Thursday, 21 Feb 2002

HOPE VALLEY, R.I.

Well, today is “the day after,” and here I am dealing with all the backlash from yesterday’s news release. As it turns out, the story focused on WPWA’s criticism of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for not informing the public about a wastewater spill in a popular recreation area.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s entry, here’s the quick recap: When WPWA was initially informed by RIDEM about the wastewater release, the message included a line alerting us to the possibility of calls from the media. From this I understood that RIDEM had made, or would be making, a statement to the press, which would likely lead to inquiries directed to WPWA.

Several days later, when I still hadn’t seen any mention of the incident in the local newspapers, I contacted one paper to complain about the apparent lack of interest in the story. Turns out the paper never got a statement from RIDEM — so now I’m a whistleblower. In a conversation with a second reporter who picked up the story, I made a comment about being surprised that RIDEM would not release this information, particularly since the spill occurred in an area where the department actively promotes fishing.

Next day’s story: “Dye spill into Wood River raises questions, criticisms.” The spill itself is no longer the main theme here, but rather one agency criticizing another.

But that’s okay. I think it’s perfectly fair, and quite healthy, to disagree with RIDEM publicly, if you’re a watershed organization with a constituency of members and non-members counting on you to be “the voice of the resource.” And that goes double when the criticism stems from an incident that is part of a recurring situation at a plant with a history of violations.

Today, three different homeowners contacted WPWA to voice their personal concerns about the company responsible for the wastewater release. They talked about odor problems dating back over 20 years, and an identical situation to the present one involving a breach in the wall of one of the company’s other lagoons. These people certainly want to be informed about violations for which this company is responsible. And they are pleased with the attention we have brought to the incident. For the grassroots model to work effectively, our masters have to be our members and the general public.

Now comes the call for “better communication” between RIDEM and the watershed association to alleviate these conflicts in the future. Better communication is a good thing, I agree. But it’s not a cure for disagreement, which, from time to time, can be healthy and productive — not to mention inevitable.