Steel Yard Shows How Reuse Trumps Recycling

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — It may look to some that the folks at the Steel Yard need to mow the lawn, but the overgrown grasses, trees and shrubs on the property are part of an integrated stormwater mitigation plan.

From steel mills to locomotive manufacturers, Rhode Island's capital city has a long history of industrialism. While that industrialism gave rise to booming economics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few of those big mills and businesses remain today. Unfortunately, due mostly to ignorance, those manufacturers and mills have left much of the city’s — and state’s — soil and ground water contaminated, or at least potentially contaminated.

It was with a tip of the hat to those industries that made Providence economically great that the Steel Yard was founded in 2002, but the folks who started the nonprofit artists collective also wanted to acknowledge the legacy of environmental degradation that heavy manufacturing had on Rhode Island’s resources.

The Steel Yard is in the city's Olneyville neighborhood, a once flourishing industrial enclave for textile, jewelry and metal manufacturers. In the past two decades, the area has been in decline, with many manufacturers and businesses closing or moving, and fewer employers willing to occupy the neighborhood. Many of the industrial sites remain closed or in disrepair.

The Steel Yard calls the old Providence Steel and Iron Co.'s location on Sims Avenue home. Providence Steel was incorporated in 1902, and for many years before we knew the dangers of lead poisoning, Providence Steel sprayed its finished girders with lead-based paint. The overspray from this process left high concentrations of lead in the soil surrounding the facility. A century later, when the Steel Yard’s parent nonprofit, Woonasquatucket Valley Community Build (WVCB), bought the land and facility, that contamination remained, which meant that the new owners would be saddled with the cost of remediating the contamination before any intensive use of the facility could be permitted.

The cost of that effort was nothing at which to scoff. All told, the remediation cost nearly a million dollars. Initial site clean-up efforts involved removing soils with the highest concentrations of lead while excavating and stabilizing soils with lower levels of contamination. In 2007, WVCB received a $400,000 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Brownfields Cleanup Grant to finish clean-up work at the two parcels that comprise the Steel Yard complex. The grant was used to cap the onsite contaminated soils with a combination of clean soil and permeable pavement. That work was completed in 2010, allowing for the site’s physical rehabilitation.

Today, the old Providence Steel buildings have been converted into more than 9,000 square feet of workspaces for artists, classrooms for education and job training in the industrial arts, and office space. The site design embraces the property’s urban industrial history while incorporating innovative approaches to sustainability, such as the use of uncommon recycled materials like repurposed sheet pile walls from the Massachusetts Highway Department, cubes of compressed steel and metals used as retaining walls, and an onsite stormwater management system that features permeable pavement and bioswales.

The property also is home to more than 70 trees, many of which were planted through the Trees 2020 program, and includes nearly 12,000 square feet of open space used for events, classes and artist workspace.

The site remediation and stormwater management system were completed just prior to the Great Flood of 2010, which saw the Woonasquatucket River breach its banks in many locations. According to Howie Sneider, the Steel Yard’s public projects director, “Even during the height of those storms, we had no water buildup on the land here. We were in more danger of flooding from the river being overcapacity.”

In addition to the permeable pavement and water-retaining bioswales, the site is equipped with cisterns that allow for the slow infiltration of stormwater back into the Woonasquatucket’s watershed.

The Steel Yard has achieved many successes on the former Providence Steel site. In addition to the successful remediation of contaminated soil, the facility's redevelopment has, through its training programs, career development opportunities, small-business incubation and frequent public events, served as a catalyst for community and economic development.

In the past two years, the Steel Yard, which employs about 170 people, has produced bike racks, trash-can sleeves and public recycling containers for the city. These public examples of form and function remind us of our rich industrial heritage, and also of the environmental and economic blight that the decline of these industries foisted upon Rhode Island. The Steel Yard’s dedication to the reuse and repurposing of old materials in their work serves as another reminder to us all that reuse trumps recycling, and in some cases, needs to be preceded by remediation.