In November Rhode Island voters will be asked to approve a $20 million bond for Port of Providence expansion but will be given little information to make informed decisions, except promises that yes votes will mean more jobs and more tax revenue.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s elected representatives didn’t even flinch when, right before the 2016 session ended, they OK’d putting a bond to expand the Port of Providence, which included the possibility of using taxpayer money to fill in 31 acres of Narragansett Bay, on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The idea to dump fill-in material into the Ocean State’s most important natural resource — it was eventually dismissed in mid-July, and a miscommunication blamed on the idea’s short-lived life — highlights the disregard the Statehouse, at least a substantial fraction of it, has for Rhode Island’s environment. The state’s greatest resource is too often seen as nothing more than an economic tool — used and abused for profit and convenience.
“That $20 million was a surprise to everyone. It was just folded into the budget,” said Don Pryor, a member of Save The Bay’s Program and Policy Committee who alerted the organization to the details of the expansion plan. “Not much about the plan is known. Very little about it was explained.”
The idea to fill the long-abused bay to make room for an industrial pier registered zero concern with lawmakers. No one in the General Assembly questioned the possible environmental impact. The only thing that seemed to preoccupy the minds of legislators, at least their leadership, was land ownership. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello balked at giving up ownership of the land to the city. This stalemate brought negotiations to a standstill, put ProvPort Inc. in the middle of a back-and-forth, and lasted until the final 10 days of the legislative session, before the city eventually relented and agreed to state ownership of the expansion land.
ProvPort is the city-affiliated nonprofit that manages parts of Providence's port. Its relationship with the city dates back to the mid-1990s. The fill-in idea was part of a last-minute addition to the fiscal 2017 state budget. The legislation was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.
The so-called ProvPort bond will ask Rhode Island voters to approve a $20 million development project along Providence’s waterfront. The 20-million-dollar-taxpayer ask, including the part about filling in the bay and possibly buying a contaminated property on which an illegal scrap-metal business currently operates, barely got a mention in the General Assembly before its members scattered June 18 for the rest of the year.
As the Providence Journal reported in a June 24 story, “When lawmakers approved adding the $20-million ProvPort bond to a $50-million infrastructure bond for the Port of Davisville, contamination and legal issues on the waterfront were not discussed.”
While the state’s collection of elected officials failed to ask about of any these issues before approving the bond and calling it a session, Save The Bay, about a month later, sent out a July 11 press release blasting the idea.
In the release, the organization’s executive director, Jonathan Stone, is quoted: “Rhode Islanders should be aware of what happened in the waning hours of the General Assembly session. With little debate and minimal disclosure, taxpayers are being asked to make a significant investment in the Port of Providence that may lead to filling 31 acres of Narragansett Bay and provide financial reward to a flagrant polluter of the Bay.”
That’s not exactly the plan for the ProvPort bond or how it came to be included in the state budget, according to a corporation spokesman. But Bill Fischer recently explained to ecoRI News how Save The Bay and the public could have seen it that way.
“We stepped in it and we wanted to step out of it as quickly as possible,” he said. “We made a mistake.”
The proposed ProvPort expansion, although not necessarily set forth in the bond referendum's language, is based on a March report titled “Economic Development Impact Assessment Study: Allens Avenue Marine Terminal Development.”
ProvPort’s Virginia-based consultant, Vickerman & Associates LLC, compiled that report and an earlier one developed as a market study. Both studies were presented to the Legislature, and John Vickerman testified in June before the Senate Finance Committee on ProvPort’s expansion plans.
The firm’s economic impact study suggested filling in 31.3 acres of Narragansett Bay, but Fischer said ProvPort needs more space not another pier, as it has outgrown its Field’s Point home. He said there was never any determination to fill in the bay.
“We weren’t attempting to slip something under the door,” Fischer said. “The filling in was included in a vision for expansion decades from now, with a pier developed. ... It was of great concern to Save The Bay and they put out a press release that hammered us good, and rightfully so.”
Eight days after Save The Bay voiced its concern, on July 19, ProvPort and the environmental advocacy group, neighbors on Providence’s waterfront, announced they had come to a compromise. “Save The Bay raised legitimate concerns about what this project could mean for the bay in the future,” Fischer said at the time.
Fischer recently told ecoRI News that there are no plans now or in the future to fill in Narragansett Bay to make room for ProvPort expansion. “It’s off the table,” he said. “It’s not part of the vision.”
But, as last month’s Save The Bay press release alluded to, the General Assembly isn’t really concerned about environmental protections.
“Further troubling is the fact that the General Assembly had no difficulty passing a floor amendment asking the voters to spend $20 million on a port expansion plan that was not fully vetted or understood by the legislators, but refused to support two additional enforcement staff to help address the critical need for environmental enforcement capacity at the DEM, as proposed by the Governor,” Stone wrote.
The ProvPort bond is part of the larger state-backed expansion plan for Quonset, to repair piers at the Port of Davisville. The two bonds will appear as a package and pass or fail together on the Nov. 8 ballot.
One of the properties being eyed for ProvPort’s expansion is the nearly 5.3-acre Rhode Island Recycled Metals’ lot at 434 Allens Ave. — a property being pushed into receivership by the attorney general’s office and the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
Earlier this year Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and DEM director Janet Coit asked a Superior Court judge to appoint a receiver who would take over Rhode Island Recycled Metals’ assets and the property on which it sits, now owned by Swampscott, Mass.-based AARE LLC. In response, Rhode Island Recycled Metals, AARE and lender Rockland Trust objected, and a motion to block the receivership petition filed.
Late last month Superior Court judge Michael Silverstein appointed a special master to oversee the cleanup of the property, which sits atop a contaminated site that taxpayers already helped clean up once.
This fight between the state/city and the violating business has been raging for seven years, and in that time the brazen metals recycler has continued to contaminate the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay with polluted runoff and fuel from derelict vessels the company has no business storing.
Rhode Island Recycled Metals, which began operating in 2009 without the proper permits, was sold to AARE in April 2014 for $4 million — twice the amount ACR Realty LLC bought the property for eight years earlier and numerous environmental violations later.
The controversial business is one of seven Allens Avenue properties identified by ProvPort officials and their consultants as possible expansion areas. The Rhode Island Recycled Metals property is the nearest of the possible sites to land managed by ProvPort.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean ProvPort is interested in a property with so much baggage.
“No one property is the goal,” Fischer said. “Rhode Island Recycled Metals is mired in a court process; we’re not a party to that case. We don’t support any issue to buy the land that would take them off the hook for this mess. We can take that site off the list of consideration if need be.”
Should the statewide bond pass, it would allow Rhode Island to buy up to 25 acres along the Providence waterfront and enter into a long-term lease arrangement with ProvPort. The bond funding would allow the public/private partnership to store cargo on the additional land and would allow ProvPort to better market itself to prospective tenants.
During his recent interview with ecoRI News, Fischer said about $9.5 million of the $20 million bond would be used to buy nearby property and another $9.5 million would be used for infrastructure work, such as paving, grading and fencing, and site cleanups. He noted about a million dollars would be lost to banking and legal fees.
Fischer has described the land ProvPort hopes taxpayers buy this November as nothing more than a small scrap-metal operation and a collection of dirt patches. In fact, this stretch of Allens Avenue is best known for its nudie bars, ignored bicycling lanes, heavy truck traffic, failed redevelopment plans, zoning feuds, bad smells and its cast of characters.
Expansion supporters, however, believe ProvPort could do for Providence’s waterfront what the Quonset Development Corp. has done for a former Navy base in North Kingstown: turn underused space into a trade and employment center.
About 1,700 people work for the companies that lease land from ProvPort, and the expansion would add another 300 local jobs, according to Fischer. He claimed expansion would also generate $1.25 million annually in state income taxes.
ProvPort currently leases land to nine tenants, according to Fischer. Those businesses include car exports, cement importing, chemical manufacturing, salt and scrap metal. The nonprofit’s lease with the city expires in 2036, allowing Providence to buy back ProvPort's land for a dollar. ProvPort doesn’t own, operate or manage the entire Port of Providence. For example, Motiva Enterprises LLC, the largest fuel terminal on the Port of Providence, and Sprague Energy aren’t ProvPort tenants.
Fischer said expansion would enable ProvPort to accept cargo that requires ports with refrigeration capacity, and would allow the facility to capture some of the market changes being created by the expansion of the Panama Canal.
“With the addition of land resources, ProvPort could be well positioned to develop a terminal anchored around small to mid-size shipping lines,” according to Vickerman & Associates.
Fischer also said ProvPort needs to expand to remain competitive with ports in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He noted that Massachusetts is spending $113 million to build the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, and Connecticut is spending $700 million on port infrastructure.
Pryor, the Providence resident and visiting lecturer at Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies who has been following the developments along the city’s working waterfront closely, is concerned ProvPort expansion will eventually require further dredging of contaminated material and the plan put before voters makes no mention of that possibility.
He claimed that the almost-full confined aquatic disposal (CAD) cells used for a dredging project completed about six years ago on the Providence waterfront have yet to be properly capped.
“Where would is new material go? Who would pay for it?” Pryor said during a recent interview with ecoRI News. “No analysis of this possibility was done before putting this bond before voters.”
The City Council has maintained that Allens Avenue remain a working industrial waterfront. Council President Luis Aponte and Mayor Jorge Elorza worked on ProvPort’s expansion plan. Neither, at least publicly, ever expressed any concern about the idea of turning 31 acres of Narragansett Bay into industrial land. They have said expansion would allow the city to create jobs and attract businesses, like the one the mayor gushed about this spring.
In March, Elorza signed a tax stabilization agreement with McInnis USA Inc., a subsidiary of a Canadian-based company, to import cement. The company “will lease and rehabilitate ProvPort land into a cement importing industrial facility, and ultimately contribute millions in tangible and real estate taxes,” according to the mayor’s press release announcing the deal.
Under the agreement, McInnis USA will make a “good faith effort to purchase construction materials locally, involve Minority and Women Business Enterprises as well as trade construction subcontractors with apprenticeship programs, and comply with the City’s First Source requirements to expand employment opportunities for residents.”
The key phrase here being “good faith.” Rhode Island and the city of Providence already have a difficult time enforcing laws that are on the books — i.e., business recycling — and have a poor track record when it comes to dealing with rogue businesses — see, Rhode Island Recycled Metals — to assume either will bother to check if McInnis USA — or any other business given a tax stabilization agreement, for that matter — is making an honest effort to do anything.
McInnis USA will pay $50,000 annually in real property taxes for the first three years, make tax payments with an assessed property value of $5 million and a real property tax rate of $36.75 per $1,000 for years four through six, and pay taxes based on the then current evaluation of the property and applicable tax rates for years seven through 12, according to the deal the company signed with the city.
Tangible property taxes will phase in during year four and follow an agreed upon tangible property value, percentage and payment schedule. After the conclusion of year 12, the company will make full tax payments, the mayor said.
Opponents of bolstering Providence’s working waterfront believe the city and state need to be more economically creative and environmentally/neighborhood friendly when it comes to redeveloping Allens Avenue, especially in the areas closer to neighborhoods and the hospital district.
They say this valuable real estate could be used more effectively than for another liquified natural gas (LNG) facility, port expansion, a cement importing business and an illegal scrap-metal operation. They argue that other waterfront uses that don't tax the environment and public health can also create jobs and generate tax revenue.
They believe the South Side has already sacrificed enough when it comes to waterfront threats posed by current and proposed uses. For instance, South Providence residents have some of the highest rates of asthma in the state, according to a 2014 state Department of Health report.
A group of eight Providence legislators recently came out against National Grid’s plan to develop a new LNG facility at Field’s Point, calling such a facility dangerous.
“LNG is a dangerous substance,” Rep. Grace Diaz, D-District 11, is quoted in the joint release. “Just two years ago, an LNG facility in Washington state exploded, causing an evacuation of everyone within a two-mile area. If that were to happen at this site, all of my constituents would be in danger. Why is it always our community that must shoulder the collateral damage and safety risks from these toxic projects?”
Opponents of the LNG plan and other working-waterfront ideas point to the potential dangers of the processing plant and distribution facility operated by Univar USA, a packager and distributor of specialty chemicals, as a concern. The ProvPort tenant manufactures chemicals for hydraulic fracturing, and the Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2013 its Providence facility released 1,275 pounds of chemicals into the neighborhood.
Univar’s waterfront plant has a 14-mile hazard radius — the area that would need to be evacuated in the case of an accident at the plant — because some 3 million pounds of toxic chemicals, such as chlorine, ammonium and formaldehyde, are stored at the facility.
Fischer said he understands the issues and concerns that surround Providence’s working waterfront. He even noted that there are “bad-faith actors down there.” He also said none of ProvPort’s tenants has ever been cited by DEM or the Coastal Resources Management Council.
He noted that ProvPort is responsible for bringing in much of the road salt used in the winter to make roads in southern New England safer. He said the port handles aviation fuel and home heating oil.
“There needs to be a balance between commerce and environmentally sound policy that protects the bay,” Fischer said. “But these facilities need to go somewhere. If you look at the port in general, there are infrastructure realities. We could start over and put all these facilities somewhere else, and adopt Buddy’s vision of condos and hotels. But nobody’s buying a condo on the land down there between Motiva and Sprague.”