Environment

Toxic oil leak in Pawtucket traced to National Grid’s Tidewater Landing remediation efforts

“There was a coal gasification facility on that site, an MGP, manufactured, gas plant, essentially coal gasification. Environmental standards being what they were back then there was lack of containment. There were things escaping from that facility into the soil, byproducts of converting coal into gas. Liquids, fragments of coal, slurry – whatever else is made when you convert coal into gas, – that’s all going down into the soil.”
Photo for Toxic oil leak in Pawtucket traced to National Grid’s Tidewater Landing remediation efforts

Published on December 2, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

UpriseRI was alerted by a reader about dead fish, the presence of petroleum in the water and the smell of petroleum in the air on along the banks of the Seekonk River in Pawtucket on Wednesday evening. UpriseRI also received pictures of of the site and photos of some of the remediation efforts taking place. Another reader sent UpriseRI pictures of divers in the water and more evidence of environmental disruption cause by a release of chemicals into the water. The source of the contamination seemed to be the Tidewater Landing, the location of a proposed soccer stadium, a major development in the city.

See: Senator Meghan Kallman: National Grid has failed in regards to Tidewater remediation

Tidewater is the site of an 1880’s era gasification plant, a factory that took in coal and turned it into burnable gas. The leftovers from this process, from a time before even the small amount of environmental concern we have today, are toxic and dangerous. the site is now a brownfield in the process of remediation by National Grid.

UpriseRI confirmed the major details of the readers’story and reached out the the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the office of Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien. Grebian’s spokesperson, Emily Rizzo, arranged to have National Grid issue a statement on the release of toxic chemicals.

Ted Kresse, a spokesperson for National Grid, sent the following statement:

“Earlier this year, National Grid began construction activities to remediate the Tidewater site in Pawtucket, which housed a former gas manufacturing plant that was shut down in 1968. Part of the remediation effort includes the removal of soil containing coal tar, a byproduct of the gas manufacturing process, from an area along the riverbank. While booms have been set up in the water to capture coal tar oils from being carried into the Seekonk River during the cleanup efforts, a portion of these oils breached the booms yesterday. That breach has resulted in a sheen that can now be seen on the water. RIDEM and the National Response Center were notified of the breach immediately and we are taking additional actions to limit any further impacts, including deploying more soft and hard booms and additional matting for absorption.”

Asked about the divers in the water, and the rumors of a ruptured petroleum tank, Kresse replied:

“No tank rupture. Divers were helping anchor the absorbent matting.”

UpriseRI spoke with Michael Healey, Chief Public Affairs Officer at DEM:

DEM: Yesterday, Wednesday, December 1st at 11:46 AM, just before noon, we get a call from National Grid that there is a sheen on the Seekonk River at the Tidewater site. There’s an ongoing remediation at that site to prep it for the big redevelopment project in Pawtucket. We send one of our hazmat teams to Tidewater. He met somebody from the United States Coast Guard and assessed. Apparently workers disturbed, not exposed but disturbed, soil that had been underneath a temporary hard cap.

There was a hard cap installed on that site back in 2009 when something similar happened, although from the sounds of it, the 2009 event was of a larger scale. It was a larger scale spill or release of coal tar oil. National Grid started a new phase of work about a month ago. Part of the permanent remediation is to put a new, permanent hard cap over the whole site. As they were prepping it for the permanent hard cap they disturbed soil under the temporary hard cap and there was a seep.

The Tidewater site is a legacy contaminated site, meaning it’s an industrial site from decades and decades ago. There was a coal gasification facility on that site, an MGP, manufactured, gas plant, essentially coal gasification. Environmental standards being what they were back then there was lack of containment. There were things escaping from that facility into the soil, byproducts of converting coal into gas. Liquids, fragments of coal, slurry – whatever else is made when you convert coal into gas, – that’s all going down into the soil. DEM has known for a long time that it’s a brownfield site that needs to be permanently fixed.

And that’s what escaped into the river. We don’t know how much got out. Obviously when we see the pictures that you’ve posted of the dead fish that’s a concern. We will be sending out one of our Marine biologists to inspect. I mean, obviously if you see fish like that, it invites the inference that it’s whatever contaminated substance or solution that’s gotten into the river, but we need to confirm that. Right. That’s why we’re sending out a Marine biologist. Our hazmat guy’s not a Marine biologist. He’s just there to respond and figure out what needs to be done. The other the other agency that’s responding is the Coast Guard.

Yesterday National Grid did exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is, if there’s any problems that arise as you’re remediating a site, let us know, and they did. We’re a bureaucracy, of course, but we have a scientist in our environmental protection division who is in basically in the brownfields unit – that’s what he does. He’s our point of contact with National Grid throughout this whole process.

He filed monthly reports for many years, I think all the way to 2006. So that’s, that might be useful to you. There have been three spills or releases at the Tidewater Site we’re aware of, There iss one going back to October, 2009. I can’t tell you how big that was. We then got a complaint call on November 12th, this year, which is just around the start of the new phase of construction on the site by National Grid.

In November we sent one of our hazmats there and basically what had happened was that a containment boom set up as part of the remediation came loose. November 12th was, I think, the last time we had one of these wicked rainstorms – 60 mph winds, crazy rains and all that stuff. It roughed up the containment boom and that’s how there was a release of this stuff then. At that point that we said to National Grid that they need to improve te booming system. Our understanding is that even as you and I speak right now, they are installing more hard boom and soft boom and extending the area by a couple of hundred feet so that their cleanup crews can get inside that and clean it up.

UpriseRI: How dangerous is this to the public? There’s a strong smell of petroleum in the air, a strong smell of chemicals. Also, while down there there were places I didn’t want to put my feet because of the way it looks. How dangerous is that stuff?

DEM: We don’t think it poses a threat to public health and safety, but at the same time, wouldn’t suggest that people go down there and get too close until it gets cleaned up.

UpriseRI: The November release. Somebody sent me a video he took and he said that he could smell it as far away as the Modern Diner on East Avenue.

DEM: Well, this stuff, there’s no way around it, it’s very pungent and powerful. It’s been trapped in the soil for decades. So when it’s finally released, it’s a powerful smell.

UpriseRI: What can be done in the future to help stop this from happening again?

DEM: Unlike other emergency situations that arise where you don’t have a responsible party, in this case we do have a responsible party because because National Grid is taking responsibility for the sheen and is strengthening the booming to control any more outbreaks. DEM appreciates your concern and the concern of the public because when you see fish that have been evidently killed by some contaminant and you’re smelling these smells along the river you know, it definitely is a concern. We have somebody monitoring the site daily, and we’ll continue to monitor. We’ll send our marine biologists to the site, I hope, tomorrow to assess the dead fish. And we’ll continue to to watch this very closely.

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