Bill Would Give Locals Veto on Landfill Capping

Today’s GoLocalProv has a story about the nearly one hundred abandoned landfill sites in Rhode Island, and if Portsmouth’s Sen. Chris Ottiano (R-11) has his way, capping them could get a lot harder.

On Feb 13, 2012, Sen. Ottiano appeared before the Portsmouth Town Council and promised to introduce (with Sen. DaPonte of East Providence) legislation on landfills which would provide “More gates for the Town Council or municipality or our constituents to have some say and be able to potentially slow or temporarily stop the process if they see the need.” (See 89:40 here)

Here’s the problem: What constitutes “need” — at least in the case of a landfill in the town of Portsmouth — is a group (whose spokesperson is a RISC board member) which has, over the past year, ignored the science, distorted facts on a petition, refused to trust test results or the DEM, and used political pressure to try to halt a project to cap an unquestionably contaminated site. These are the voices that Sen. Ottiano’s torch-and-pitchfork bill would empower.

What follows is a letter I sent to Gov. Chafee, DEM Director Janet Coit, and Sen. Ottiano last week, and which appeared in yesterday’s Newport Daily News:

Stop the protests, baseless complaints against landfill capping

In March, 2011, a group of protestors wearing respirators and Tyvek suits surrounded my 11-year-old son on Park Ave. “If you think the landfill is safe,” they said, “Maybe we should throw you in there.” Although I was just feet away, I couldn’t hear this. I was also surrounded by people shouting and waving signs to keep Channel 10’s Mario Hilario from interviewing me about scientifically established safe levels of arsenic. This, after a Patch reporter caught a protester on video yelling in my face, prompting a call to the Portsmouth police.

Such is the character of the people opposing the landfill capping work in Island Park: they threaten children and shout down those who try to communicate facts. I have a thick skin, but my son was traumatized.

Over the past year, they lobbed dozens of accusations at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) — documented on a RIDEM web site — but none of their paranoid speculations have survived contact with reality.

When you read the RIDEM responses, you find phrases like, “The characterization that the Department chose between the Commission and Dr. Vanderslice is not accurate,” and, “These assumptions are completely inconsistent with the Regulations, the Commission’s recommendations or actual site conditions,” and, pointedly, “As is frequently the case on meetings about controversial topics, recollections and interpretations about what was said, as well as speculation on the motives of the participants, are frequently at odds. At this point, the Department feels it has reached the point where it should simply be recognized that the commenters’ recollection and interpretations of what was said are at odds with the Department’s participants.”

That last one is about as close as a public official ever gets to telling someone they are flat-out lying.

But the opponents have little choice, because the facts are inconvenient. Batches of soil brought in over the past month were tested (see pdf) — and tested again in response to yet another baseless complaint. Levels of arsenic and lead were well below residential limits (see pdf).

I do not blindly trust developers or government agencies, but when a year of evidence accumulates, the burden of proof has shifted to the opponents. The facts show this project reduces the risk to our neighborhood from an uncapped landfill full of documented contaminants (see pdf)

It is time for elected officials to stop pandering to the uninformed and misinformed: This group had a meeting with the Governor arranged, had their questions answered personally by the RIDEM Director, and had state legislators representing their point of view at Town Council meetings. Enough.

It’s time for our legislators to stick up for the facts and the good of our community. And it’s time for them to stick up for my son.

Full disclosure: I live two streets from this landfill. As a citizen journalist, I don’t take DEM’s word — I ran the capping plan, called a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) past a soil scientist in another New England state, and they confirmed it was sound. And if you don’t believe my assertions about the irrationality of the opponents, take a peek at the comments on this letter when it appeared on Portsmouth Patch.

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Science fiction writer and journalist from Portsmouth, RI

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