Wednesday, 20 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

Conflict takes the stage today, played out against the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. RIDEM frequently sets itself up to bear the brunt of people’s angst — even that of its own employees. Nonetheless, I’ve worked with many competent people there and had generally positive experiences. Today, however, an interesting scenario presented itself.

About 10 days ago, RIDEM informed us about a breach that had occurred in one of the wastewater treatment lagoons at a textile-dyeing plant in the watershed — one of the many historic industries built along the river in the early 1900s to utilize hydropower. When the breach occurred, approximately 1.5 million gallons of purple wastewater were released onto the riverbank, causing erosion of the bank and depositing tainted sediments and wastewater into the river.

After a few days of seeing nothing in the local papers about the release, which occurred in a stretch of river designated for “open space and recreation” by the state, and where recreational fishing is heavily promoted, I asked a reporter what I thought was an obvious question: “Why hasn’t your paper run a story on the wastewater lagoon breach on the river?” To my surprise, the reporter knew nothing about it. RIDEM had not released any information.

Last Friday, the local paper I approached did run a story, which was then picked up by the statewide journal. Their reporter contacted me today. Among my comments, I mentioned that I was concerned that the state had not immediately informed the public about the incident, particularly given its location in a popular fishing area.

Sure enough, just moments later, I got a call from the state’s watersheds coordinator, who is a good friend and colleague in the local environmental community. He said he’d heard I was causing trouble again — that I’d criticized “his agency” for not informing “my organization” about the spill. In the game of telephone that is journalism, some statements can’t help but get twisted. I told him, “Yes, I did criticize your agency, but not for failing to inform WPWA” — which they had indeed done — “but for failing to inform the public.” I then asked him, “Are you okay with my going on the record with that?” He was. Then we talked about 10 other things and it was over.

We’ll see how the story fares when passed through the 300-person grapevine at RIDEM. Maybe I’ll sour some relations — or maybe, by showing that we enjoy our good relations with the state agency but have a much greater obligation to the public and our members, we’ll come out stronger and more respected in the end. WPWA is the voice of the watershed. If we don’t speak up when things have gone wrong, we now have cause to ask, who will?