Neighboring farm’s business expansion still on hold because of junkyard contamination concerns
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
FOSTER, R.I. — A long under-regulated salvage yard that is preventing a neighboring farm from expanding its business operation was recently cited by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for freshwater wetland and water pollution violations.
The April 19 notice of intent to enforce action against Mill Road Realty Associates/Wright’s Auto Parts claims the operation has altered wetlands without a permit, discharged pollutants into state waters without a permit, and illegally discharged stormwater. The notice alleges that clear-cutting part of the property allowed stormwater runoff to flow untreated into adjacent Hemlock Brook.
The notice requires the 37 Mill Road business to install soil erosion and sediment controls, remove all unauthorized fill material, and plant trees and shrubs in the unauthorized altered areas.
Failure to comply with the requirements “may result in the issuance of a formal enforcement action, which would include administrative penalties of up to $5,000 for each violation,” according to DEM.
DEM’s notice of intent to enforce was the second action the state agency has taken against Wright’s Auto Parts in the past five months. Late last year DEM sent Wright’s Auto Parts a letter of non-compliance, after an inspection of the 30-acre property found several hazardous-waste violations, including the business not being licensed to operate as a solid-waste management facility.
The business was also cited for storing mercury-containing devices for more than a year and for having nearly 170 cubic yards of solid waste on the property, including 10 boats and more than 480 used tires — an unlicensed facility can only dispose of up to 3 cubic yards of solid waste.
A Jan. 3 e-mail sent to David Chopy, chief of DEM’s Office of Compliance & Inspection, by Nancy Scarduzio, small-business ombudsman for the Department of Administration who was working with Legend’s Creek Farm to obtain the required permits for a new well, noted Wright’s Auto Parts “may be a source of a problem for my client in obtaining his DOH permit.”
“I point this out because it appears that this junk yard (sic) is operating without a current junk yard business license and has potentially done some things on the property that should not have been done from a DEM perspective,” Scarduzio wrote. “As a brief summary, it appears that Wright’s Automobile Salvage has done some clear cutting (sic) in the past, may not possess a necessary stormwater discharge permit, and appears to currently be bringing in fill to the property.”
More than a year and a half ago Legend’s Creek Farm applied for a license to bake and sell bread. The Rhode Island Department of Heath (DOH) denied the application, because the public well that would need to be sunk faces possible contamination from groundwater pollution from Wright’s Auto Parts.
“For small public wells such as this potential well, we consider whether there are any potentially significant contamination concerns within a 1,750-foot radius,” according to a DOH spokesman. “If there are none, and if other source protection criteria are met, then a new public well site is generally approved. If there is a contamination concern within that radius, the site is generally not approved.”
He noted that salvage yards are considered potential sources of groundwater contamination. The property on which Wright’s Auto Parts sits has been a junkyard for six decades. The current owners bought the property in 2013.
A revised plan for the Mill Road farm’s required well has since been filed and is still under DOH review, although a different outcome isn’t likely.
DOH told ecoRI News that DEM is responsible for protecting surface water and groundwater quality. The agency spokesman also said DOH doesn’t license or regulate salvage yards, “so we are not involved in any approval processes for them.” He noted that the Department of Business Regulations (DBR), along with municipalities, oversees the licensing of salvages yards.
A DEM spokesman said the agency can’t say whether the Wright’s Auto Parts violations have caused water contamination.
The DBR spokesman said there are 62 salvage yards licensed with the department. In 2017, DEM conducted 21 inspections of such facilities.
The owners of Legend’s Creek Farm told ecoRI News earlier this year that the three state agencies involved — DBR, DEM, and DOH — have done little to help them address the situation besides putting up obstacles, ignoring them, and/or giving them the runaround.
The state has offered little guidance or assistance, according to one of the farm’s owners, Jon Restivo, a partner at DarrowEverett in Providence. He said DOH has suggested that he conduct more testing, such as a hydrogeological investigation, even though it’s expensive — likely tens of thousands of dollars — and may not find a solution.
The state, though, has provided the Foster farm with financial assistance in the past. Last spring, Legend’s Creek Farm received a $19,634 state grant to upgrade the farm’s windows and insulation to improve efficiency and reduce heating and cooling costs. In 2016, the farm was awarded a $2,811 state grant for the expansion of its beehives and honey production.
In February Legend’s Creek Farm filed a notice of intent to file suit against the owners of Wright’s Auto Parts for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The Feb. 25 notice claims Wright’s Auto Parts doesn’t possess the infrastructure necessary to store, clean, dismantle, or crush any of the vehicles or parts in a manner that “would ensure that precipitation is not contaminated by coming into contact with motor vehicles and motor vehicle parts.”
DarrowEverett attorney Nicholas Hemond also wrote that concern Wright’s Auto Parts could be a potential source of contamination for a Legend’s Creek Farm well would be mitigated if the junkyard were in compliance with the Clean Water Act. He also claimed that discharges from the facility “have consistently violated and continue to violate” the Clean Water Act and “present a direct threat” to the Scituate Reservoir, the Barden Reservoir, and Hemlock Brook.
Hemlock Brook runs between Legend’s Creek Farm and Wright’s Auto Parts. The brook feeds directly into the Barden Reservoir, a tributary reservoir for the Scituate Reservoir.
The salvage yard’s town license wasn’t renewed last year and its state license expired last June. The state fire marshal cited the business in 2018 for a lack of fire access roads.
As recently as last June the property held more than 2,000 vehicles. DEM was recently told by the owner that there were 1,368 vehicles on the property as of April 18. The maximum amount Wright’s Auto Parts can store is 500.
Shortly after our March 8 story was published, the town sent Wright’s Auto Parts as cease-and-desist letter. The business has been closed since. A DBR spokesman said the agency recently sent an inspector to visit the property but found it closed, with employees “cleaning and clearing areas of the yard due to the town order in place to reduce the number of vehicles currently being stored at the business.”
According to the latest DEM self-certification checklist Wright’s Auto Parts filled out in 2016, the business dismantles motor vehicles and sells the parts and was storing about 1,400 vehicles on the property, with some 520 received and about 50 removed annually.
The operation’s checklist noted that batteries, mercury switches, tires, antifreeze, and lead parts are removed from the vehicles on-site. The facility collects about 500 lead acid batteries annually, according to the checklist.
Despite storing its vehicles and most of its junk outside, some of it close to the banks of Hemlock Brook and neighboring wetlands, Wright’s Auto Parts told DEM neither precipitation nor runoff comes in contact with any of the facility’s activities or materials.
“The self-certification checklist is a way we assist auto salvage companies in complying with environmental laws and DEM regulations, but the companies themselves have the ultimate responsibility for maintaining compliance,” according to a DEM spokesman. “Facilities may use the checklist to conduct an audit to determine if they are in compliance. It is in a yes/no format that is geared to the facility manager.”