Johnston facility receives state's largest Clean Air Act penalty

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Attorney General Peter Neronha and Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit announced Wednesday morning that SIMS Metal Management received the state’s largest penalty ever – fines totaling up to $2 million – for Clean Air Act violations at its Johnston facility on Green Earth Avenue.

The release states that SMM New England Corporation agreed to “install equipment to control the release of pollution that may be linked to cancer and severe respiratory illnesses.” SMMNEC must pay an initial total of $875,000 – disbursed in decreasing quantities to the state, the communities of Johnston and Providence and the Port of Providence facility.

The release says that, if the conditions set forth in the consent judgment are not met, SMMNEC faces an additional $1.125 million in penalties.

“DEM is pleased with the settlement reached in this important case, and that our collective efforts with the Attorney General and the Environmental Protection Agency will result in the company coming into compliance with Rhode Island's Clean Air Act,” Coit said via the release. “This negotiated settlement would not have been possible without the company's cooperation and its commitment to take responsibility for its actions.”

The release notes that SMMNEC agreed to install “state-of-the-art emission control technology” to prevent more pollution and that, when the shredder in question is restarted, interim controls will be instituted to prevent exposure to the surrounding area.

“The bottom line is, we are not requiring that SMMNEC do anything beyond what they should be doing,” Neronha said. “Enforcing compliance with Rhode Island’s environmental laws isn’t anti-business. It preserves Rhode Islanders’ health, protects the state’s natural beauty – one of our greatest assets – and levels the playing field for those businesses that do make the necessary investments in pollution control technology and follow the rules.”

Former Town Council representative Richard DelFino III told the Sun Rise that, during his tenure from 2015 to 2019, the council invited Sims on several occasions to discuss residents’ concerns.

“It certainly solidified everything that people in that neighborhood were saying in regards to what was going on at Sims,” DelFino said on a phone call Wednesday. “This was an issue that was ongoing and we had them before the council on a number of changes in an effort to reduce the issues.”

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its first notice of violation in 2018, stating that SMMNEC had not applied for or obtained a permit for metal shredding operations and had not taken proper precautions to control volatile organic compound, or VOC, emissions. The state accused Sims of operating the shredder without a permit since 2013.

SMMNEC received both a notice of intent to enforce and a 60-day notice letter in August 2019. The former said that employees from nearby Ballard Truck Center complained to DEM that they were “getting choked out from the smoke.” An inspector studied the facility from Ballard and noticed that for the entire 90-minute duration, white smoke poured from the shredder, calling it a “constant plume.”

“The truck bays at Ballard were open and a visible haze, observed by DEM’s inspector in the garage bays, was migrating towards Scituate Avenue,” the letter reads. “DEM’s inspector reported that she experienced eye and respiratory irritation from the air-borne particulate matter from the Facility and when she arrived home, she washed her hands, but still had a distinct metallic odor, which required her to shower and change her clothes.”

A few more inspections and complaints throughout July yielded similar findings. Neronha, RIDEM and the EPA “have been working diligently to craft a favorable resolution” to avoid “protracted litigation.”

“For too long, SMMNEC has not met its obligation to the people of Rhode Island to protect public health and the environment and keep harmful pollutants out of the air we breathe,” Neronha said. “SMMNEC’s operations in Johnston put Rhode Islanders at risk with uncontrolled emissions of dangerous, airborne substances.”

According to the release, the facility mostly disposes of “end-of-life automobiles, appliances and other light gauge recyclable metal-bearing materials.” In addition to VOCs, the shredder emits particulate matter, or PM, and toxic air contaminants, or TACs.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency applauds the hard work and close coordination it took to achieve this important consent judgment, and we are impressed that it has resulted in the largest Clean Air Act penalty in Rhode Island history,” Dennis Deziel, regional administrator of EPA’s Region 1 office, said via the release. “This legal action will result in significant air quality improvements in Johnston. This is good news that will help ensure cleaner, healthier air for citizens in this area.”

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