The City Council made it clear Monday that Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC) proposals to mitigate wetland alterations from runway improvements are “not enough” and that the airport needs to take additional measures to avert flooding and to improve Buckeye Brook water quality.
Yet the council voted not to impede Department of Environmental Management (DEM) review of the RIAC wetlands petition, which seemingly enables the agency to meet its ambitious schedule of airport improvements and expansion.
Over the course of more than two hours, RIAC President and CEO Kelly Fredericks and consultant Jeff Peterson outlined the proposed wetlands alterations, which were followed by council questions and public comment.
In contrast to many airport hearings in prior years, rhetoric was at a minimum and efforts to resolve issues were at the forefront.
RIAC is seeking approval to extend the safety area to the west end of the shorter of Green’s two runways. Much of the work at the east end of the runway, including the removal of a hangar and tower, were completed last year. This July, RIAC intends to comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements by filling less than three acres of Buckeye Brook wetlands to extend the roll-off area at the other end of the runway. To gain DEM approval, RIAC must take steps to offset the loss of wetlands that causes.
“Is that enough?” Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson asked, after RIAC outlined plans to replace the Lake Shore Drive culvert, reunite 30 acres of wildlife habitat and create additional wetlands by removing fill near the brook.
Top on the list of council concerns, although it is not part of the wetlands petition, is the former Truk Away Landfill, which borders the brook but was never properly capped after being bought by the state. While the larger box culvert on Lake Shore Drive will enhance the passage of spawning herring and other wildlife, Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said it would do nothing to reduce flooding of the road. He suggested elevating the roadbed. Additionally, Merolla questioned if the re-establishment of wetlands at the end of the runway would attract wildlife.
“Are we going to have Bambi running across the runway?” he asked.
Peterson said the wetlands would be planted with low shrubs to discourage waterfowl from the area and that the runway would be fenced off.
The landfill that the state bought, and closed because it attracted seagulls, was the biggest and potentially most costly of the issues raised.
“We don’t know how far it is leaching out. If we don’t know what’s broken, then how is it going to be fixed?” asked Merolla. He suggested borings needed to be made and the extent of what it is polluting be established.
“That needs to be addressed by RIAC and DEM,” he said.
The landfill is not part of the wetlands application and, technically, RIAC isn’t compelled to do anything about it at this time.
“The threshold is the floor, not the ceiling,” said Vella-Wilkinson Tuesday. “It doesn’t mean they [RIAC] can’t go beyond that.”
Fredericks said Tuesday he is appreciative of the thorough review of the RIAC petition and, at this point, RIAC is meeting what is required by DEM. He said RIAC wants to partner with the city. At this time, funds are not budgeted for a study of the landfill or to have it capped.
“We’ll continue to look at ways to assist,” said Fredericks.
Vella-Wilkinson has docketed a resolution calling for a state study of the landfill that she hopes RIAC will support.
Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur listed the landfill, Lake Shore Drive flooding, the need for monitoring wetland alterations after they are made and improvements that could be made to the brook watershed – many of the provisions raised by City Planner William DePasquale.
“What is being presented to us now doesn’t correct the problem,” he said. Ladouceur added, “The intent is not to stop [the runway safety improvements], but to get it right the first time.”
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, voiced support of the project, saying the success of Green Airport is critical to the state’s economy.
Representing the Buckeye Brook Coalition, Michael Zarum said the group agrees that more analysis is needed before City Council or DEM approval.
“I understand that compromise is part of the process,” said coalition president Paul Earnshaw. “There is still work to be done. The BBC doesn’t approve of passage of this. The city is handing over the key to open Pandora’s box.”
Michelle Komar said the city has been sold a bill of goods in that RIAC is “taking credit for [correcting] past ills.”
An environmental advocate, Komar argued the proposed mitigation isn’t enough and that, because airports and wildlife don’t coexist, additional improvements should be made elsewhere within the brook’s system.
On a motion made by Vella-Wilkinson, the council approved a resolution enabling RIAC’s petition to proceed to DEM review without an up or down vote from the council but listing the issues raised.
“DEM has the power to say it’s not enough,” said DePasquale. He hopes the plan reverses some of the degradation caused by airport development and if that can be achieved, “we’re better off than with nothing.”