By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — It may not be the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) or the attorney general that shuts down a scrap-metals recycler accused of polluting the city’s waterfront. Instead, it could be the low price of scrap metal.
After an April 7 Superior Court hearing to get Rhode Island Recycled Metals (RIRM) to clean up its property on Allens Avenue, it was revealed that the company is low on cash and may not be in business much longer.
“It’s our understanding that their intent is to close the facility,” said David Chopy, DEM’s chief of compliance and inspection.
That prospect creates a dilemma for environmental officials who have been trying for more than five years to get the scrap-metals recycler to stop polluting the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay with contaminated runoff and fuel from derelict vessels.
Now there is a concern that RIRM may just walk away without cleaning up its mounds of metal, vehicle parts, unidentified steel barrels and large boats, one of which is submerged.
“This site really is a mess,” said Michael Rubin, assistant attorney general, during the most recent court hearing.
The scrap yard was one of several that opened on the Providence waterfront in recent years, as global demand for scrap metal drove up prices. During that time, Sims Metal Management on Allens Avenue and Schnitzer Steel on Fields Point opened two of the largest scrap-metal export facilities in the state. Schnitzer and Sims also opened metal-shredding facilities in Johnston.
The global price for scrap metal and crushed cars fell about 25 percent in 2014 and dropped about 27 percent between January and February this year. The price decrease has forced some U.S. scrap yards to layoff workers or close altogether. Schnitzer has ceased it car-crushing operations in Johnston.
George F. Hailer, an attorney representing RIRM, told ecoRI News that scrap-metal prices have dropped 70 percent, leaving the company “out of money.”
As RIRM appears in court to comply with tougher pollution measures, there is worry that the company will leave an ongoing pollution problem and a huge clean-up bill, estimated to cost millions. Most of that cost will go toward the removal and disposal of four large vessels, including old barges, a tug boat, a Soviet-era submarine and a submerged ferry boat.
RIRM opened illegally in 2009 without any permits, including the one required to conduct car-crushing operations. Until March, RIRM had thumbed its nose at DEM’s efforts to have the vessels removed and keep its land-based operations from leaking contaminated runoff into the water.
Both DEM and RIRM are worried that a 12-inch soil cover on the property has eroded, exposing a former Superfund site that was polluted by PCBs in the 1980s.
RIRM, however, is continuing to duck compliance. Edward Sciaba Jr., the facility’s general manager, has evaded multiple attempts to serve him papers to appear in court. Visits to his home and businesses in Massachusetts, as well as his Allens Avenue offices, have been fruitless.
“When we asked where he is, they won’t tell us,” Rubin told Judge Michael A. Silverstein.
RIRM has agreed to stop taking in new vessels, has installed hay bales to help control runoff and will no longer crush vehicles. DEM will now be allowed to inspect the property and equipment, and RIRM has requested 30 months to remove the vessels. DEM hasn’t agreed to that proposal.
Silverstein has given RIRM about a month to inventory its equipment and material at its properties at 434 and 278 Allens Ave. and write an assessment of its finances. RIRM said it plans to see any errors fixed, and promised to get the vessels out of the water.