Anti-DEM shouting match over dump obscures facts

Last night, the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and AP Enterprise (the project team) came to Portsmouth Town Hall to answer residents' questions about a change to the town dump remediation plan which would allow higher levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the grading soil used under the cap.

DEM was represented by Mark Dennen, Principal Environmental Scientist in the Office of Waste Management. On hand to describe the analysis done to support the soil re-use was Tim O'Connor, a consultant with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB). Representing the developer, AP Enterprise, were Arthur Palmer and attorney Kristen Sherman.

The meeting quickly devolved into a shouting match, with residents of Island Park in full attack mode before the DEM's presentation was even finished. Completely obscured by the rapid escalation of rhetoric (which caused the Portsmouth Police Dept. to show up at 8:17pm) were the simple scientific facts: Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil, and the concentrations under discussion are within levels generally regarded as safe.

If you don't believe me, please do some Google-fu on arsenic at 20 parts per million (ppm). I was concerned too, before Dennen sent me the full Beneficial Use Determination (BUD). I'm continuing to look into this, and would be happy to hear from anyone with reliable data. We should be having this discussion based on facts.

But facts didn't stop PCC President Larry Fitzmorris, who took to the microphone to claim that there would be a "flow of arsenic off this property," or Tailgunner Gleason, who put in a turn in her new role as citizen activist, or several of the same loud NIMBY voices from the Island Park anti-skatepark contingent who believe, apparently, that public discourse is best conducted in a register of spittle-flecked invective. (I think that technique was in one of the lost chapters of Aristotle's Rhetoric...)

If you want to see how bad it got, Portsmouth Patch has good coverage and videos.

At root, there seemed to be four basic principles underlying the FUD bellowing:

  • Don't investigate or believe the science
  • Fear the DEM
  • Believe everything is a plot
  • Suspect that DEM and the Council are colluding with developers

Particularly interesting was that several speakers managed to work in specific references to Town Administrator Bob Driscoll, implying that he was to blame. Driscoll is a favorite target of the PCC fringe, and I can anticipate this situation being trotted out when his contract comes up for renewal.

To those in the PCC and their fellow travelers who are stirring the pot for political gain, please consider the impact on our community. Are you really concerned for the health and safety of Island Park? Or could it be that some in the PCC believe it might actually be a good thing if AP Enterprise backed out and left the town with a million-dollar cleanup? Hey, I can play the "everything is a plot" game too. The PCC saddled the schools with a million dollar deficit next year by shooting down the referendum; a giant brownfield cleanup bill would be a another peachy "starve the beast" stratagem.

In all seriousness. Did the DEM shoot themselves in the foot by only advertising this in the ProJo? Absolutely. Could they have done a better job at communicating more information earlier in the process? You bet.

Do me a personal favor as a resident of Island Park. Please, everyone, before you decide to amp up the rhetoric, read the full documentation on the BUD.


I'm so tired of all of Portsmouth being run by one loud organization. Where is the non-ppc citizenship to counter these tactics? What happened to peaceful interactions and intelligent conversations? Is that all erased once a mic and camera arrive? Will it only get worse as we continue to de-invest in education in Portsmouth?

We need to start engaging the non-PPC-er's and start hearing a balanced response. I would bet dollars to donuts that those who opposed the PPC have quiet voices, but larger numbers. I am just anxious to SEE and HEAR it.

To Who It May Concern,
Last time I checked subject rule was changed for Arsenic in 2002 from 50 ppb to 10 ppb (parts per billion), so that means the regulation calls for a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of: 0.010 mg/L (Ref. 1.1, 1.9; 2006).

So am I wrong to read that the benefits (BUD) outweigh the risk to health? How do we keep doing that, what is the rationale. Under the Clinton Administration, the economic models called for a life estimate of over $6.5 million and the Bush Administration of course, reduced that to almost 1/2 when conducting cost benefit analyses. So how low can we go?


Hi, Werner...
The regulation you cite relates to drinking water; the 20 ppm is for soil.


I thought you, and your readers, might like to read my, I daresay, comprehensive story on Tuesday's meeting.

Dave Fisher
Managing Editor- ecoRI News

Hi, Dave...
Thanks for your coverage -- I've bumped it to my home page, and I hope everyone in Portsmouth takes a look.

Best Regards.

Right -j-, however, are we to accept that maintaining the integrity of the EPA water standard on the bases of assumptions, 10 samples, 6-8 feet capping, and presumed "leachability" factors? The latest reports notwithstanding, so far I am not convinced of the viability that would allow for the loosening of regulations using questionable source(s) of detritus that is undesirable in the eyes of people trying to preserve Portsmouth's quality of life. When in doubt, exercise prudent thinking and it just might lower the irascibility of concerned citizens when it comes to arsenic. Or, in othere words, "Trust but Verify".
Why is there not less contaminated soil available?
On The Fence,

Hi, Werner...
This is not "contaminated" soil, rather, it is soil with naturally occurring levels of arsenic. The BUD is clear on this. And levels of 20ppm, under a two-foot cap, are significantly safer that what is currently on site -- a flat surface with arsenic AND volatile organic compounds (as identified in the BUD) which are much more likely to leach.

Werner, I was skeptical and concerned too. And then I read the report, and did some online research, and confirmed my thinking with an independent soil scientist. I greatly respect your commitment to our environment, but I would ask you to do the research as well.

Best Regards.