2011-01-20 / Front Page

Environmental impact of Penguin Plunge questioned

By Tim Riel

The Jamestown Conservation Commission last week agreed to send a letter to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and the Jamestown Town Council concerning the behavior of the crowd at the recent Jamestown Penguin Plunge.

The annual New Year’s Day event attracted upwards to 2,000 people this year. According to island resident Donna Chellis, the conduct of some of the attendees was inappropriate.

“I was present at the Penguin Plunge and I was very disturbed by the hordes of people standing where they shouldn’t have been,” Chellis said at the Jan. 11 meeting of the conservation commission. “Mackerel Cove is a very fragile area. Between the sea attacking it, and the humans, we need to pay attention to this event.”

The environmental impact that the Penguin Plunge has on the Mackerel Cove Town Beach was discussed by commission members for the better part of an hour.

The annual event was criticized for the public drinking present, the absence of portable toilets, lack of volunteers and trash cans, and people who were standing where they shouldn’t be – most notably on the dune grass. The dune grass has been restored and is maintained by the Town yearly to keep the beach sand from eroding.

“There was a lot of public drinking going on,” Chellis told the committee. “My concern was what was happening to the beach. There just seemed to be too many people where they shouldn’t have been. And there was no one monitoring this.”

Commission Chairwoman Carol Trocki said that this year’s Penguin Plunge was especially well attended because the temperature was about 50 degrees, as opposed to past years when temperatures have been in the teens.

“That’s still no excuse,” Chellis said.

Commission member Patrick Driscoll asked who is supposed to be responsible for maintaining order at the Penguin Plunge. “I think the organization should take the responsibility – and the Town. I’m not sure what the arrangement is, but I think the people that put the event on, do they not take care of some of the security and the town’s expenses?” Special Olympics Rhode Island sponsors the event.

Trocki said that any event the size of the Penguin Plunge would certainly need an event permit and the Town Council’s permission to take place. Commission member degated who should be responsible for overseeing the Penguin Plunge, whether be the Town, the sponsor organization, or the Coastal Resources

Management Council.

Commission member Ted Smayda suggested the Town request help from environmental police at the state Department of Environmental Management.

Trocki said that the Town could certainly ask for DEM assistance, but that she believes the Town carries the burden because Mackerel Cove is a town beach, not a state beach.

Commission member Cathy Roheim said the dune grass was her major concern. She also mentioned that the Plunge isn’t the only event at Mackerel Cove with large crowds present, citing the Fourth of July fireworks as another occasion that should be monitored.

“I recall in the past when we’ve spent a reasonable amount of money purchasing the [dune] grass, and spent a fair amount of volunteer time in planting, and those are non-trivial exercises,” Roheim said. “To avoid having to do that over and over again, it’s worth protecting that.”

Committee member Michael Brown asked if there were any environmental requirements included in event permits for large crowds. Roheim offered two suggestions: first, she said that the chairwoman should have a conversation with Keiser to follow up on Brown’s question. Secondly, she said that the commission should write a memo to the Town suggesting that “for major events when there are going to be a lot of people at the beach, because of the investment in maintaining the beach, and the cost of the grass,” both for environmental and financial purposes the area should be protected during these events.

One solution was to erect snow fences around the areas that are intended to be off limits to the public. Driscoll and Brown objected to the idea, saying that it’s “not necessary” and “expensive,” respectively. Although there is signage posted on the beach telling visitors to stay off the dune grass, Chellis said, “It’s not very evident.”

Driscoll suggested that instead of using the more expensive snow fences, that yellow police tape might be sufficient.

“I imagine it’s not very diffi- cult,” he said. “Maybe people just don’t know they aren’t suppose to be [standing there.] And putting up that yellow tape is not terribly diffi cult. I bet you that would work.”

Brown also suggested simply asking volunteers to stand guard at the dune grass. Chellis said, “I’ll sign up. [At this year’s Plunge,] I did yell, ‘Will you morons get off the grass?’”

The next Jamestown Conservation Commission meeting will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m., in the Town Hall conference room.

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