Climate Change Threatens Port of Providence Neighborhoods

 A Category 3 hurricane would flood much of Providence’s industrial waterfront, according to severe-weather modeling. (URI)

A Category 3 hurricane would flood much of Providence’s industrial waterfront, according to severe-weather modeling. (URI)

Rising seas, flood waters and storm surge have potential to unleash buried and stored toxins along city's working waterfront

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Climate-change concerns tied to a proposal to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure along the city’s industrial waterfront have mostly been met with reassurances that the natural-gas tank will be elevated enough to withstand projected sea-level rise combined with a 100-year storm.

Since the project was announced three years ago, the public-health impacts of building more polluting infrastructure along the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay have largely been ignored by those who have proposed the facility, National Grid, and elected officials who were sworn to protect the public’s interest.

While disregarding the already-high rates of asthma in the neighborhoods that surround the project, National Grid and state and local officials have also remained mostly silent concerning the legacy of pollution bound to the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) site and the Port of Providence.

The jacked-up LNG facility would add to the port’s collection of imported and stored petroleum products such as home heating oil, jet fuel, natural gas and diesel. Buried in the area’s dirt and sediment and blowing in the wind are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, total petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, formaldehyde, cyanide, asbestos, lead, ammonia, arsenic, and polychlorinated biphenyl, a human carcinogen. Much of the infrastructure in and around the port is aging.

Sea-level rise and other climate-change impacts threaten to unleash all of that nastiness.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) considers Providence to be the “Achilles heel of the Northeast” because of its position at the head of Narragansett Bay, according to a 2014 study by a University of Rhode Island assistant professor of coastal planning, policy and design.

“For context, before Hurricane Katrina caused $80 billion in damages to the Gulf Coast, FEMA considered New Orleans to be the Achilles heel of that region,” Austin Becker wrote. “Rhode Island had been hit by nine hurricanes, two of them major, since 1900. The length and orientation of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, and its proximity to the Atlantic hurricane zone, make it susceptible to extreme storm surges from the southerly winds that are generated when a hurricane passes to the west of the Bay.”

In a 13-page DART grant application, Mayor Jorge Elorza praised the city’s waterfront for being a “driver of economic development.” The document noted that the mayor has “prioritized this continued land use with a new emphasis on sustainability and resilience.” That statement matches with what Elorza has said publicly about maintaining the current use of Providence’s working waterfront.

Last summer the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sued the Shell Oil Co. for not safeguarding its massive oil tank-storage facility on Providence Harbor from the effects of climate change.

“With just one severe storm — one major flood — the Providence River and surrounding communities could be inundated with toxic substances, yet Shell has done nothing to safeguard us from this fate. It’s time they be held accountable for this grave inaction," CLF president Bradley Campbell said in June 2017.

The lawsuit suit alleges that the 25-tank facility and rail and marine terminal on Allens Avenue threatens upper Narragansett Bay and nearby communities by failing to safeguard the terminal from sea-level rise, storm surge and increased precipitation. According to federal flood maps, the site is within a flood zone.

 This STORMTOOLS map, developed by the Coastal Resources Management Council and the University of Rhode Island, shows the depth of water during a 100-year coastal storm. The arrow points to where the LNG facility is proposed to be built on the Providence waterfront.

This STORMTOOLS map, developed by the Coastal Resources Management Council and the University of Rhode Island, shows the depth of water during a 100-year coastal storm. The arrow points to where the LNG facility is proposed to be built on the Providence waterfront.

In this era of worsening climate-change impacts, the activist group No LNG in PVD, the Mashapaug Nahagansett Tribe, about a dozen elected officials, concerned residents and environmentalists are wondering why Rhode Island is determined to expand its fossil-fuel footprint.

In an Oct. 16, 2017 letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo, No LNG in PVD and its supporters note that the proposed LNG facility “is unnecessary, risky, and short-sighted.”

“At a time when Rhode Island should be investing in renewable energy, improving coastal resiliency, and growing an economy of the future, this LNG facility would be a $180 million step in the wrong direction,” according to the seven-page letter.

A month earlier, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had announced the timeline of moving toward a final decision on the controversial project. To make its decision, the federal agency decided a comprehensive environmental impact statement wasn’t needed.

FERC has the final say on the fossil-fuel project’s social-justice, public-health and safety issues, according to the National Environmental Policy Act.

To help alleviate the climate and health concerns of the 100 or so attendees at a public hearing hosted by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) last December, project manager Anthony LaRusso said the new buildings will fit with the tan color scheme of neighboring structures, and at 108 feet the proposed tank would be shorter than the neighboring 127-foot-tall LNG storage tank.

During that Dec. 12 hearing, CRMC board member Jerry Sahagian noted that the project’s visual impacts were minor and the 108-foot-tall tank won't stand out on the city’s working waterfront — issues so far down the list of concerns as to be laughable.

“In order to take climate science seriously and hopefully avert devastating runaway climate change, fossil fuel use must be rapidly scaled back not expanded,” according to an opposition paper completed by the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. “Instead of investing in the build out of new fracked gas infrastructure, massive investments need to be made in energy efficiency and truly renewable energy.”

The 32-page position paper noted that operating the proposed liquefaction facility would require a large amount of energy and would use 15 megawatts of electricity to liquefy the gas.

“For comparison sake," the paper's authors noted, "the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm project will be generating 30 Megawatts of electricity, which means National Grid’s proposal would essentially cut the benefits of this groundbreaking renewable energy development in half.”