Environment

New data calls into question the soil testing done at Morley Field by the developer, JK Equity

What is the amount of lead in the soil at Morley Field? 4.1 at Morley Field. For comparison, Max Read Field (the natural grass sections) has a value of 12.7. That is more than three times the levels of lead found at Morley Field. Max Read Field is where the City of Pawtucket moved the kids from Morley Field! Even more significant, O’Brien Field was found to have a lead level of 22.4, five times that of Morley Field! 

Published on November 8, 2022
By Forrest Snyder and Uprise RI

What constitutes a clear and immediate threat to public health? In the case of Morley Field, the Mayor of Pawtucket, Donald Grebien, closed the park in early summer 2022, “out an abundance of caution” when preliminary data showed that toxic compounds were found on site. Since that time, no further investigation of the site has been done by the City of Pawtucket or the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). No public health official has stepped forward to confirm the necessity of closing the park. 

According to the Administration of Mayor Grebien and the Pawtucket City Council, Morley Field was shut down after Alliance Environmental Group, a contractor paid by developer JK Equity, discovered dangerous levels of toxins at the field. Lead poses the greatest concern because it is the most common contaminant. The City moved quickly to fence Morley Field off to prevent Woodlawn neighborhood residents from access; JK Equity rapidly advanced their plan to pave Morley Field for use as a three hundred and eighty space parking lot.

Morley Field is the the only greenspace in Pawtucket’s District 5, a neighborhood encompassing the Woodlawn neighborhood (just north of Providence, along I-95, west of Pawtucket Ave.), which is approximately 74% people of color with 59% of people living at or below the poverty rate. 29% of the population are children. Woodlawn is a working class neighborhood where most people live in triple deckers or multifamily units, often with no backyard. 

Reviewing the initial report paid for by the developer, it becomes clear that many, if not all, of the tests may not have been appropriate for assessing the immediate threat to public health. Many of the tests were done at great depth, up to eighteen feet, where the public’s exposure to toxic compounds would be impossible. Even at that depth, the tests showed that lead contamination and other heavy metals were not incredibly high; most notably, the lead levels found by the developer do not meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) high exposure levels warranting clean up. In addition, there is only one sample (GZ-02) in the JK Equity testing that was far above other samples and that anomaly may be a result of the sampling tools hitting a buried lead pipe or a pocket of contaminants. This single sample is by far the outlier compared to all the others. Also, while there may be benzo/benzene compounds which are dangerous to health, the testing done makes it unclear if such compounds were found on the surface where exposure is most likely to occur, or deep underground where exposure is unlikely. 

We reviewed soil sampling guidelines from several New England states for detecting toxic materials like lead; the recommended method was to do sampling on the surface, just under the sod root-mass, where exposure to children and adults is most likely to happen – random sampling from the top 1”-2” of soil. Upon review of our own soil sample results, we posit that the soil sampling done by the Alliance Environmental Group on behalf of JK Equity was most likely inappropriate for determining an immediate public health hazard and thus the closing of the park was premature. 

We sampled six Pawtucket playing fields and parks, including Morley, Max Read, O’Brien, McCoy Annex, Slater, and Hank Soar. The University of Vermont Agricultural and Environmental Testing Laboratory was selected as a testing facility. Between 14 and 16 random surface samples were taken from each site. Following the detailed instructions, the samples were combined and well mixed. Stones, roots, and other large particles were removed and approximately one cup of material from each park was submitted to the lab.

According to UVM, lead (Pb) has a normal background value of 1.0. A value of 50 or greater is considered high. The EPA states that only soil levels of 400 or above require remediation. The State of New York allows unrestricted use of soils up to 200, including agriculture. 

What is the amount of lead in the soil at Morley Field? 4.1 at Morley Field. For comparison, Max Read Field (the natural grass sections) has a value of 12.7. That is more than three times the levels of lead found at Morley Field. Max Read Field is where the City of Pawtucket moved the kids from Morley Field! Even more significant, O’Brien Field was found to have a lead level of 22.4, five times that of Morley Field! 

All of our tests show that the lead levels are well below what is considered dangerous by the UVM soil testing lab, the EPA, the State of New York, and others. If Pawtucket parks are considered safe with up to five times the amount of lead contamination as Morley Field, and one assumes the City of Pawtucket believes that they are safe, then why are kids not allowed to play at Morley Field? If there is something dangerous at Morley Field – and it is possible there is – the proper tests need to be conducted by an independent party and verified by a public health expert.

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