Smart meters and stakeholder engagement


You may have missed it last week, but there was an excellent piece on the opposition to smart meters in California in the New York Times.  PG&E has installed 7 million smart meters in California since 2006; they transmit real time data on consumers’ electricity use to the utility, helping them to allocate power more efficiently.  The goal is to give consumers information about how they use power, and incentivize them to use less of it.  However, opposition to the smart meters comes largely from two different constituencies: Tea Party conservatives and consumers afraid of EMF.  Initially, you may remember, opposition to smart meters came when electricity bills increased; critics first charged that the meters were inaccurate, but it soon became apparent that the old meters were undercharging.  Now, opposition from Tea Party conservatives to smart meters is predictable; doubtlessly PG&E is just the latest Big Brother out to destroy their lives.  However, the anti-EMF opponents are a constituency that PG&E can work with, and should have worked with.  After all, it would be easy enough to find a way to connect these meters to broadband lines.

However, if we step back and examine this problem, a lot of the fuss comes down to stakeholder engagement.  Both Santa Cruz and Marin Counties put up obstacles to these meters because PG&E did not effectively engage with them beforehand.  Ultimately, we are going to have difficulties adapting to our warming climate; as we make policy changes, it will be more important than ever to properly engage and address concerns before and during rollout.  Unanimous consent is probably an unrealistic goal, but acknowledging and working with people is a must.

Stakeholder engagement at a Brownfield site

The plaza, formerly anchored by a Stop & Shop, which hastily closed in 2006.

Last year I moved to Cranston, RI, to live with my mother-in-law, while my wife and I looked for a house.  Until yesterday, I had no idea that just over one mile away, just across the city line, a heavily contaminated, 37-acre plot of land was being developed by the City of Providence.  The site, formerly a Gorham Manufacturing Co. Silver Plant, is in tough shape, and the community that lives around it, in an area called the Reservoir Triangle, is currently in a stakeholder engagement over the remediation and development on the site.

Alvarez High School, built on brownfield, formerly Gorham Manuf.

Last week, most of the residents invited representatives from the City of Providence, the RI Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM), and Textron, Inc. to a meeting at Alvarez High School, which was hastily built on a parcel of the site a few years ago.  Textron, Inc. bought the silver manufacturing plant in 1967, and later sold it to a Private Equity Group.  After a few attempts at development a second Equity owner went bankrupt and the City of Providence foreclosed on the property in 1990.

The development has four parcels.  Alvarez High School was built on one, without the necessary approval of remediation by RIDEM.  On the second parcel, a retail plaza was built, featuring a Stop & Shop store as its anchor tenant; Stop & Shop hastily closed the store in 2006, without public comment, but apparently because of issues with VOC in the soil below.  The other two parcels surround a cove that Gorham used to dump waste from its operations.  Chemical solvents like trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), which were used to clean machine parts, seeped into the land and the cove.  The cove, part of Mashapaug Pond, shows high levels of heavy metals such as lead and compounds such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, making it unsafe to eat fish from the pond, swim or come into direct contact with the water or soil at the bottom of the pond.

The residents are working with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, and the recent meeting followed two years of silence from the responsible parties.  In fact, in April 2008 the residents sent a letter to Mantec Engineering and Consulting, which represents Textron, and complained that the remediation plans were insufficient.  The following paragraph about the former Stop & Shop Complex reflects the nature of the dialogue:

“This Super Stop & Shop facility… has been abandoned since October of 2006.  Since neither the City of Providence, the landlord, nor Kimco Realty Trust, the present lease holder, or Stop & Shop Corporation, the previous tenant have made any effort to inform the community and the public as to the disposition of the property, we will assume the indoor air conditions at the facility have been a health risk since its opening in 2006, and continue to be an issue of major concern since the store has not been reopened, having been hastily abandoned by Stop & Shop in late 2006 without warning.  Apparently the building cannot be used (even for commercial purposes) until remediation has been implemented and completed.  Remediation which Mantec and Textron Inc aggressively insisted was unnecessary and unwarranted three short years ago.”

The fence is broken and unlabeled, entering onto the brownfield.

At last weeks meeting, the residents apparently subjected the representatives to what reporter Frank Carini described as an “interrogation.” The land next to the high school has not been remediated, and uncovered debris sits only 20 yards away, separated only by a chain link fence.  No signs exist to warn neighbors to remain away from the contaminated land.  After looking at the history of documents, this case reminds me of other cases in New England where old manufacturing facilities are hesitant to accept blame and remediate after decades old pollution and its after-effects are discovered.  Textron appears to have been evasive with local residents.

The planned developments on the former site reek of poor planning.  The YMCA owns one of the parcels, and had planned to develop it until it remained unremediated; now there are tentative plans to build some ball fields for the high school.  As of now, the high school is still in use, but the retail development is mostly abandoned. The only remediation that has occurred in fact, was court ordered removal of a slag pile from the Pond.  The one part of the communication that stands out to me is the sophistication of the resident group, together with the EJLRI staff.  They are doing everything they can to hold Textron’s feet to the fire.  A Brownfield development specialist recommended the site as a Superfund candidate, and that is probably an appropriate solution.