De-icer discharge law in place, but enforcement is proving tough

01:00 AM EST on Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Providence Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- One year ago today, the City Council adopted an ordinance making it illegal to pollute Buckeye Brook, but some residents say Warwick police have been reluctant to enforce the new law if the suspected violator is T.F. Green Airport.

Steve Insana, founder of the Buckeye Brook Watershed Council, said yesterday that the police "really didn't know how to handle it" last winter when residents called to complain about the odor of glycol-based aircraft de-icer in the brook.

The chemical, sprayed by the airlines and found in storm-water runoff from the airport, consumes oxygen as it breaks down and releases a strong onion-like odor.

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Management required the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to apply for a permit to discharge contaminated storm water into the brook, which empties into Narragansett Bay at Mill Cove. In November 2004, the DEM ordered the corporation to clean up the bulk of the de-icer discharge and attached certain limits to a proposed Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (RIPDES) permit.

The corporation appealed the constraints written into the permit and the case still awaits a hearing before a DEM administrative officer.

"The [city] officers were coming out and saying, well, this is a DEM thing," Insana said, but the ordinance lists the Warwick Police Department as the responsible enforcement agency, not the state.

Cmdr. Mark Titus, deputy chief of police, said yesterday the ordinance poses difficult issues for the police, who are not trained as environmental detectives.

"We don't have the expertise," Titus said, which is why the police called the DEM when people complained about odors last winter.

The ordinance is unclear on how the police can prove their case if they write a notice of violation, Titus said.

"Who's going to be responsible for testing?" he asked. "Somebody's got to take samples, and the samples have to be analyzed."

"How can you issue a citation to somebody without any evidence?" he said.

Michelle Komar, a Gaspee Plateau resident and long-time environmental activist, said yesterday that testing is not at issue. The Warwick police, she said, can cite the Airport Corporation if water is flowing from its storm drains, two of which are in the Warwick Industrial Drive right-of-way and can be observed without going on airport property.

"It's not odor-related," Komar said. "If they can see flow from a pipe from the airport and there's no valid RIPDES permit, then there's a violation" of city ordinance, and the police have a reason to bring the corporation to Municipal Court.

Yesterday, Councilman Steve Merolla wrote to the police chief, Col. Stephen McCartney, to register "a formal complaint" over the corporation's discharging storm water without a RIPDES permit.

"This past winter several citizens of Warwick filed complaints with the Warwick Police Department regarding violations of this ordinance," Merolla wrote. "To date, I understand that no action has been taken by your department regarding these continued violations."

Merolla asked McCartney to "investigate" whether the Airport Corporation is discharging storm water into Buckeye Brook and, if so, issue a notice of violation under the ordinance.

"They need to build a system to recover the de-icer," Merolla said yesterday. "We've had fish kills and clam kills and no swimming on our beaches and the herring run's been depleted in the brook," he said, contending that glycol contamination plays a role in each.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said the ordinance is difficult for the police to enforce and could require an amendment.

"We have to put it on our agenda for further discussion," he said. "Environmentally [the police] don't have the training."

If the police take action against the airport and then can't prove their case in Municipal Court, "we're going to do more harm than good," Avedisian said. "I don't want to see every case being thrown out."

Insana, who lives near the brook, said yesterday he called the police last de-icing season when the odor was so strong he could smell it indoors.

On Sunday he smelled de-icer in and around the brook for the first time this season, which means the police are about to start getting calls, he said.

"I want to see the City of Warwick enforce this ordinance," Insana said. "If the [Airport] Corporation is dumping into the stream without a valid permit, I believe the city should clamp down on them and let them know we're not messing around. These are our neighborhoods, we live here."

The City Council unanimously granted second passage to the Buckeye Brook ordinance on Dec. 13, 2004, and Avedisian signed it into law a day later.

The ordinance was sponsored by Donna M. Travis, Charles J. Donovan Jr., and former council members Helen Taylor and Carlo Pisaturo.

The Airport Corporation took questions on the issue yesterday via e-mail but did not respond immediately.