Neighbors Want Hearing for Shell Air Pollution Application

Shell’s Providence terminal has 25 storage tanks that hold diesel fuel, fuel oil, gasoline, ethanol, and jet fuel. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Shell’s Providence terminal has 25 storage tanks that hold diesel fuel, fuel oil, gasoline, ethanol, and jet fuel. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — In the ongoing struggle to rein in pollution and improve safety in South Providence, a neighborhood organization and an environmental group have called for a public hearing to scrutinize one of the city’s most potent polluters.

In an April 29 letter to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), No LNG in PVD and the Washington Park Neighborhood Association note the health concerns threatening their community from emissions from the petroleum storage and processing operations of Shell’s terminal on Allens Avenue.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory Program, the terminal is the largest emitter of toxic air emissions in Providence. Among the pollutants the facility emitted in 2017 included 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene, benzene, ethylbenzene, hexane, toluene, and xylene.

DEM wrote in an e-mail response that it is reviewing the letter, but stressed Shell’s application is for the renewal of its existing air-pollution permit. Unless there are new operations and emissions at the site, the application review doesn’t consider the location of the facility.

The permit, wrote Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer, “is required to be renewed every five years, is not a new permit, and is not for any new operations, activities, or processes at the facility.”

The 75-acre Shell rail and ship terminal site hosts 25 storage tanks holding diesel fuel, fuel oil, gasoline, ethanol, and jet fuel.

The Shell facility is one of many air and water polluters concentrated along the city’s sprawling industrial waterfront that abuts Interstate 95 and residential neighborhoods. According to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, 89 percent of the residents living within a quarter-mile of the Shell terminal are people of color.

The neighborhoods of South Providence and Washington Park have the highest rates of asthma in the city, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health.

Community groups say the permit shouldn’t be approved until emission standards are more stringent. Compliance and enforcement should also be strengthened, they said.

“Significant changes are needed to improve air quality and address environmental justice issues, and the impacted community needs to be meaningfully involved in all decision-making,” according to the seven-page letter.

The letter lists accidents that have occurred in and around the facility, such as an apparent lightning strike on a gasoline tanker ship in 2006 that caused a fireball and damaged fuel lines at the terminal. The letter also asks for a risk management plan to address sea-level rise and harm posed by intensifying storms.

The grassroots organizations also want Shell to pay into a community-controlled fund for multilingual and culturally relevant community preparedness. The letter noted that community members were upset that public hearings for a liquified natural gas (LNG) facility on the waterfront were held at police headquarters and another with a large security presence that didn’t allow bags, food, or drinks inside.

“This is intimidating and discourages public participation, and is not acceptable for this or any public hearing,” according to the letter.

No LNG in PVD and the Washington Park Neighborhood Association want a public hearing at a school, church, or community center in South Providence or Washington Park.

Their request for a public hearing is endorsed by Climate Action RI, Nature’s Trust Rhode Island, Sierra Club-Rhode Island Chapter, and Sunrise RI.

Shell is being sued by the Conservation Law Foundation for failing to protect the facility, which is in a flood zone, from the effects of climate change. In the lawsuit, Shell says it can only plan for current risks, not future threats such as climate change.