DEM, airport still wrangling over runoff discharge permit

01:00 AM EST on Thursday, December 15, 2005
Providence Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK -- In the weeks ahead, two state agencies will either wrap up a year of talks with an agreement that limits aircraft de-icer pollution in Buckeye Brook or will ask a hearing officer to take over and make a ruling.

Angelo Liberti, chief of surface-water protection at the Department of Environmental Management, said yesterday the DEM and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation are "close to being at the end of our negotiations" over a storm-water discharge permit for T.F. Green Airport.

In November of last year, the Airport Corporation balked at the terms of a Rhode Island Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit the DEM had proposed as a means of reducing the amount of glycol-based aircraft de-icer released into Buckeye Brook, which crosses airport property.

Some area residents say aircraft de-icer has damaged the air quality in their neighborhoods and -- by consuming oxygen in the brook -- killed fish.

The Airport Corporation appealed the terms of the permit, seeking less-stringent measures, and the two agencies have been trying to agree on a solution ever since.

Liberti said yesterday the DEM and the corporation are making progress toward settling the issues informally and thus avoiding a ruling by a state hearing officer.

"It hasn't been just legal maneuvering," Liberti said. The Airport Corporation, he said, "has been trying to address the central issues."

"They've been evaluating alternatives to comply with the limits we put in the permit," he said, "as well as short-term changes they could make during this de-icing season."

But while the talks have been productive, they have gone on about as long as they can, Liberti said.

"The director has indicated he wants us to establish a final end-point to our discussions in the near future," he said.

If the sides conclude that no agreement is possible -- or if the hearing officer loses confidence in their ability to resolve the issues -- a formal process will begin, with the hearing officer taking sworn testimony, Liberti said.

Meanwhile yesterday, the Warwick police called several environmental activists in the city and asked them to come to police headquarters and give written statements on any evidence they may have witnessed on the effects of aircraft de-icer pollution in the brook.

On Monday, Councilman Steve Merolla filed a complaint with Police Chief Stephen McCartney asking him to immediately start enforcing a year-old city ordinance that prohibits pollution of any kind in Buckeye Brook.

Environmentalists who live near the brook had asked Merolla to intervene, saying the police are duty-bound to charge the Airport Corporation with violating the ordinance and bring airport officials before Judge Joel Gerstenblatt in Municipal Court.

McCartney wrote to all nine members of the City Council Tuesday, saying he had assigned detectives to investigate the residents' complaints.

Steve Insana, founder of the Buckeye Brook Watershed Council, said he and other residents planned to meet with detectives next week.

In his e-mail to City Council members, McCartney said, "I have directed the detective division to immediately commence an investigation and use all resources necessary to conduct this investigation. "Once the facts are gathered, I will have the facts reviewed by the office of city solicitor to determine the appropriate way to proceed."

McCartney said officers would rely on "other city and state agencies to assist in this matter," given that the police have no expertise on environmental issues.

"I am also concerned that our traditional crime-fighting and order-maintenance responsibilities will be reduced in order to meet the complex responsibilities required for this investigation," McCartney told the council. "I state these facts also knowing that environmental hazards created by [the Airport Corporation] or any other entity is a serious quality-of-life issue to our citizens and deserves appropriate priority and attention."

Although the final terms of a state storm-water discharge permit are still in question, Liberti, the DEM official, said residents who think they see evidence of de-icer pollution should call DEM as well as Warwick police.

Even without a discharge permit in effect, "there still are department regulations that DEM can enforce," he said.