2011-11-03 / News

Narragansett Bay one of 20 most contaminated in U.S.

BY KEN SHANE

According to a new fact sheet published by Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center, Narragansett Bay contains a toxic stew of pollutants including nitrogen, phosphorous and heavy metals. This combination of toxins has resulted in the bay being a “ghost of its former self.”

The statement from the organization includes a 10-point litany of the evils that have taken hold in the bay. These include the quantities of nitrogen and phosphorous that have found their way into the water as a result of failing septic systems, inadequate wastewater treatment, and agricultural and urban runoff.

“Halloween is a time to be scared, but Rhode Islanders shouldn’t have to be afraid of swimming, fishing and boating in Narragansett Bay,” said Environment Rhode Island’s Channing Jones. “Major sources of pollution such as storm run-off and inadequate sewage treatment dump toxic chemicals and hazardous waste into Narragansett Bay, turning it into – if you will – a potion of pollution.”

The report warns that as a result of the combined sewer and storm drain system in Providence, heavy rains have overwhelmed the wastewater treatment plants resulting in this discharge of raw sewage into the bay. For this reason the state Department of Health recommends that people in the upper Narragansett Bay area avoid contact with water for three days after heavy rainfall.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration places Narragansett Bay in the top 20 most contaminated bays in the country due to the presence of heavy metals that include arsenic, mercury and lead, which are found in the bay’s sediment. These toxins can be harmful to human and marine life.

The report also notes the massive die-off of fish and clams in the bay as a result of excessive nutrient pollution. Excessive nutrients lead to algae blooms, which deprive fish of oxygen. This has a negative impact on the ecosystem and also on the fishermen who make their living on the bay.

However, the problems are not only in the upper bay. The National Resources Defense Council reports that in 2009 beach water quality on Scarborough Beach in Narragansett exceeded state standards only 38 percent of the time, and only 10 percent of the time on the town beach. There have been 34 beach closures in Rhode Island this year due to the presence of bacteria that could result in gastroenteritis and urinary tract infections.

In the bay annually, 420 metric tons of oil enters, and toxic and carcinogenic oil molecules have been found in quahogs. These molecules enter the human body when the bay clams are consumed.

Last weekend, a barge used for the ongoing painting of the Newport Pell Bridge was sunk as a result of the nor’easter that punished our area. According to a press release issued by the Rhode Island Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the barge contained 2,400 gallons of diesel fuel in three double-walled tanks, and a “minor oil sheen” has been detected near the sunken vessel. Efforts are underway to raise the barge.

“One of the facts in our report is that over 400 metric tons of oil enters the bay each year,” said Jones, a field associate for Environment Rhode Island. “Sometimes it’s from accidental incidents like this. We need stronger policies in place to control this. This is something we should be worried about.”

A recent University of Rhode Island study found harmful contaminants not regulated by the government at 27 locations around the bay. One of those locations was Potters Cove in Jamestown. These pollutants include the antibacterial agent triclosan, as well as alkylphenols, which are found in detergents and have been linked to reproductive health problems.

Jones addressed local concerns by saying that the issues in the Environment Rhode Island report apply to every place that is on the bay. “The runoff pollution that goes into the bay affects everywhere,” he said. “Most of the messages from our report relate to anywhere that is on the water or relies on it for recreation or economic activity.”

In its most recent State of the Bay report, the environmental organization Save the Bay noted a decline in the bay from 4.5 to 4.3 out of 10. The cause of this decline was the increase of nutrients and bacteria in the bay, and the decrease of oxygen.

In response to those findings, Environment Rhode Island has urged the Environmental Protection Agency to restore the Clean Water Act and reduce sewage overflows. The group also called on Congress to oppose any attacks on clean water.

Said Jones, “The health of Narragansett Bay is connected to the health of Rhode Island’s people and economy.”

Environment Rhode Island is a statewide citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, which was originally part of the Rhode Island Public Interest Group, and is currently part of Environment America, a national confederation of clean water advocacy groups.

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