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Friday, April 22, 2022

Today was "Earth Day." Does anyone really care?

Earth Day lost its relevance decades ago

By Will Collette

From this....
The first Earth Day in 1970 was a popular uprising against corporate capitalism primarily over the issue of industrial pollution. It was a day for militant speeches, lively marches and hope that environmental activism would add extra power in numbers to the already huge movement protesting the war in Viet Nam.

I was there. In fact, Cathy and I met that year while working at Ecology Action for Rhode Island in Providence where one of our tasks was prep for Earth Day; we worked together on anti-pesticide polemics.

In short order and over the ensuing 50+ years, Earth Day transformed from being a May Day style day of protest and action against corporate capitalism into a tool of those same financial interests we we were fighting in 1970. Instead of talking about the big issues and pushing for serious solutions, Earth Day devolved into a time to do little, feel-good things.

Tomorrow, the town will hold its third annual pick-up-other-people's-trash day, a classic feel-good event that has come to be treated by the CCA as if it was their idea (it wasn't). The CCA's resident intellectual Mike Chambers ponders the existential threat posed by roadside litter and declares "we cannot afford a stalemate" between the trash picker-uppers and the drive-by litterers who toss their empty nip bottles all over the roads.

Living right on Route One, I entirely understand the problem of litter and would certainly like to see Charlestown Police bust more litterers. I have, in the past, called for chain-gangs of vacationing New Yorkers in orange jump suits to pick up nip liquor bottles along the roadside.

Since the entire idea behind nip bottles is to facilitate drinking and driving, I think any time you see a nip bottle fly out of a car window, it's a reasonable bet the driver would fail a Breath-o-Lyser test. Bust them and prosecute to the hilt.

...To this
Next week, Charlestown will have its official little Earth Day celebration in Ninigret Park with family fun,  music, balloon animals (BAD idea!), and conservation groups handing out literature that will become colorful additions to the town's litter. Faith LaBossiere was all a-twitter talking about this event at the last Town Council meeting.  

Charlestown's way of doing Earth Day ignores so much that needs attention. Let's start with the tons of toxic waste under the ground right at the site of the town's celebration. 

These are leftovers from the days when Ninigret Park was part of a large Navy aviation training field during World War II. The CCA seems more interested in covering that up rather than deal with it.

Large swaths of Charlestown's southern shore faces inundation from storms and sea level rise caused by that industrial pollution we protested at the first Earth Day 52 years ago. Yet Charlestown is actually anti-green energy, virtually banning all forms of wind energy and offering no town assistance to help residents and businesses to break away from fossil fuels. 

Our Town Plan rejects the idea of connecting Charlestown with public transportation. We are one of the only municipalities in Rhode Island with no RIPTA service. 

On any given day, you can look out over Block Island Sound and see ocean going oil tankers, one storm or one accident away from another major oil spill.

We are 25 miles downwind from the poorly managed Millstone nuclear power station just outside of New London in Waterford.

Balloon animals aren't going to fix any of those problems  though they will contribute another dose of plastic pollution to Charlestown's landscape and waterways.

Earth Day 1970 evolved into Earth Day 2022 for reasons that have nothing to do with actually solving problems. The militant environmental movement of the 70s was bought and sold. 

Its leaders graduated from law school and started up huge environmental groups that used funding from corporate polluters to challenge small acts of blatant lawlessness and to seek small incremental changes in the laws.

Some of those leaders went on to become corporate poobahs, hedge fund managers and politicians. Local communities were left pretty much on their own to fight local challenges. 

Some of those local communities ended up like Charlestown where its environmental agenda is set by the likes of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner, Faith LaBossiere and Mikey Chambers. We worry more about what Ruth identifies as threats to our "rural character" than we do about hazardous waste under us, a toxic release or major oil spill or nuclear accident at Millstone.

There is lots we should be doing to protect our town and the health and safety of our families, but none of it has anything to do with the CCA. 

Let's take a historical look at a case in point - the leftover Navy contamination in what was the Ninigret Naval Auxiliary Air Field (NAAF). Understand that nearly all military installations have toxic contamination problems. As one Pentagon official told me in 1988, "our job is to protect this country, not protect the environment."

So lots of chemicals - waste oil, fuel, solvents, unexploded ordnance, ammunition, etc. ended up getting dumped more or less haphazardly at Ninigret as a matter of routine. We have reports showing fuel oil and PFAS contamination at Ninigret. CLICK HERE for a huge 1999 report that inventories the toxics in Ninigret know at that time.

In the early 2000s, the Town Council appointed an Ad hoc Committee that was chaired by Virginia Wooten, who later became CCA chair. The Committee was supposed to come up with ways the Town could get involved in rendering Ninigret safe. The Committee did not leave much work product behind; in fact, only two memos were found. 

One June 2004 memo released to me under the Access to Public Records Act was apparently its final report where Ms. Wooten discussed the broad concerns about contamination but decided that the immediate priority was: 

CLICK HERE to read all 2.5 pages of Wooten's "report." 

Obviously, shrubbery did not make the tons of toxic waste go away. Over the years, new information kept coming out about new types of toxic material in the Park. 

For example, in 2015, we found out - to the surprise of few - about oil that had been spilled, dumped or stored in leaking tanks:

In 2018, Ginger Glander sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers to see if any steps had been taken to set up a restoration advisory board (RAB) for the Park. CLICK HERE to read the entire response. But the most striking part of the reply letter was this: 

There was only one response to the Army's notice in the Westerly Sun and apparently that was Ginger's letter. From the CCA, nada.

Since then, in June 2021, PFAs pollution was confirmed at Ninigret. 

As of today, according to ProPublica's database of polluted military sites, Ninigret Park has five toxic sites, two of which are considered completed, though in my experience that does not mean they have actually been cleaned up. As you can tell from this history, toxic waste is not a CCA priority. Not as long as they can hand out balloon animals.

Here's ProPublica's data on Charlestown's Ninigret air field, Note that the estimated time for the Army to "complete" what it will call a "clean up" is 2055.