A local committee that wants the federal government to decontaminate Gould Island so it can be safe for public recreation is eyeing the southernmost 17 acres for its proposal.
The Gould Island Committee will meet at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Town Hall following an advisory session with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. David Sommers, chairman of the committee, said he will propose a plan that would reassign 17 of the 39 state-owned acres to be earmarked for recreation. The entire 39-acre section currently is operated as a wildlife reserve from April through August to allow migrating birds to breed. Although Gould is the smallest of three islands comprising Jamestown, following Conanicut and Dutch, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management owns the 39 southern acres. The northern 23 acres are owned and operated by the U.S. Navy. Under Sommers’ proposal, 22 of the 39 state-owned acres would remain a wildlife reserve.
“We are asking for a compromise,” he said.
The plan is for the committee to approve a resolution that would be presented to the town council for consideration. The resolution would ask the state to outlay money in 2023-24 in order to develop a plan to rehabilitate the 17-acre plot. According to Sommers, the federal government says it needs to see an official plan before it can release more money to expand the scope of the cleanup.
Sommers said this plan actually would revert the island back to its original composition when the federal government began to give away the land after World War II.
The cleanup of Gould Island, which was launched in 2018, is sanctioned through the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, a congressional initiative to identify toxic waste, debris, construction hazards and unexploded ordnance from defunct military sites. The 39-acre portion scheduled for investigation is a former airbase used by the U.S. Navy from 1920-73. While active, it featured U.S. Marines barracks, airplane hangars and a landing strip for seaplanes.
Following the base’s closure, sections of Gould Island have been shuffled among various jurisdictions.
The Navy annexed the 39 southernmost acres to the General Services Administration in 1972, including 17 acres subsequently shifted to the U.S. Department of Interior for outdoor recreation. Three years later, that land was transferred to the state. In 1989, the GSA conveyed the other 22 acres to the state for conservation habitat.
The state, however, rolled the southernmost 17 acres into the 22-acre wildlife reserve even though the federal government transferred the land for outdoor recreation.
The northernmost 23 acres, which remain in federal control, are not eligible for investigation under the restoration program. The Naval Undersea Warfare Center operates there.
The beginning of the entire process began by empaneling a local board to serve as liaison to the Army. This advisory board was established for residents to relay their concerns to the federal engineers.
Sommers is chairman of that Gould Island Advisory Board, but he also pressed for the founding of a second committee to fight for the expanded cleanup. Under the current scope of the cleanup, the corps is responsible for remediation to make the property suitable for breeding birds, not humans. Because the advisory panel only is empowered to discuss the plan under that existing scope, the Gould Island Committee, also chaired by Sommers, was created in August 2021 to discuss the possibility for a larger decontamination.