Island Park flooding and school bus safety: An open letter to the Portsmouth Town Council

Park Ave and Gormley school bus stop flooded

To: Portsmouth Town Council, krizicl@portsmouthschoolsri.org, cynthia.perrotti@gmail.com
Cc: sandy@patch.com, johnson@newportri.com, sakonnet@eastbaynewspapers.com, rep-jay70@cox.net
Subject: Island Park flooding and school bus safety
Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2011 09:05:41 -0400

To the Town Council:
This morning, for the second time this week, heavy rains flooded Park Ave in Island Park, forcing schoolchildren to wade through ankle-deep water to board buses. On Tuesday, the streets were so impassable I had to use the Escape Bridge to drive my son to school.

Here's a photo from today:

And one from Tuesday:

While such flooding is not a new issue (Channel 12 reported on it back in December of 2009: http://www.torvex.com/jmcdaid/node/1213) it's not clear to me whether things have suddenly gotten worse, perhaps because Irene contributed to blockages in the stormwater drains.

Whatever the cause, I would appreciate it if the Town Council could investigate this issue affecting the safety of Island Park residents and our children.

I'm cc'ing school Supt. Dr. Krizic and School Committee chair Cynthia Perrotti so that they're aware of the situation, and copying in local media and Jay Edwards, our state rep.

Best Regards.

Full disclosure: I'm annoyed.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, IP, Irene, flooding

DEM agrees to Portsmouth meeting on landfill

The RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has scheduled a meeting to discuss work at the Island Park landfill on Tuesday, Jan. 18 at the Town Hall, according to an e-mail from Town Administrator Bob Driscoll.

"Anyone with questions/concerns should attend," said Driscoll.

Localblogging, 02871, IP, Landfill capping, landfill

Portsmouth landfill project seeks arsenic exemption from DEM

Go visit XKCD to see it full size (and read the delightful last panel...)

Yesterday, Portsmouth Patch reported on a request made by the company doing re-capping work at the old landfill on Park Ave to use dirt with levels of arsenic significantly higher than the RI DEM standard. If you live in Island Park, you will want to attend the Council meeting on Monday, and you may also want to send a note to the RI Dept. of Environmental Management (DEM) explicitly asking for a public meeting.

Sent this to RI DEM yesterday and received a polite, "Thank you, I will be in touch on this issue."

Subject: Written comment pertaining to public landfill in Portsmouth
To: mark.dennen@dem.ri.gov
Cc: sen-ottiano@rilin.state.ri.us, rep-edwards@rilin.state.ri.us, rdriscoll@portsmouthri.com, rgilstein@portsmouthri.com [...]
Date: Fri, 07 Jan 2011 09:12:52 -0500

Mr. Dennen...
Please consider this a formal request for a public meeting pursuant to the notice attached. I am a long-time resident of Island Park, and our family lives two blocks from this landfill. While I fully understand that arsenic is a naturally occurring element, and that 20mg/kg is below mandated cleanup levels, it is still higher than normally found in RI soils, and I'd like the opportunity to have DEM and the developers discuss safety concerns with residents.

I am also cc'ing our state legislative delegation, both as a heads up, and also, because I do not believe that posting in the Providence Journal constitutes sufficient notice to residents of Portsmouth. The Journal may be the paper of record for Providence, but it closed its East Bay office several years ago; this, to me, means that by definition it is not a paper of record for the population of our town, and I would ask our legislators to work with DEM to find ways to provide effective notice.

Best Regards.


PUBLIC NOTICE This public notice is related to environmental conditions at the Former Portsmouth Landfill, located on the north side of Park Avenue in Portsmouth, Rhode Island (Assessor's Plat 20, Lots 1,2, and 13 and Plat 25, Lot 2). In accordance with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's (RIDEM's) Rules and Regulations for Composting Facilities and Solid Waste Management Facilities (Solid Waste Regulations), January 2001 (Amended April 2001 and October 2005), AP Enterprise, LLC, is providing public notice of a proposed amendment of the variance to the Solid Waste Regulations, referred to as the Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) approved by RIDEM on September 20, 2010. The proposed amendment to the approved BUD relates to the re-use of soils that exhibit naturally occurring elevated arsenic concentrations (such as those found on Aquidneck Island the location of the Project) that exceed the RIDEM Industrial/ Commercial Direct Exposure Criteria (I/CDEC) of 7 mg/Kg (parts per million or ppm). These naturally occurring arsenic concentrations are typically identified by the absence of any other contaminants (organic and inorganic) within the sample. The Site is the subject of a remedial action under the Rules and Regulations for the Investigation and Remediation of Hazardous Materials Releases (the Remediation Regulations), as amended August 1996 and February 2004. A Remedial Action Work Plan has been approved by RIDEM which calls for capping of the former landfill area, groundwater monitoring, soil gas monitoring, and an Environmental Land Use Restriction (ELUR). The BUD allows the reuse of soil from off-site that exceeds RIDEM Residential Direct Exposure Criteria but meets Industrial/Commercial Direct Exposure Criteria and GB Leachability Criteria to be used for onsite grading and shaping purposes. The final cap layer will consist of two feet of soil which meets the RIDEM Residential Direct Exposure Criteria. APE requests a change in the acceptance criteria for arsenic-only impacted soils used for grading and shaping soils that will be placed under the approved final cap. Rather than use the RIDEM I/CDEC of 7 mg/Kg, APE requests a maximum arsenic concentration of 40 mg/Kg with a source data average concentration not to exceed 20 mg/Kg. The average concentration would be determined by the arithmetic average of no less than 10 samples. If significant written comments are received, the Department will schedule a public meeting and notify the commenters of the meeting date. Written comments should be submitted (within one week of this notice date) to: Mr. Mark Dennen Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Office of Waste Management 235 Promenade Street Providence, Rhode Island 02909 mark.dennen@dem.ri.gov Arrangements to review RIDEM records may be made by calling 222-6822 ext. 7307.
—Published: 1/5/2011

Scientific disclaimer: Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, so its presence in soils should not necessarily be construed as problematic. And the proposed average levels of 20mg/kg appears to be below the level of concern, according to a recent EPA report about a different location which identifies 25 mg/kg as the cleanup threshold. In terms of direct action as a poison, you'd have to eat about five pounds of dirt to get a lethal dose. But when it comes to carcinogens, my motto is 'Trust but verify.'

Localblogging, 02871, IP, Landfill capping

Patch digs up details on Portsmouth landfill project

Portsmouth Patch reporter Sandy McGee has continued to investigate the ongoing work at the Island Park landfill, and has an update to the story including the DEM paperwork. Go take a look: Update: Town Landfill Recapping to follow DEM Requirements.

As a resident of Island Park, I have to say, great work, Patch!

Localblogging, 02871, IP

Portsmouth Patch breaks wastewater plan

Yesterday afternoon, Portsmouth Patch posted the wastewater management plan developed by consultant Lombardo Associates.

Even if you've been following the back-and-forth at the Town Council, there's a few new things here. There's a lot more detail about how Lombardo will execute the process over the next few months. And, perhaps most importantly, the document seems to present a clear defense against the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) "Notice of Violation" by demonstrating the feasibility of an alternative approach to meeting their mandated goals. Nut graf:

"The Town of Portsmouth respectfully requests RIDEM to allow the Town to implement its preferred approach to addressing the wastewater and stormwater issues that are the cause of water quality violations with the aggressive, comprehensive approach as described herein. The Town is of the opinion that this approach will be a win-win for all stakeholders."

Full disclosure: I live in the affected area of Island Park.

Program note: While it might appear that I'm sending people to my "competition" by linking to Portsmouth.Patch, I don't see it that way. The idea of competition is based on a concept of scarcity deeply rooted in the economics of the physical world. In the digital, media are decentralized and we inhabit them like an ecosystem. I publish here and push content out to Facebook and Twitter; I depend on serendipitous discovery through Google searches and indexing by Outside.In and Topix; my words exist a click away from everything else written about Portsmouth.

Patch and I both contribute different things to this media environment, and I celebrate what they do. We are two different species, each with our own ecological niche. I read Patch every day, and I hope you will too.

Localblogging, 02871, Wastewater, IP

Capping Portsmouth's Island Park dump [update]

Island Park dump work
Island Park dump work begins.

Anyone driving along Park Ave. in Island Park yesterday would have noticed brush clearning and construction along the southeast end of the marsh, in the area that, fifty years ago, was known as the old dump. According to sources familiar with the area, this is the first phase of a project to cap the dump and cover it with fresh dirt and grass.

No officials in Town Hall could be reached for confirmation yesterday afternoon, but according to sources familiar with the operation, the former dump had been purchased by a private group several years ago, and this group assumed responsibility for the remediation project, including negotiations with DEM and CRMC, at no cost to the town.

Once the cap is in place and the area re-seeded, any reuse plan would need to be approved by the town and state, sources said.

Update: Portsmouth Patch has the rest of the story.

Localblogging, 02871, IP

When exactly did DOT promise to fix the Escape Bridge?

Video from Channel 12.

In a Channel 12 story tonight prompted by coverage on this site, RIDOT claimed that work on Portsmouth's ailing Escape Bridge would begin next summer, contradicting an official communication the Town received this afternoon.

In a segment broadcast at 5:30, RIDOT Deputy Chief Design Engineering Bob Smith told Channel 12, "We're looking for construction to begin in the next construction season, which would be next summer, we're expediting the design right now, as long as we can get through the environmental permitting, then that should happen."

However, according to an e-mail obtained this afternoon, sent from Portsmouth Town Administrator Bob Driscoll to the Town Council, "Bernie Frezza [Intergovernmental Relations] of DOT called to report that the repairs to the Escape Bridge will be put out to bid in August of 2010 and a contract will be awarded for construction that will begin in the Spring of 2011."

Which is it, guys?

Of course, the e-mail from Driscoll was sent at 4:15, and the Channel 12 interview was almost certainly earlier than that. A lot can change in a few hours, even though DOT promised "a constant eye on that bridge."

It couldn't possibly be that they painted a rosy picture for the TV crew, could it?

After my posting yesterday, I received e-mails from two of our Portsmouth state legislators, and had a phone call with Sen. Chuck Levesque, and all promised to continue to press for a solution.

Rep Ray Gallison, whose district covers the North End of Portsmouth said, "I did speak to RIDOT's legislative liaison and told him the Director needs to be made aware of the severity of what happened yesterday ASAP." Gallison concluded, "We need attention now."

Rep. Jay Edwards, who represents Island Park, said, "I will just repeat the obvious - this bridge must be repaired to its original strength as soon as possible for the safety of all the residents in Island Park. Nothing else will or should be acceptable to Portsmouth or the State of Rhode Island."

Correction: Updated Smith and Frezza's official titles.

Localblogging, 02871, RI, IP, flooding, Escape Bridge

Cove Bridge work delayed to late 2010

After an eagle-eyed reader queried about Portsmouth's Cove (Escape) Bridge following today's washout on Park Avenue, I asked RIDOT about the schedule for repairs to the ailing structure and just received this response from Dana Alexander Nolfe, the chief public affairs officer:

"The Department anticipates being able to advertise this project for bids in late Summer 2010. Please know that this schedule is dependent on the issuance of several environmental permits as well as a US Coast Guard permit, in addition to our receipt of available funding."

Given our State's fiscal picture, I find the caveat about "available funding" ominous.

I feel obligated to point out that this contradicts the promise made by RIDOT head Michael Lewis back in May when "rapid deterioration" prompted a reduction in weight limit to 4 tons:

"RIDOT will begin an accelerated in-house design for the Cove Bridge," said Lewis. "It is expected that this project will be advertised later this year and begin construction next year. It is expected that this project will take only one construction season to complete."
RIDOT press release

Localblogging, 02871, RI, IP, flooding, Escape Bridge

Group proposes Escape Bridge become pedestrian span

Escape Bridge connecting Island Park and the Hummocks

A group of residents in the Hummocks section of Portsmouth has proposed to the RI Department of Transportation (RIDOT) and the Town Council that the Escape Bridge, which connects the neighborhood with Island Park, should be converted to pedestrian use and repairs be deferred to the ailing structure. The bridge, which carries Point Road, has seen its weight limit reduced to 4 tons and has been targeted by RIDOT for urgent renovation.

Grafton "Cap" Willey, of Point Road has been circulating a petition seeking support for the idea, and in a letter to RIDOT Director Michael Lewis says the span, originally intended for emergency egress during flooding, "has become a major thoroughfare for traffic from Island Park to the Route 24 on ramp which has been a detriment to a predominantly residential area on both sides of the bridge." Limiting the bridge to pedestrian traffic, the letter continues, would make the neighborhood "safer and quieter" and notes, "In this time of budget shortfalls and with RI needing a lot of work on its infrastructure and roads, this is a case where the repairs could be delayed and the funds used for more pressing projects." (See the complete letter and petition.)

In an interview conducted by e-mail, Willey explained the group's aim. "Our proposal is to limit the bridge to pedestrian traffic with retractable gates controlled by the Town for evacuation of Island Park in the case of flooding and emergencies which was the initial purpose of the bridge when it was built as an escape bridge in 1961. The problem for the neighborhood is that it has become the major access and exit to Island Park and has too much traffic for the residential neighborhood that is Almy Point and the Hummocks. It has become dangerous for the walkers, the children and the pets. The police department does not have the resources to enforce the speed limits through the neighborhood and the illegally exhausted motorcycle traffic during the summer disrupts the peacefulness of the residents at all hours of the day and night. People can exit from Island Park just as easily via Boyd's Lane which is a much safer and less populated road."

Willey went on to say, "I have overwhelming support from the neighbors. The DOT is open to the idea of saving money depending on what the Town officials think about it. The initial reaction of the Town officials is not enthusiastic at this point." When asked how many had signed the petition, Willey replied that he had "not added up all the signatures" but that it was "in excess of 30."

Asked for RIDOT's response, Chief Public Affairs Officer Dana Alexander Nolfe said, "Director Lewis told Mr. Willey in an email that he should bring his ideas before his elected officials of the Town as well as his state legislative delegation. The Town represents the voice of the people and we take our cues from what they say."

Portsmouth Town Administrator Bob Driscoll said the issue has been placed on the agenda for the next Council meeting, and expressed serious reservations about the proposal and "the cavalier way it dealt with public property, public safety, and public responsibility." Driscoll went on to say, "We have all seen some fairly bizarre agendas being advanced in an attempt to take advantage of 'these tough economic times.' This one, if serious, would take the cake, at least locally. I advised Cap that his proposal was a 'nonstarter' and will contact Director Lewis."

Portsmouth Emergency Management Director Jim Lowrimore had not responded to an e-mail seeking comment by press time.

Full disclosure and commentary:
I have a personal stake in this: I live on Gormley Ave, and about once a year there is flooding on Park Avenue severe enough that Boyd's Lane is inaccessible and we have to get out over the Escape Bridge (see coverage, below). I live in the house where my mom escaped the '38 Hurricane, and her stories about our Island Park neighbors who did not survive are never far from my mind in hurricane season. The tattered blue plastic ties still flap on the phone poles 16 feet above the sidewalk across from Flo's Clam Shack, marking high water from that storm.

While I can also understand the safety concerns of Mr. Willey and the neighbors, I just don't see restricting the bridge as the right solution — especially if the proposal is to defer critical repairs.

In my opinion, this is the wrong lever. If there are problems with noise and traffic safety, those should be addressed through specific mechanisms: traffic calming, enforcement, and education. Achieving traffic reduction by closing a bridge makes no more sense to me than keeping kids from using profanity by opposing a skate park or controlling housing density by refusing to consider sewers. These may be appropriate goals, but it just doesn't seem to me like the right way to get there. To a person trying to pound in a nail, just about anything may look like a hammer. But that doesn't make it one.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments, and be sure to contact the Town Council with your input. (Here's their e-mail addresses: pmcintyre@portsmouthri.com, hlittle@portsmouthri.com, dcanario@portsmouthri.com, kgleason@portsmouthri.com, khamilton@portsmouthri.com, jplumb@portsmouthri.com, jseveney@portsmouthri.com.)

Letter and petition to RIDOT
Previous coverage of Escape Bridge weight reductions in 2009 and 2008
Island Park flooding in December 2008, April 2007
Coverage of high-water mark of '38 Hurricane

Localblogging, 02871, Town Council, IP, flooding, Escape Bridge