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A Hummel Report Investigation

Murky Waters

This week Jim Hummel takes a look at one neighborhood bordering T.F. Green Airport that isn't complaining  about noise or expansion. Rather, the people living just east of the airport say years of deicing fluid runoff have contaminated Warwick Pond. And they want to know what the Department of Environmental Management is doing about it.

 

SCRIPT

It is an 85-acre oasis right in the heart of Rhode Island's second largest city.

Warwick Pond is the prime reason why Phillip D'Ercole and his wife moved here 10 years ago when they saw this view from what would become their back deck.

Within a couple of years, though, things started to change.

D'Ercole: ``We would talk about how the water quality was deteriorating , visually you could actually see the water getting murky, different spots on the water that looked different.''

So D'Ercole, a retired plant manager, began to poke around.  That led him to a stack of files at the headquarters of Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management and its two-decades-old battle with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation over pollutants being discharged from the airport grounds.

The main culprit: glycol - we know it as deicing fluid.

D'Ercole: ``I became very concerned.''

Hummel: ``And what was it that concerned you?''

D'Ercole: ``The chemicals that were being discharged - or the airport was allowed to discharge by D.E.M., No. 1...No. 2 there was no permit in place. In order to discharge chemicals into a water body you have to have a permit. And that's a federal law.''

The federal law was is a 1987 amendment to Clean Water Act.

But it took 17 years for DEM to issue a new permit to the airport corporation, which fought some of the restrictions along the way.

D'Ercole: ``They appealed it. They didn't agree with it. I think they thought it was too harsh.

The threshold levels were too high, or too low whatever, whichever way you want to say it. The frequency of monitoring. There were a whole bunch of things they took offense to.''

There have been appeals, negotiations, mediation and efforts to reach a consent agreement.

Hummel: ``So weeks and months and years go by and your concern is?''

D'Ercole: ``The pollution just keeps discharging; we don't know what they're doing on the airport property.''

Liberti: ``In the case of the airport the permit we first issued, put some basic principles in the permit and required the airport develop a plan.''

Angelo Liberti is D.E.M.'s chief of surface water protection and has been in the middle of the airport corporation's case for years.

He admits years went by before anything official was in place.

Hummel: ``What happened during that course of the decade of the '90s?''

Liberti: ``Yeah, unfortunately there were multiple attempts on the department's side to get the permit drafted and that happened to be a time that we had a lot of turnover in the program. So at the time I think we had three different staff people who picked it up, started to draft the permit and left.  And then I had to have somebody else start over again.''

When D.E.M. finally issued a permit in 2004 Liberti says it mandated:

* Monitoring requirements for pollutants in certain locations at the airport.

* Interim measures to collect the deicing fluid.

* A plan to look for other pollutants.

* A reevaluation of how to contain deicing fluid.

Liberti: ``Throughout  this fairly lengthy negotiation, the airport was making a series of interim changes to improve their collection of glycol. They were each year each doing better at collecting the gylcol.  So even though it appears that on the paper trail that nothing was being accomplished, there were significant steps being taken each year to improve their operation.''

Hummel: ``But out of the X number of thousands, tens of thousands of gallons they're using, isn't it by their own admission and by D.E.M.'s that they're only capturing,  40, 50, 60 percent of it?''

Liberti: ``Yeah. I think currently about 40 percent.''

D'Ercole says that still leaves nearly 20,000 gallons of glycol escaping every year - some of it making its way to Warwick Pond. This aerial view shows how close the pond is to the airport.

And while the state tests for bacteria in the pond, D'Ercole questions how serious the department has been in testing for toxic chemicals.

Hummel: ``Have you thought as a neighborhood association to go out and test for the toxic chemicals?''

D'Ercole: ``The problem is this is an older neighborhood. Many of the people  who  live here  are retired. They're on fixed incomes.  To go out  and test cost money.  We've had clouds on the water, eight-foot diameter clouds of bubbling deicing fluid.''

Hummel: ``In the pond?''

D'Ercole: ``Oh yeah, you have...''

Hummel: ``How do you know it's the deicing fluid?''

D'Ercole: ``Oh you can smell it.  It has an odor to it.''

Hummel: ``Their belief  is some of this is making its way to the pond that they have houses on and they have their kids swimming in, that D.E.M. or some agency would test to see whether, in fact, that is making it to the pond.  Is  that a reasonable request?''

Liberti: ``Sure, we've been looking to enhance the funding we have available for a statewide monitoring program. And I think most people would feel the department should be able to do more monitoring than we currently can.''

Hummel: ``Monitory is testing?''

Liberti: ``Testing. Sorry. Yeah.''

Hummel ``Is water testing that expensive that you can't run a few tests down there?''

Liberti: ``Yeah, between the staff to collect the samples and analytical cost of running them.''

Last month D.E.M. held a hearing - because it's required to - taking public comment prior to issuing another permit,  good for five years. A dozen people turned out all expressing concern about the water quality in Warwick Pond.

Liberti says a consent agreement between DEM and the airport corporation is aimed at reducing the discharge of not only glycol but other pollutants as well.

Hummel: ``Is it D.E.M.'s contention that the water quality as far as you're concerned is okay in Warwick Pond?''

Liberti: ``In  the sense of glycol, which I'm most familiar with, there were some oxygen impacts from the discharge to Warwick Pond,  so the reductions that will come about as a result of this permit will resolve those.''

Hummel: ``The law passes in 1987, by your own description you had a lot of staff turnover in the '90s. Months, years, now decades go by and that every time one of these events happens it's the people literally downstream or east  of the airport who have a concern. And one of the reasons we're doing this story, I don't hold your personally responsible, but you're the agency that's  overseeing this. What's the message to the people out there who are looking to the state to protect their interests out there? You know the word out there. The word is - whether it's the cynical view.  The airport corporation's a big thing  and it's a economic engine and they have a lot of political clout.

You guys have a job to do and the people are out there saying: Why aren't you doing your job?

You've heard that I'm sure?'' 

Liberti: ``Certainly it took much longer than I'm happy as well, but on the plus side there were a lot of interim changes that were pursued and put in place, so any impacts have been reduced over time.''

Hummel: ``Do you swim in that water?''

D'Ercole: ``No.''

Hummel: ``Why is that?''

D'Ercole: ``Because of the other chemicals we don't test for, that D.E.M. allows to be

discharged into that water.''

Hummel: ``You have grandchildren?''

D'Ercole: ``Yes I do.''

Hummel: ``And what happens when they come here and say Grandpa we want to go...''
D'Ercole: ``No, I tell them they can't go in the water.''
Hummel: ``Since when?''
D'Ercole: ``Probably three years ago.''
A  spokeswoman for the airport tells the Hummel Report it has been quote ``very responsive'' to D.E.M.'s concerns and by 2015 plans to complete installation of a $25 million deicing  fluid containment system. But that's still three years away.
Hummel: ``How would you
characterize the airport's response to this? Has it been cooperative, has it been resistant, has it been adversarial? Or has it been all of those things at various times?''
Liberti: ``I guess it's been a little bit of  all of those things at various time. There are certainly letters in the file where the department took  a strong position that things were not going as well as well as we hoped.''
Hummel: ``Why do you think there  hasn't been the level of enforcement that you believe is necessary?''
D'Ercole: ``It's politics.''
Hummel: ``Simple  as that?''
D'Ercole: ``Simple as that. As far as RIAC is concerned it's all about money and about power. They're going to do what they want to do. They're going to do it their way. They could  care less about the environment or the people around the airport. I'm hoping the expansion does what everyone thinks  it's going to do. But along with that you shouldn't have to destroy the environment to expand, to do what you want to do economically in this state.''
In Warwick, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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