2007-03-08 / Front Page

Chemical dumping alleged at Newport bridge

RITBA officials find no evidence of contamination
By Jeff McDonough

Nick Robertson looks at the Pell Newport Bridge maintenance site on Freebody Lane were he believes paint solvents were buried during the 1970s. Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority officials say they are investigating Robertson's allegations but have found no evidence of chemical dumping. Photo by Jeff McDonough Nick Robertson looks at the Pell Newport Bridge maintenance site on Freebody Lane were he believes paint solvents were buried during the 1970s. Rhode Island Turnpike & Bridge Authority officials say they are investigating Robertson's allegations but have found no evidence of chemical dumping. Photo by Jeff McDonough Jamestown's search for a site to build a new highway garage took a new twist last week when concern was voiced over possible pollutants that may have been buried on the Newport Pell Bridge property.

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority on Thursday announced that it was investigating reports made by a former employee that in the 1970s construction contractors had dumped and buried solvents and paint on bridge property in Jamestown.

RITBA officials have pledged to clean up any contamination that may be found. To date, though, no evidence of chemical dumping has been discovered, bridge officials said.

The allegations arose because property owned by the town of Jamestown adjacent to the Newport bridge is being considered as a possible location for the new highway garage.

The area of concern is located underneath the bridge, just north of Freebody Drive.

Nick Robertson, a former three-term Town Council member, said he recalls that painting-related chemicals were dumped in a succession of trenches at the base of the bridge when he was an RITBA employee during the 1970s. Robertson was the maintenance foreman at the bridge.

In 1999, Robertson was a member of the town Building and Facilities Committee that reviewed highway barn sites. When the bridge site was proposed, Robertson recalled that he suggested that the town should be wary due to possible pollutants in the soil. The committee recommended to the council that the barn be built on Lot 47 on the north end.

Two weeks ago, Robertson said, he was contacted by Town Council member Julio DiGiando who asked what he knew about possible pollutants on bridge property. Shortly thereafter, Robertson was contacted by concerned RITBA officials.

Last week Robertson showed RITBA officials where he remembered the trenches had been located. Robertson told the Press that several chemicals were dumped in the trenches. They include methyl ethyl ketone, also known as 2-Butanone, which is used to clean paint from spray guns, and dimethylformamide, which was used to soften the old paint on the bridge prior to applying new paint, Robertson said.

He also recalls that xylene and unused epoxy paint were dumped in the trenches. Robertson remembers "pools of chemicals in the trenches" which were filled with dirt in the fall. A new trench was then dug in the spring, he said.

"No one really paid a lot of attention back then," Robertson said of the chemical dumping. "My only objective was to point out that it was there. I don't really care one way or another if the highway garage goes there."

RITBA Chairman David Darlington said Tuesday that the bridge authority has contacted Lincoln Environmental and the state Department of Environmental Management to investigate the allegations.

Lincoln Environmental has spent two days excavating areas where the alleged trenches were located. No evidence of dumping was found, Darlington said.

Field samples of the soil were taken for chemical testing, Darlington said. Those test will take some time, he added.

"There's no indication that anything was buried here," Darlington said Tuesday. "We don't want to find pollutants, but we're doing everything we can to investigate the claim."

"We're not done here yet," Darlington said, referring to the soil testing that needed to be conducted.

Darlington said he was "troubled" that no evidence of trenching or buried refuse had been found. He suggested that after 35 years, Robertson's memory may not be exact.

Darlington said a small amount of dried epoxy paint had been found during the excavation process.

Robertson agreed that his memory of the trench locations could be somewhat hazy after 35 years. Robertson said he has contacted other people who were involved in the bridge painting during the 1970s to help him locate the trenches.

Darlington said he has not ruled out having further excavation done, but "we can't excavate 10 acres of land."

Chuck Newton, a consultant to RIBTA, said Wednesday that either the site was cleaned up or that it was never there. If paint solvents were dumped there, he added, it is possible that they would have evaporated or leeched out of the soil over the years.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said Wednesday that the town-owned land adjacent to the bridge property would also be tested if it is selected for the highway garage. RIBTA would first have to allow the town to use about 6,500 square feet of its property for the garage, he added.

"The location of the past maintenance area is not within the proposed footprint" of the highway garage, Keiser said.

RITBA recently completed test borings of the area for lead paint contamination. Test reports show some evidence of lead contamination in the soils. Officials said the results are being reviewed with the state DEM and appropriate action will be taken.

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