PAWTUCKET, R.I. — For the second time in a month, an undetermined amount of thick, coal tar oil spilled into the Seekonk River, contaminating soil and bringing emergency crews to the area Wednesday afternoon.
Officials said a “portion” of oil came from the Tidewater Landing project, breaching the booms that had been set up in the water by National Grid, the property owner of the $400 million site which is being redeveloped into a soccer stadium.
It’s unclear how much oil spilled into the water, but dead fish have washed up onshore and the river’s surface was slick with rainbow-tinted sheen. Crews of workers were seen in wetsuits in the water throughout the afternoon Thursday and local residents reported on social media a strong smell of “oil or diesel.”
There was an oil spill on the Seekonk River in Pawtucket yesterday, possibly related to the construction of the new Soccer Stadium there. Dead fish, oil slicks and the smell of petroleum is strong near the river's edge. @UpriseRI Remediation crews were out. pic.twitter.com/F29VuDuvEf— Steve Ahlquist (@steveahlquist) December 2, 2021
Mike Healey, chief public affairs officer at the state Department of Environmental Management, told the Globe over the phone Thursday night that the first spill this month took place on Nov. 12 when there was “foul weather,” which breached the boom designed to keep the oil at bay. National Grid, which is the responsible party, was not found at fault, but DEM told the company it would likely have bring in stronger booms. Healey said the boom that was on the site during the first spill was “not adequate.”
Before this month, the last oil spill from that area was October 2009.
Then, right before noon on Wednesday, Healey said workers “disturbed” the soil that had been underneath a temporary hard cap.
“We know this soil is contaminated,” said Healey. “It’s a recovering urban river. Vegetation is starting to come back. But Pawtucket, just like nearly every other community in Rhode Island, has an industrial legacy. It’s taken a long time to improve.”
National Grid contacted the US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency’s oil spill hotline at the National Response Center, said John Lamontagne, a company spokesman.
“National Grid did exactly what they were supposed to,” said Healey, and confirmed the company will not be fined.
National Grid began working on the Tidewater site in Pawtucket earlier this year. Healey said the Tidewater Landing site was the location of a plant where coal was converted into gas to power electrical plants through the mid-1900s. He said at the time, much of the wasteful material the plant used was discarded on the site and would seep into the soil, contaminating it, due to the lack of environmental standards. And site remediation has been necessary to remove polluted or contaminated soil, sediment, surface water, or groundwater.
“I wish we could tell you how many gallons were spilled. But we don’t know that,” said Healey, and admitted that “any amount could be harmful.”
Unlike crude oil, which sinks, and a gasoline spill, which can disperse quickly and become a dangerous, potential flammable situation, the coal tar oil is a liquid that appears as a “rainbow-colored sheen on the surface of the water,” he said.
The state will send a marine biologist to run tests to confirm if the dead fish seen onshore were due to the spill.
To minimize any future damage, National Grid plans on installing more hard and soft booms, said Healey.
“It is my expectation that National Grid acts swiftly and decisively to contain and clean up this spill to protect the health of people, animals, and the river itself. It is my expectation that National Grid does everything in its power to prevent another unacceptable accident like this,” Senator Meghan Kallman, a Democrat who represents Pawtucket and North Providence, said in a statement.
Emily Rizzo, a spokeswoman in Mayor Donald R. Grebien’s office, confirmed that the city is in touch with National Grid throughout the clean-up phase.