To the Editor:
The Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) has asked the General Assembly to name the proposed new tot lot and sports complex next to its main runway at T.F. Green Airport after Rhode Island’s health insurance commissioner and former RIAC board chair, Kathleen Hittner, M.D.
This new facility will be in the direct path of exhaust fumes from jet planes as they power up to take off from the main runway against prevailing Southwest winds. Since the planes have not left the ground yet, their fumes will pour over the ground directly into the tot lot. RIAC, using 24-hour average exposures, argues that these takeoffs do not exceed industrial limits for soot and hydrocarbons. But that doesn’t matter when you put a toddler or a six-year-old soccer player directly into that swill of bad air. Asthma is a big concern here. Exercise-induced asthma can hit any exercising kid at any time. Add a jet plane expelling black smoke and other detritus, and parents have reason to be concerned.
In my father’s day, public buildings, bridges and ball fields were named after deceased heroes or humanists. There is good reason for this. Dr. Hittner is a highly paid and active state employee with responsibilities that include working with insurance companies. These companies fund asthma programs using premium dollars. It is her responsibility to rate the cost of such programs. I wonder what would happen if she were to deny a rate increase that included an asthma program? Could an insurance company point out a conflict of interest because her name is on a tot lot right next to the main runway at T.F. Green Airport?
The last thing I want to hear is RIAC suggesting that placing a tot lot and soccer field right next to the runway is OK because Dr. Hittner’s imprimatur is on it. Could this happen? Of course it could. Will it happen? Nobody knows. Why go down that road? How might insurance companies feel about this? More importantly, how do parents of the little ones feel? And what about Dr. Hittner? That critical question remains to be answered.
My father taught me that state facilities should not be named for living people. As a supervisor at the Howard Complex in Cranston during its WPA-funded building spurt of the late 1930s, he saw many buildings go up. The notable Benjamin Rush Building was named after an 18th century physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. No buildings were named after still-employed state employees.
RIAC might consider naming this facility after the Kinnecom family. Their cemetery is located behind the fence next to the main runway at Green. The Kinnecoms moved from their wigwam in Old Buttonwoods to an honored place in Warwick’s history. They hosted President William Henry Harrison on the Fourth of July during his run for president. They served in the World Wars, and Kinnecom names are on the soldier’s plaque in front of Warwick City Hall. Their cemetery next to the runway at Green is easy to overlook.
There will be a hearing on the naming this Wednesday at the House of Representatives Finance Committee, at the State House in Providence. I will speak in opposition. It would be helpful if others in Warwick would call their state reps to register their concerns as well.
On the Senate side, Senator Erin Lynch pushed hard last week for the naming of this facility after Dr. Hittner. She dismissed the health concerns, saying the City Council agrees with her – hard to believe. The Senate committee chairman then decided to seek Dr. Hittner’s thoughts on the matter, holding the legislation for further study. I hope Dr. Hittner will read this letter and consider the health hazard, as well as the potential conflict with her job as Commissioner of Health Insurance.