Tiverton residents Gail Corvello, Cynthia Reagon, Lucy Pavao and others are being recognized for their leadership in their effort to clean up hazardous waste in the Bay Street neighborhood. Members of local group Environmental Awareness Committee of Tiverton (ENACT) have been selected from over 100 nominees to receive one of Toxics Action Center’s 25 Years of Victories Awards, according to a recent press release from the center.
Award winners were chosen by a selection committee of distinguished environmental and public health professionals and will be honored at the Environmental Action 2012 conference in Boston on Saturday, March 3. Lois Gibbs of the 1970’s Love Canal toxic cleanup case will hand out the awards and congratulate the winners.
Bay Street's toxic waste was discovered in 2002, when a work crew digging a routine sewer line unearthed blue soil. Residents soon learned that the soil contained arsenic, cyanide, lead and other toxins. Although Southern Union Gas continues to deny any wrongdoing, neighborhood residents as well as investigators from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) believe that the company is responsible for dumping gasified coal waste in the neighborhood as recently as the 1970s.
Over the past eight years, affected residents have essentially been prisoners in their own homes, unable to sell them or get home-equity loans needed to do minor improvements. They can't dig into their yards or gardens and are unable to spend time outdoors without worrying about exposure to contaminated soil and dust.
Corvello and her neighbors formed a citizens group called the ENACT and have been working with Toxics Action Center for a full cleanup of the neighborhood. The center helped connect the group with legal assistance, and over 90 households filed a lawsuit against Southern Union’s local subsidiary, New England Gas Company, to force a cleanup.
The group continued together, stayed involved in the lawsuits and eventually won a big victory when they helped to increase the polluter fines in Rhode Island and made it unprofitable for the polluter to continue ignoring the contamination.
Unfortunately, the cleanup of the actual neighborhood has stagnated due to bankruptcies and more lawsuits.
“Despite [the] yet unfinished cleanup, this local effort deserves the recognition of this award because of the tireless work of Gail and others involved with ENACT,” said Taryn Hallweaver, a community organizer with Toxics Action Center.
“Without the guidance of Toxics Action Center, we never would have accomplished so much,” said Corvello. “The increase in the 'polluters fines bill' and Rhode Island being the first state to establish the ECHO (Environmentally Challenged Home Ownership) Loan Program, so that homeowners have a resource for funds to make major repairs when conventional lending institutions turn them away, are two extremely important accomplishments that we never could have done alone.
"Even though our neighborhood is not yet completely remediated," she added, "we have been able to ensure that other families do not have to face some of the same hurdles we did.”
The 25 Years of Victories awards recognize 25 of the most successful local efforts to clean up or prevent toxic pollution across New England between 1987 and 2012. Those years correspond with the 25 years that Toxics Action Center, an environmental group based in Providence, has been working with neighborhoods and community leaders.