Utility justice in South Providence and Washington Park

by Cecelia Tamburro

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published February 9, 2018

Monica Huertas is a community activist and mother of four. She lives in Lower South Providence, and the health of her family is suffering for it. Her children, aged eleven, seven, three, and one, were all born just down the street at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island. Two of them are now struggling with severe respiratory problems. 

Half a mile away sits National Grid’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) storage facility, a 127-foot high white steel cylinder that has become the site of a potentially explosive debate between a wealthy energy company and a handful of community organizers struggling to preserve the health and safety of their community. 

“My oldest daughter, she has asthma,” said Huertas, “But the youngest one is now being affected in the same way…Everybody’s affected. All of the kids in this area.” During her most recent trip to the emergency room, Huertas spent three days in the hospital with her youngest daughter, who was suffering from an asthma attack that she said “just wouldn’t quit.”

South Providence borders the neighborhood of Washington Park. Together, these two neighborhoods form one of the state’s worst asthma hotspots. In 2015, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked Providence as the 14th most challenging place to live with asthma in the United States. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, from 2010 to 2012, over 10.4 percent of children between the ages of 2-17 living in South Providence and Washington Park filed an insurance claim for asthma. Of those children, over 15.5 percent had an asthma-related Emergency Department visit. “Cumulatively, the children living in that area do have a lot of health burdens and other burdens that a child living somewhere else may not have,” said Barbara Morin, an expert on environmental toxins at the RI Department of Health. 

One reason for these health burdens is the proximity of these neighborhoods to I-95. On a cold November day in South Providence, the smell of exhaust from the Thurbers Avenue exit, less than a mile away, is pervasive. Morin herself has worked on monitoring air quality in the communities of South Providence and Washington Park with a study that monitors the air pollutants coming from Thurbers Avenue, a busy exit off of I-95 that cuts through lower South Providence. However, she says, the challenge lies in figuring out the percentage of respiratory problems that are caused by a particular pollutant. While outdoor air pollution is a significant burden, many asthma triggers, such as mold and other indoor allergens, also lurk inside older houses. 

After the construction of I-95, which divided South Providence from Downtown, wealthier inhabitants of South Providence and Washington Park moved away in search of better housing. Landlords divided up single-family houses and took inadequate care of the properties, creating mostly cheap, poorly maintained housing for an increasingly minority and low-income population. Today, 17 percent of the population is linguistically isolated, meaning that they do not speak English. Thirty-one percent have less than a high school education. All of these factors make it much more difficult for people to get the healthcare they need. Dr. James Myers, who works at the free clinic in South Providence, says that these neighborhoods are home to “quite a few people who don’t have access to regular healthcare.” 

South Providence and Washington Park are situated adjacent to the Port of Providence, which is one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the state, due to its proximity to Narragansett Bay. The people who live in these neighborhoods face a myriad of health threats in addition to asthma, including lead poisoning and potential toxic exposure. In addition to its proximity to I-95, the Port is home to abandoned factories, hulking mountains of scrap metal, and multiple chemical storage facilities that choke Allens Avenue. The Providence Motiva Terminal accepts shipments of petroleum coming into and out of the port, while the Univar Chemical Storage Facility released 1,275 pounds of toxic chemicals into the area in 2013, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And finally, there is National Grid’s liquefied natural gas facility, which poses yet another threat to the well-being of a community already burdened by health disparities. 


Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is a form of natural gas that has been liquefied for easier storage and transport. About 95% of Rhode Island’s energy generation comes from natural gas. Currently, the facility in the Port of Providence only serves storage purposes, and must be filled with LNG by trucks coming from other sites in New England. After 43 years of relying on this storage facility, National Grid now wants to build a facility that can liquefy natural gas itself. Their proposed project would draw in natural gas from the pipelines that lie beneath Rhode Island’s surface, liquefy the gas, and transfer it to the storage facility. According to National Grid, this will reduce the cost associated with importing natural gas from other sources, and make it easier to heat Providence during the coldest days of winter—an estimated nine days a year. The facility would also serve as a source of LNG for the rest of New England. 

The project, which was proposed in 2015, has met significant resistance from community organizers. In 2005, a similar proposal for an LNG marine terminal was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). At the time, Governor Donald Carcieri stated, “The scheme was riddled with far too many safety, security, and environmental concerns. It was never a good idea to build an LNG terminal in a densely populated city.” 

In response to National Grid’s latest proposal, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island published a 32-page paper explaining the dangers of the project. In addition to the health risks of the facility, they say, building an LNG terminal perpetuates environmental racism by concentrating environmentally hazardous conditions in communities of color. Meanwhile, No LNG in PVD, an organization that Huertas leads, has fought relentlessly to oppose the facility as it has tried to get approval from various state agencies. 

On March 29, 2017, a gas leak at the storage facility spewed natural gas into the air from a ruptured, high-pressure gas line. The leak was so severe that it led to a shutdown of I-95 while the response team worked to minimize the risk of a deadly explosion. In the Port of Providence, concerned residents feared for their lives. 
“At the time I was so scared,” said Huertas, who had just put her kids to bed when she heard the roar of what sounded like a jet engine. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should run out of the house, or if it would be more dangerous to leave the house…do you go to a basement? You go to the attic? What do you do?”
With National Grid’s new project, community members are concerned about the possibility of another accident that would have catastrophic effects on the nearly 80,000 people that live within a two-mile radius of the facility. The state’s only level one trauma facility, Rhode Island Hospital, Women & Infants Hospital, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital are also nearby. In the Port, the project would be near multiple facilities that are so hazardous that they require Risk Management Plans to help manage damage in the case of a catastrophic accident. 

Community organizers are also concerned about toxic soil that will be overturned as the facility is constructed. They worry that the new facility will increase truck traffic around the area as trucks come in and out to transport LNG, adding to ambient air pollution in nearby communities. National Grid claims that their facility is safe, and that its presence will actually decrease truck traffic in the area, because by producing their own LNG, they will reduce the need to fill the storage facility using trucks.
There’s also the question of communication and transparency. National Grid has done a less-than-optimal job of informing the public of their project. When they do hold hearings, these hearings are often difficult for community members to attend, as they are held on the other side of Providence and are scheduled at a time when most people are still coming home from work. As tensions have risen between community members and National Grid, hearings have become more draconian. A meeting this July to discuss public concerns was scheduled in the Providence Public Safety Complex, a heavily policed location that made many minority residents feel unsafe.

On November 14, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council held a public hearing to discuss the project. As a state agency, the CRMC holds the power to vote on whether or not National Grid’s proposal meets their coastal regulations. They were one of the only agencies standing between National Grid and their final destination, FERC, which has repeatedly been dismissed as a 'rubber stamp' agency by protestors because of its tendency to admit most proposals that land on its desk. The CRMC is prevented from considering whether a new facility is necessary, and only is allowed to consider the potential coastal effects. “We are also very concerned about coal-based fuels and climate change,” said CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate, “but we cannot consider those issues.”

The public disagreed. On November 14, so many people spoke out against National Grid that the CRMC was forced to hold another public hearing. Two weeks later, on November 28, nearly 50 people testified for over four hours against the proposed facility. Nirva LaFortune, a city councilwoman who was raised in the South Side of Providence, gave a particularly compelling testimony. “The area is in the 91st percentile for the state of diesel air toxin exposure and is considered an asthma hotspot. Adding an additional hazardous facility to an already struggling and underserved neighborhood is unethical,” she said.

The council members, among them Grover Fugate and CRMC Chair Jennifer Cervenka, often appeared bored, remaining impassive and checking their phones as community members spoke out about their fears. When Washington Park resident Gina Rodriguez called out these behaviors in her testimony, she was met with hostility and chastised by the council.

“I am disappointed in each and every one of you, because as a mother I cannot believe that whoever raised you raised you to be a coward,” she said. With that, Cervenka and Fugate left their seats and began to walk out of the room. Police officers began to close in on Rodriguez, surrounding her and turning the microphone away. Members of the audience leapt up and began filming the officers. Rodriguez kept going.  

“This is about people,” she said, her voice cracking. “Like Monica’s daughter who was in the ICU over the weekend. In and out of the hospital for five days. This is about protecting the health and wellness of the people who live in our neighborhood. It’s for the first graders on their first day of school. It’s for the infants in the NICU. It’s for elders in the oncology unit at Rhode Island Hospital. It’s for the convenience store owner on the corner of my street… This is about people, and no, they might not look like you. But someone does.” 


The health disparities that affect South Providence and Washington Park are well-known and well characterized. In addition to struggling with asthma, these communities have very high incidences of lead poisoning due to older, lead-contaminated housing. From 2013 to 2015, over 18.4 percent of children under age six in these neighborhoods had blood lead levels above the statewide cutoff for lead poisoning. 

Lead poisoning has significantly decreased in recent years, thanks to legislation that requires the state to intervene when children come to school with high blood lead levels. However, the potential long-term effects can be devastating to a community. In children, lead poisoning can cause nervous system and kidney damage, learning disabilities, and other mental and physical development issues. And long into adulthood, lead poisoning is significantly correlated with lower IQ, higher dropout rates, and higher crime rates in affected areas. 

As David Veliz, a member of No LNG in PVD and an organizer with the Childhood Lead Action Project, a community organization that fights to end childhood lead poisoning in RI, said “Health inequity, asthma rates, lead, all of that is traumatic. There’s a level of burden there that is just unfair.” Veliz explained that communities with larger social capital, who are more wealthy or white, have the ability to move away from environmental hazards. “This community can’t move.”  

Dr. Myers said that he sees many patients at his clinic who are unable to obtain the proper maintenance therapy for their chronic issues. For asthma in particular, people may need an inhaler or monthly asthma shots to soothe their sensitive lungs. “I see a lot of cases like that, where people haven’t been dealt with properly, and then they go to the ER, and eventually into the ICU,” said Myers. And for those who are already vulnerable to asthma triggers, additional insults such as the flu virus, cold air, and bad air quality often send them over the edge. 

In 2015, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, sent a letter to FERC urging them to conduct a health impact assessment of the proposed facility. Citing existing health burdens, she requested that the impact assessment include analysis related to air quality, emissions, and traffic related to construction and operation of the facility. FERC has still failed to perform the suggested assessment. 


The LNG plan is not an anomaly. Rather, it follows a common pattern. Cities tend to cluster their environmental hazards in predominantly poorer neighborhoods, leaving already disenfranchised communities with few choices. Dr. Scott Frickel, the Community Engagement leader of Brown’s Superfund Research Program, called the conundrum a “devil’s bargain.” “The whole benefits from the sacrifice of the few. But then the question is, who are the few?” He also cited the importance of government and corporate action, saying that Rhode Island had the opportunity to take a stand. “We know these people are being poisoned because of where they live,” said Frickel. “We know that. Let’s do something about it.”
On December 12, the Coastal Resources Management Council held their final public hearing on National Grid’s facility. As National Grid presented its rebuttal to the public comment, the room swelled with protestors carrying signs. One member of No LNG in PVD handed out signs that read, “No LNG: OUR COMMUNITY, OUR DECISION.” Another handed out toy wooden gavels and sound blocks to the protestors. As the crowd grew rowdier, National Grid spoke only about two issues: the projected lifespan of their facility, and the project’s visual aesthetics. The rebuttal did not address community concerns about fossil fuels, the risks associated with the facility, or the potential health effects.

Immediately after the rebuttal, Jerry Sahagian, a member of the council, motioned to decide that the proposal was in compliance with the CRMC’s enforceable regulations. Not one council member dissented. 

The room erupted with screams and the heavy wooden sound of the protestors slamming down their wooden gavels. Eventually the cacophony settled into a constant chant. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” As Cervenka walked out of the room, members of the crowd continued to excoriate the council. “Would you put your kids next to this facility?” “You’re disgusting!” “Put it in your backyard!” 
“This is our city. We have to stay here,” Huertas said, tears in her eyes. “I can afford to move, but my neighbors can’t. And that’s why we’re going to keep on fighting. South Providence, we’re gonna keep on fighting every step of the way.” 


On January 31, protestors had what may be their final opportunity to voice opposition to the LNG project. The Department of Environmental Management held a hearing to discuss whether they should award National Grid a Water Quality Certification that would allow the company to release stormwater into the Providence River. 

In her testimony, Huertas spoke calmly, more quietly than normal. She wore a red shirt emblazoned with the words “No LNG in PVD.” After explaining how difficult it had been for her to find childcare and pay for parking to attend this hearing, she began, once again, to speak out. “Please consider all the impacts…Because we all need water. We all use it. We don’t want to see another Flint, Michigan here in Providence, Rhode Island. We don’t want to see–” and with that, her three minutes of public commentary were up. Her mic had been silenced.

You can donate to #NoLNGinPVD here.

CECELIA TAMBURRO B'18  expects resistance.