Neighborhood coalition ramps up its
efforts to oppose new waste transfer facility on Allens Avenue, promising to
shake up retail politics in Providence
Call it retail politics at its best. It was bitterly cold
outside but the conversation inside the Washington Park Center on the evening
of Wednesday, Jan. 8, was hot.
The message, articulated loud and clear by some 50
neighborhood residents and advocates, in response to plans to build a new waste
“transfer” station on the corner of Allens Avenue and Thurbers Avenue, with its
promise to bring some 2,500 tons of waste per day into the community, and with
it, an estimated 188 diesel trucks in and out every day, was direct: “We are
not the dumpster.”
To attend the gathering, which was organized by Washington
Park Neighborhood Association President Linda Perri and Providence City
Councilor Pedro Espinal, participants had to pass around the meeting of local
Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops.
The takeaway: Residents are no longer willing to be trusting
and reverent toward the political decision-makers that do not include
their voices at the table, but they are brave enough to develop a
vociferous, community-based strategy to oppose the construction of a new
transfer facility, which is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 21, before
the Providence City Planning Commission.at 444 Westminster St.
Political dealmakers take note: the same kind of
community-driven opposition to the proposed Invenergy power plant in
Burrillville resulted in its cancellation.
The neighborhood meeting did not attract TV cameras and it
didn’t make it into Ted Nesi’s political column as an item. But it was attended
by a number of elected officials and political figures, all who sought to curry
favor with the residents.
They included: six Providence City Councilors [Pedro
Espinal, Ward 10, who served as emcee of the meeting; Helen Anthony,
Ward 2; Nirva LaFortune, Ward 3; Carmen Castillo, Ward 6; and Mary
Kay Harris, Ward 11], and a declared candidate in Ward 1, John
Goncalves, an organizer with the Providence Coalition of Neighborhood
Associations, which helped organize the gathering. That’s one vote away from
There were two state senators, Harold Metts and Ana
Quezada; one state representative, Grace Diaz; along with former
Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino, and former state Rep. Aaron
Regunberg. Metts likened the current community uprising to a previous one,
when angry mothers demanded an upgrade of the Flynn school.
In search of a vision for the Port of Providence
Paolino, who had published an op-ed two days before in The
Providence Journal, pitched his plan to redevelop the real estate along
Allens Avenue as a vision of a gateway to the Capital City, built with tax
credits from the city and the state.
When Paolino asked for comments, he found his plans being
questioned by Greg Gerritt, a local environmental activist, who challenged him
about his vision – and about the missing vision for the future Port of
Providence. Rather than seeing the port as a real estate opportunity, Gerritt
spoke about the port as a future center of commerce, not based on scrap metal
operations, but as a deepwater port, one of the few that will survive the
onslaught of climate change. “We need to be a maker,” Gerritt said.
Paolino and Gerritt agreed to disagree, in the kind of civil
dialogue so often absent from today’s political discussion.
It was City Councilor Helen Anthony who put her finger on
the larger problem: the lack of plans for development for the city’s
waterfront, beyond its use as an industrial wasteland.
“We need to rezone this land, and we need to create a plan
for its development, and I think planning for that development should be led by
the neighbors who live here on the South Side,” she said, as reported by Uprise
RI’s Steve Ahlquist. “When the project is brought before the City Planning
Commission, they’re going to have very few tools to say no to this project.”
The approval process does not require an environmental impact statement; the
question is: why is that?
Instead, Anthony continued, the focus needed to be on
putting political pressure on the state Department of Environmental Management,
the agency that will have to approve the transfer station application, and on
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who runs DEM. “Enough is enough,” Anthony said.
Connecting the dots
No one disputes the fact that, as Linda Perri put it, “Air
and traffic pollution in and around Allens Avenue and the Port of Providence is
out of control.” Or, as Julian Drix from the R.I. Department of Health said:
“It’s not just about poverty. It’s about racism,” providing the statistics that
showed that Providence was at the epicenter of an epidemic of asthma. The
community where the waste transfer station is to be proposed has the “highest
overall burden of asthma” in the state, according to Drix.
But it was Dr. Peter Simon, a retired pediatrician and
epidemiologist, who was known as Dr. Martes when he had office hours on
Tuesday at the local community health center in Providence, who changed the
tenor of the conversation when he spoke, attempting to connect the dots between
the politics and the health care threats and consequences posed by the proposed
waste transfer station.
First, he asked all those in attendance: How many of you
have a member of their family who has asthma. Almost everyone in the room
raised their hands. Asthma, Simon continued, is the number-one reason why
children are absent from school in Providence.
Simon then called out a number of the state’s leaders,
including Angelia Infante-Green, the state’s Education Commissioner, asking why
asthma was not on her agenda when talking about the future of Providence
Simon railed against what he called “the game” being played
on the city’s kids by Infante-Green and Peter Alviti, the director of the R.I.
Department of Transportation. All the health data on asthma is known, Simon
Simon’s blunt presentation provoked a strong response from
the crowd, including perhaps his most memorable line, when he said, in addition
to metal scrap waste and pollution, the other leading export from Allens Avenue
and its strip clubs was syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
An assault on truth
Afterward, Simon, a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI,
wrote up a brief report on his experience. Here it is:
“I was invited to speak at a community forum held last night
at the Washington Park Community Center on the South side of Providence. The
meeting had been called by organizers who were concerned with the environmental
injustice issues associated with a proposal to use the waterfront in their
neighborhood as a huge municipal waste-processing center.
“I was asked to provide a pediatric and public health
perspective to support a full understanding of the community health threats
included in this proposal, soon to be considered by the Providence City
“Councilman Pedro Espinal did a terrific job describing
his understanding of the threats to community health and well-being embedded in
this new business proposal. Asthma prevalence in this part of the city is the
highest in Rhode Island, according to data presented by Julian Drix, who
manages the Health Department’s asthma program. [In his talk, Simon called Drix
“I tried to get the room thinking about what asthma means to
them, not on medical grounds, but on the assaultive nature of a chronic
condition on their families and children.
“Many hands went up when I asked how many had someone with
asthma in their families, Even more went up when I asked who knew someone with
a child suffering from asthma. Few knew, however, that asthma is the number one
cause of school absenteeism in Providence. No one could recall hearing this in
the recent discussions about the “failure” of the local school district in
Providence and the impending takeover by the R.I. Department of Education. When
I asked them to posit why this issue received so little attention, no one
voiced an answer.
“They could see the assault on their children and family
members with asthma by increased exposure to deteriorating air quality caused
by huge diesel trucks carrying tons of waste products. It was more difficult to
see, however, the assault on truth by the Governor and her minions to take over
school spending with the unstated plans to shift more and more money into the
use of technology and by misusing testing scores to weaken the role of
professional educators in “fixing” what is really wrong with our schools.
“Turning this assault around will be challenging. Meetings
like this one must lead to more work to inform community members about the
“game” being played out in Providence. I hope the need for a better economic
development strategy will come from an effort to explain how “things work” in
From the questions asked by members of the audience, most
understood the power relationships at play. One individual questioned the role
of Rhode Island Hospital and its failure to pay taxes because it was a
nonprofit. Another wanted to know about the growing stink on Allens Avenue,
which they said was getting worse. [Linda Perri explained that the stench was
coming from Sprague, and that the R.I. Attorney General was on the case.]
Others raised the economic costs of asthma on families.
The larger question, of course, is whether the political
establishment in Rhode Island was tuned in and paying attention. Judging from
the opening remarks of the R.I. House Speaker and the R.I. Senate President for
the 2020 session of the R.I. General Assembly, asthma caused by pollution
afflicting Providence was not high up on their agenda.
This week, Gov. Gina Raimondo will give her State of the
State address on Tuesday, Jan. 14, followed two days later by her proposed
state budget. In our world of sports betting, what are the odds that the
Governor will talk about a new vision for the Port of Providence?
Still, elected officials who fail to pay attention to an
uprising by a coalition of Providence community neighborhood associations
around environmental justice issues and the proposed transfer station may do so
at their own peril on Election Day in November.
Link to full story: http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/we-are-not-the-dumpster,5452
Photo by Richard Asinof
Richard Asinof is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online
subscription newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of
health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island.