Fire Has Turned Woonsocket Mill into Health Hazard

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — The former Enterprise Dye Works/Seville Dyeing Co. on 1st Avenue has a long history that has seemingly ended in tragedy — tragedy for the owner and former employees of the mill, tragedy for the surrounding community and the potential for more tragic consequences for the Blackstone River.

Rhode Island’s history as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution is well documented. In 1776, when Samuel Slater built the first mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, he began the rapid evolution of the United States into a global economic power. The banks of the Blackstone soon became rife with mills using that steady flow to power their production. Enterprise Dye Works was one of those mills.

Originally built in 1901 by Mark Hough, Enterprise dyed fabrics produced in New England’s many textile weaving factories. The mill remained owned and operated by the Hough family until 1980, when Nick and Robert Picciotti bought the financially struggling business and changed the name to the Seville Dyeing Co.

The duo spared no expense in refurbishing the mill, updating equipment and environmental controls, and built the company into a thriving business. At its peak in the early 1990s, the mill employed 500, dyed 74 million yards of fabric and had a payroll of $15 million.

In 2001, when the brothers were forced to put the business in receivership, Seville’s work force was down to 140, and the mill produced only a third of the product of its best year. In a letter to then-President George W. Bush, Nick Picciotti wrote, “How can a business that was so immensely successful, have to file for bankruptcy? In a nutshell, the problem is that our country is being bombarded with cheaply produced imports and our government seemingly has no policies, plans or desire to protect manufacturing jobs in America! ... We are competing with countries such as Indonesia, where a salary rate of 22¢ per hour is common, or India, where there was a massive strike in the garment industry last year when the largest manufacturer in the country tried to lower the wage rate from $1.91 per hour to $1.09 per hour! Many workers in the textile industry in China earn $1 per day. How can we compete with that?”

In February 2011, after a winter that dumped more than 5 feet of snow on some parts of Rhode Island, one of the buildings on the Seville campus suffered from a collapsed roof. A month later, a fire determined to be arson claimed the rest of the campus. Shortly thereafter, the entire site was razed to the concrete slab that served as the foundation for the mill's buildings.

While no contaminants were believed to be in the building when it burned down, the levels of possible contamination of the soil and groundwater at the site is still unknown. The responsibility of testing for possible contaminants would fall to the mill's owners, but given that the water, sewer and property taxes owed to the city by the Picciotti brothers amount to $1.6 million — Robert Picciotti has said in interviews that he has "no idea”  how he will pay those back taxes — it's unlikely they will have the money to assess any potential contamination on the site, and even less likely that they will have the financial werewithal to complete any remediation of  the site should contaminants be found.

The city could seize the property for taxes owed, but taxpayers would then be saddled with the cost of assessing and cleaning up any possible contamination, and with Woonsocket on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, this scenario seems even more unlikely.

Now, more than 10 years later, the burned and razed property sits unsecured, and is quickly turning into a convenient place for people to illegally dump trash, mattresses, couches and all sorts of debris. The site is also home to at least one open pit that is at least 10 feet deep and quickly filling with stagnant water and debris.

The mayor and acting public safety director Leo Fontaine has said of the property, “There is very little we (the city) can do because it’s private property.”