On being the lone dissenting voice about arsenic at the Portsmouth landfill protest

More than 50 protesters, some wearing Tyvek jumpsuits and respirators, staged a protest on Park Ave in Portsmouth's Island Park this afternoon, and I was there not as a reporter, but to hand out fliers with some data about arsenic. With so much misinformation and overheated rhetoric, I thought it was important to try to get some facts out.

I was cursed at, my interview with Channel 10 was disrupted by the protesters, and one guy in a hazmat suit yelled repeatedly inches from my face (in the presence of a reporter) to the point that I asked people to call the police. (He backed off.)

Let me state my position clearly: I am not in favor of arsenic, nor am I defending any activities which do not adhere to the safety guidelines set out in the RI DEM Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) which specify the levels of material that are acceptable and the procedures that must be followed. I am simply saying that based on my research, I have found nothing which says the BUD, as written, is unsafe. I've summarized some of that research in the one-page handout I distributed this afternoon, which you can download here.

As a reporter, I do not blindly trust the DEM. I contacted a source, a soil scientist with a DEM in another New England state who provided off-the-record answers because they are not authorized to comment. The source's review of the BUD found no significant issues. The source said that there was nothing unsafe about spot 40ppm concentrations of arsenic in grading soil under a two-foot cap of residential grade earth, assuming that there are appropriate land use restrictions in the deed and that monitoring for erosion is conducted after the work.

Those are the facts as I have researched them, and getting those out was my only goal this afternoon. I have the utmost repect for my neighbors, and honor their committment to and participation in the process. That said, I do wish that those who disagree with me would extend the same courtesy.

I learned my lesson in how to respond in these situations from Alger Hiss.

In college, I was a reporter for a weekly newsreel, and I was assigned to cover a book tour appearance by Hiss. He spoke for a while at the campus book store, and things were uneventful until the Q&A, when one person lunged up to Hiss, inches from his face, and started yelling, "I think you're guilty as hell."

Hiss held his ground, but replied softly and calmly, "You are entitled to your opinion." That was a powerful lesson in respect and grace under pressure which I have never forgotten.

We may have differing opinions, but we are still neighbors, and I hope that we can respect each other — and the facts.


And just about as rational as hell as well, and they're not going to take it any more. Sigh. I'm afraid the current land-swell of hooting and hollering (regardless of the subject or the facts) isn't likely to lead to much of value.

If a group of people are "protesting" in order to advocate for clean land, then a "dissenting voice" would be one who is advocating against clean land. That is not what you were doing. What you were doing was distributing facts. I don't think that is either for or against the protesters, just providing additional information for everyone to be aware of.

We too often put people into one "camp" or another -- "either you're with us or against us" is the attitude prevailing in media coverage. The article at Patch called you a "counter-protester", but if so, what were you advocating for? Was that different than what the main group wants?

Just because someone decided to scream in your face doesn't mean that by and large that main group and you aren't both in favor of clean land.

Why does there always have to be one "side" against another. I think that's a false construct. If Portsmouth residents learned to realize that everyone in town is on the same side, the side for Portsmouth, we would have a lot less screaming and a lot more talking.