RIAC canaries in the coal mine

Posted 9/9/14

To the Editor:

My first friend to die was the son of a junk dealer who came down with leukemia. Was he exposed to benzene – a leading cause of leukemia? No one will ever know. Here in Warwick, …

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RIAC canaries in the coal mine


To the Editor:

My first friend to die was the son of a junk dealer who came down with leukemia. Was he exposed to benzene – a leading cause of leukemia? No one will ever know. Here in Warwick, we are being asked by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) to support the idea of pulling the plug on the air-quality monitoring station that sits right next to a proposed park for children. To save money, RIAC intends to put this park right next to the runway at T.F. Green Airport. Reports from the air quality station at that location show high levels of benzene, soot, and other chemicals related to jet exhaust. But RIAC has never gotten good, end-of-summer data from that station. In fact, the airport was planning to remove the station right in the middle of August – the critical point in the year for studying air quality. 

The Rhode Island Cancer Registry published an eye-opening report in 2008 that showed elevated lung cancer rates downwind of the prevailing summer breezes from T.F. Green’s main runway. Among the most polluted areas was the proposed “tot lot” location. The monitor that RIAC wants to pull the plug on was not in operation in 2008. RIAC’s air quality consultant points out that this monitor has just recently come up to full operation. Now, right in the middle of what is probably the first good year of data collection, RIAC wants to take it down.

Many of us first heard about cancer problems surrounding the airport during the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) hearings. Neighbor after neighbor would step up to the podium to tell about someone at home or next door or down the street that had passed away from or suffered with cancer. RIAC and FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] officials shook their collective heads and said, “We’re sorry, but that’s just not possible.” They said the airport meets federal air-quality guidelines. But that is not true. Absent any reliable data, the airport consultants had no way of knowing.

RIAC President Kelly Fredericks, selected by the RIAC board for his airport construction expertise, recently assured the General Assembly that the prevailing winds passing over the airport come from the north – not from the signature southwesterly direction that many airport neighbors enjoy during hot summer afternoons when kids are playing at the existing tot park much closer to Greenwich Bay. This is where these southwesterly sea breezes spring up. In a report justifying the tot park move, Fredericks included a wind study that spikes winds coming from the north, blowing benzene away from the new tot park. The air-quality consultant’s reports show predominant winds coming from the opposite, more troublesome direction.

Michael Zarum, the City Council candidate for Ward 2 and public advocate who was among those originally pushing for this new station, was able to stop RIAC from removing the station, for lack of public review. Mr. Zarum’s concern was recognized the day after Rhode Island’s Victory Day holiday. If you look at the reports from the RIAC consultant, you will find large gaps in the data – often during the summer months. According to the consultant, these gaps were due to equipment failures and/or bad data mixes, along with warranty issues with the monitor’s manufacturer. And on and on.

After spending millions on air quality monitoring around the airport, RIAC officials appear to be turning a blind eye to the dying canary one easily envisions at the site of the proposed park, and are trying to pull the plug on the air study during the most critical period for review, late summer. This gives them a window of opportunity to put our tots and children in real harm’s way, right next to the runway crossings at Green Airport. Our mayor, governor, state agencies, and the American Lung Association, headed here in Rhode Island by a member of the General Assembly, need to step in to keep the monitoring equipment next to the proposed tot park.

My friend was robbed of his life next to the junkyard. Was he exposed to carcinogens? We will never know. But here in Warwick we have a monitor posted right next to the proposed park. This monitor needs to be kept in place to show us, with all the directness of a living or dead canary, whether this spot is suitable for our children’s bodies – or not.

Richard Langseth

Executive Director

Greenwich Bay Watershed Group


Editor’s note: Kelly Fredericks had not read this letter as of this Tuesday, but speaking generally about the air monitor, he said he is confident RIAC is following requirements as set by state agencies.


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