOT filed a landfill closure plan with DEM. The plan called for the cover material to include: asbestos-contaminated building demolition debris from the Providence Housing Authority; unclassified excavation from a runway rehabilitation project; composted sludge and odorless organic material; and Narragansett Bay dredged material. DEM approved the plan, but city officials contested the ruling. DOT eventually scrapped the idea.

In the 36 years since the landfill was closed, the only remediation action taken by any of the agencies involved was by DOT, in the late 1980s, after medical waste was discovered on the site. It covered the property with 2 feet of loam and threw down some seed.

In 1980, DEM informed DOT of its responsibility to adequately close the facility. The 2008 EA Engineering, Science and Technology report determined that remediation is required to bring the former landfill into compliance with applicable regulations.

The businesses that owned and operated the landfill for profit are long gone, and likely will be hard to find when the clean-up bill comes due.

Health vs. finances
Remediating Superfund and brownfield sites is a constant battle that pits public health/environmental concerns against cost factors. This struggle is waged daily across the country.

Michael Zarum, who holds a degree in civil and environmental engineering, understands the complexity of the issue better than most of his neighbors who share his concerns about the long-term impact of the Truk-Away Landfill.

Like D’Ercole, Zarum lives in the Buckeye Brook watershed. He’s troubled by the lack of a comprehensive study of the property. He’s afraid the state is looking to address the problem in the cheapest way possible. Nearly 40 years of inaction only confirm his fear.

“I understand it takes time to address a site like this — this isn’t a Love Canal situation — but we shouldn’t ignore the issue either,” said Zarum, vice president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition. “We need more detailed study of the landfill. Obviously, something needs to be done.”

Zarum would like to know exactly what was dumped at Truk-Away, how those materials have interacted and what that means for the Buckeye Brook watershed and ultimately Narragansett Bay. He’s worried conflicts of interest and liability concerns have stopped those questions from being answered.

“You can’t just cap this landfill, because we’ve got chemical reactions going on and there could be gases we didn’t expect that could create hazardous conditions,” Zarum said. “We can’t just throw some dirt on it and think that solves the problem.”

He said all the parties involved, from the EPA and DEM to the General Assembly and City Council to environmental groups, need to work together better to address lingering concerns regarding the Truk-Away Landfill.

In the meantime, those who live in the Buckeye Brook watershed hope it doesn’t take another 36 years for their concerns to be addressed.

“Are we going to tell future generations we didn’t test for carcinogens because we lacked the resources,” D’Ercole said. “To me, that’s not a very good reason to put public health and the environment in jeopardy. Capping didn’t get rid of the pollution, and putting up some signs that say, ‘not for public use,’ was hardly the answer.”