By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — There are 503 open cases for alleged environmental violations across Rhode Island. The number may seem excessive, but officials say the case load has been constant in recent years. A more pressing concern is the drop in the number of investigators the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) now employs to investigate infractions.
Six years ago, DEM's Office of Compliance and Inspection had 40 employees; today it has 24. Its staff now has less time and resources to go after polluters, issue air and water violations, stop wetland destruction and monitor septic systems and cesspools.
"Every year, we lose a couple (employees) and we don't fill it. The staff keeps dwindling," said David Chopy, chief of DEM's compliance and inspection office.
Much of the focus of compliance investigation lately has been addressing the odor problem at the Central Landfill in Johnston. Although complaints have dropped during the past two weeks, DEM was investigating some 50 calls a week due to odor problems reported in November. So far, DEM has filed seven violations over objectionable odors reaching 5 to 8 miles from the landfill, while it keeps a near-constant staff presence at the facility.
Other Rhode Island environmental violations also are getting additional attention. In recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been publishing a watch list of water, air and hazardous waste polluters. To make the list, called ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) a business or other entity hasn't fulfilled its terms of a violation and deemed a "significant non-complier" by the EPA. Much of the local data is based on DEM reporting.
In September, seven Rhode Island businesses made the list, including Bio Waste LLC in Cumberland, Collegium Pharmaceutical Inc. in Cumberland, Northland Environmental Services Inc. in Providence, R&R Polishing Co. in Cranston and Unique Plating Co. in Johnston. In November, two remained: D&D Chrome Plating on the West Side and Block Island Power. Officials say D&D owes $6,000 in fines relating to hazardous materials storage and protections dating back to violations in 2007. Block Island Power apparently has an unresolved air pollution violation from an inspection 10 years ago.
The ECHO watch list doesn't include dozens of violators who have settled their penalties or some 100 that are in dispute or yet to be resolved. About 300 wetlands, septic, solid waste and dam violations are excluded entirely from the online EPA database. The entire list is available upon request to the DEM.
A list of EPA completed enforcement actions by year for air, water and hazardous waste violation is available here. The EPA and DEM resolved some 47 local cases in those three categories during the past year.
Chopy noted that in his department's annual report that the Office of Compliance and Inspection is streamlining it methods for resolving enforcement actions, which has helped reduce the number of pending cases.
Still, he admitted, keeping his staff intact would make a difference. "There's certainly a fair percentage (of cases) that if we had the proper resources we could move them forawrd."