2018-08-02 / Front Page

Future of cleanup project at Gould Island a bit murky


Whether Gould Island is for the birds depends on a flock of factors that will require three levels of government to compromise.

An environmental cleanup of the former naval base is expected to commence by 2019, although the extent of that project is still unclear. Under a federal program established in 1986, defunct defense sites are eligible to have toxic waste, debris, construction hazards and unexploded ordnance removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

While these plans are drafted by the feds, the Army will work closely with a restoration advisory board led by East Shore Road resident David Sommers. This panel, consisting of nearly 30 Jamestowners, essentially is a liaison between the community and the Army. It provides an av- enue for residents to share their recommendations and concerns. The board will convene for the first time at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall.

Gould, at 56 acres, is the smallest of the three islands incorporating Jamestown. Only the southern 39 acres, however, are eligible for restoration because the U.S. Navy owns the top portion.

Despite being part of Jamestown, Gould Island is owned by the state and managed by the Departmental of Environmental Management, a relationship similar to Dutch Island. That’s why the town needs to get on the same page with the state before lobbying the feds for a “maximum cleanup,” which was the direction given to Town Administrator Andy Nota by the town councilors.

Because the state currently operates Gould Island as a bird sanctuary, the standards for a sufficient cleanup are lower than if human access were a priority. The town, however, hopes to change this wildlife designation before a plan is finalized. Once the Army commits to the project, the feds will complete the work and cross Gould Island off its list forever.

“It’s one-time funding, which means they’re going to clean it up and walk away from it,” Sommers said.

According to Nota, a conservative cleanup suitable for birds is “not in sync with the town’s perspective.” Instead, the town wants a thorough cleanup that will make the island safe for human access, allowing for “the potential of future passive and active recreational use.”

Nota sent these comments to Janet Coit, state environmental director, in a July 17 letter. Moreover, by skimping on the cleanup, Nota warned about the “potential environmental impact to the surrounding area due to its highly sensitive location in the middle of Narragansett Bay.”

“If it’s only for the birds with no human access, then it will be a modest environmental cleanup to make sure things don’t leech into the bay and seagulls don’t get sick,” Sommers said. “These are worthy goals, but perhaps not sufficient.”

Another problem, according to Sommers, is there are three federally owned areas in the middle of the state’s portion. Because this is Navy land, the Army will not assess it for contamination. The law that pays for these projects, the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, only finances cleanups on defunct military sites transferred to municipalities or states.

“These sites may be fine,” Sommers said. “There may be nothing there. But we don’t know.”

The Navy informally told Sommers it would be willing to transfer those three sites to the state, although it would not spend any money on the cleanup. The Army also is refusing to combine those sites into the project, which means it would be a job for Rhode Island.

“The state’s in the control seat, but the town has significant influence,” he said.

The final hurdle is whether structures eligible for the cleanup were dilapidated when the land was transferred. If the Army determines they have fallen into disrepair under state ownership, then the program does not finance the work.

“If those structures were safe at that time, then it’s the responsibility of the new owners,” Sommers said.

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