PODCASTEnvironmentally Speaking EP 20: Oil Spills

January 2, 20220

Transcript: Oil Spills

CLARICE: Hello, everybody. Welcome to Environmentally Speaking.MARISA: Hello, everyone. I am Marisa Desautel an environmental attorney with a few decades of experience.

CLARICE: And I’m Clarice coming in with your topics, questions, and anything else relevant going on in the environmental world. Today we were going to touch on this topic as kind of a mini topic just to kick us off, but given the severity, the nature of it, we felt it was a little bit too important just to be like a mini topic. We’re going to dive right into it and focus on it for today’s episode.

MARISA: Let’s do it.

CLARICE: What we’re talking about today is the Seekonk River oil spill. So that’s something that’s, you know, relatively close to both Marisa and I. It’s affecting Pawtucket. It’s obviously affecting parts of Massachusetts. So we’re going to talk a little bit about that as well as kind of the natural disaster impact and natural resource damages. Do you want to talk a little bit about what’s going on in Pawtucket? Do we want to go into the general scope of natural resource damages? Which do you think?


CLARICE: Yes to all of them.

MARISA: Yes. And I would also just like to start with the fact that for a moment I forgot there was video and so I just lunged at the phone for some reason which is recording me. And I’m not sure if this video is going to end up posting anywhere, but sorry for inundating the screen with my giant head. So, yeah. The oil spill that Clarice is referencing occurred on December 2nd from a property located in Pawtucket known as the Tidewater Landing project. It’s actually the second spill in the past month for this particular location. And the issue here is that there was something called a cap on the property, c-a-p, which is just a term to explain what the industry – the environment remediation industry will put into place as an engineer to control for a contaminated site.

If you’ve got contaminated soil as a property and the state determines that it can remain in place so long as it’s not disturbed, companies usually go for that type of remediation because it’s the cheapest alternative as opposed to having to remove all of the soil and have it hauled to a particular location for disposal. There was a cap or there is a cap at this Tidewater Landing project in Pawtucket. As part of the ongoing remediation for the site, the property owner in this case National Grid was attempting to install a permanent cap. It looks like the hard cap that was put in place in 2009 was meant to be temporary, so they were coming in to install a permanent hard cap. And as part of that undertaking, they disturbed soil under the temporary cap and that’s what made its way into the Seekonk River.

[0:03:25] CLARICE: So when our listeners envision this cap, I’m thinking since it’s a section of soil that can’t be disturbed and can’t be touched, is this cap like a cover and it’s just kind of sealing off that soil to make sure nobody’s touching it, nobody’s tracking it to other places?

MARISA: Exactly.

CLARICE: It’s almost quarantining it.

MARISA: That’s exactly right.


MARISA: Yeah. And there’s different types of caps depending on which state you’re in and which technologies are approved. You could have a geosynthetic cap. You could have a –

CLARICE: That sounds fancy.

MARISA: What’s that? It sounds what?

CLARICE: It sounds fancy.

MARISA: Yeah. It is. I mean, it essentially looks like a big piece of trash bag, you know, like the typical black trash bags but a really big trash bag and then laid out flat. Historically, though, caps have been more made of a harder material so concrete or asphalt. And then sometimes they’ll install soil above the cap so grass or some other type of greenery so that you’re not just looking at a giant piece of asphalted land.

CLARICE: Yeah. Just, I mean, for an aesthetic sake alone, now that you’ve got this concrete cap you’re now looking at a field of concrete and it’s just kind of like a useless parking lot.


CLARICE: So if there is a possibility to encourage extra life to grow on it and encourage additional things but clean dirt over it which is a nice little oxymoron for you.


CLARICE: So in this case they were removing the temporary cap. They were putting in a more permanent one. And in that process it sounds like soil and other contaminants got into the river.

MARISA: Yes. And let me be clear that National Grid was not the company that produced the contamination on the site. This is a very old commercial property that was used to – I think it was used to generate coal tar. And I’m just looking at the article here. Yeah. It’s one of Rhode Island’s oldest brownfields and it was previously operated by the Pawtucket gas company. They manufactured coal into gas. And this was back in 1881 that they started that practice, so you can imagine there were no environmental statutes or regulations in effect in 1881.

[0:06:08] CLARICE: I don’t know if they even had statutes.


CLARICE: Just as an overarching –


CLARICE: I mean, kids were working in the field. [inaudible]. No. They were doing great.

MARISA: So it’s the byproducts of the oil gas industrial processes that are making their way into the Seekonk River.

CLARICE: Now that we’ve got this situation where there are contaminants in the river and obviously it’s having an adverse effect on just sort of the natural biome that’s happening in that river, what are some containment and sort of cleanup steps that can be taken?

MARISA: Well, there’s already – because of where National Grid is in the remediation and reuse of this property, they’ve already gone through the state and potentially the federal remediation program, so they have a final remedial objective in place so that the cleanup standards and everything have already been figured out. This is a situation where someone just operationally made a mistake.

CLARICE: That’s a quick turnaround to address this considering it happened December 2nd and we’re now recording on the 16th. I mean, that’s a pretty speedy kind of attention to it. Most times we hear about the government process and everybody jokes about red tape taking a while, so knowing that it’s quicker to start working on this is helpful.

MARISA: Wait. What do you mean?

CLARICE: From my understanding the spill into the river happened on December 2nd and it sounds like they’ve already started taking steps to address that cleanup.

MARISA: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I was referring to the site itself, not the river. The site has been through the programmatic process at DEM and that process won’t be necessarily impacted by the spill. The response action to the spill is what you’re referring to.


MARISA: And that’s, again, programmatic, but that is a separate division at DEM. The emergency response unit would go out and put into place whatever immediate mitigation measures that they can including oil spill booms and materials that they can put in the water to absorb the oil.

CLARICE: And just tons of people with dawn looking for all the ducks, right?

MARISA: Ducks and the gloves and the sad duck.

CLARICE: Oh, God. It’s my favorite commercial.

[0:08:48] MARISA: [inaudible] very upsetting. So the response action would occur as soon as DEM could mobilize really. And then what happens after the fact is something that takes longer. DEM could issue a notice of violation to National Grid. They could also seek something called a natural resource damages claim where under the Superfund statute that we’ve talked about in a previous podcast states are able to assess something called a natural resource damage claim. And that is exactly what it sounds like. You’ve damaged the natural resources of the state. Here’s a dollar value that we’re putting on that. You have to pay it, so couple of options.

But enforcement wise it’s a spill. It’s a release. DEM could also come in and say, you need to put more hay bales around the edge of the cap. You need to put more booms in the water. You need to hire another company to come in and do the construction. So they do have enforcement mechanisms, as well. But if it’s a substantial spill, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but one little drop of oil can make an entire water body covered – well, not covered but, you know, a particular area have a rainbow effect. So if you ever look at a puddle of water or a pothole that’s got water in it and you see a little rainbow, that’s oil. That’s what oil does when it is released into water.

CLARICE: One little drop can affect the whole –


CLARICE: Holy crap.

MARISA: An oil spill is very dramatic because of the immediate impact.

CLARICE: Oh, I think that’s – yeah. I think that’s an awesome perspective because in my mind hearing that if it’s soil that has some oil in it I wasn’t expecting it to cover such a large area, so.

MARISA: Yeah. It’s a pretty big area.

CLARICE: Wow. But like you said, DEM does have an emergency response unit that’s already working on taking steps to kind of contain this as much as possible and begin whatever that cleanup looks like.


CLARICE: It’s not a great situation, but it’s good to know there are fast moving steps to alleviate it and hopefully restore it.

MARISA: Well, yeah. And hopefully there’s no more spills in this area. It’s the second one from that project site. So accidents happened but two of them, I don’t know; it’s not a good look.

CLARICE: Yeah. It’s not safe. People use that river. [inaudible].

MARISA: It’s upsetting.

CLARICE: If you had fishing plans in that river, I don’t know, think of something else.

MARISA: So are you nearby the Seekonk River?

CLARICE: I am. I’m really close to it. I’m about ten, 15 minutes over.


CLARICE: So I’m out of Fall River and the river runs right along the city of Fall River. And any time I want to get over into Somerset or Swansea or even, you know, going further into Seekonk, we cross that river.

[0:12:00] MARISA: Okay.

CLARICE: So it’s something I see pretty frequently and, I mean, in my mind it is a larger more – it’s a bigger body of water, but to hear that one drop of oil can affect a huge surface area –

MARISA: Yeah. It wouldn’t affect the entire river, but, yeah.

CLARICE: It’s still a bummer sentence.

MARISA: Yeah. Yeah.

CLARICE: Well, it’s something to look out for. It’s something we’ll keep our eyes on. And, you know, if there are any more dramatic updates, maybe we’ll do a follow-up episode, or we’ll make sure to keep you guys all posted on it. We don’t have a lot of water. I mean, yeah, the planet is like 97 percent water, but having clean water is becoming more and more rare, so let’s all go be appreciative. All right, everybody. Thank you guys for listening. If you have any questions, comments, things you’d want us to talk about, feel free to reach out on Instagram at Desautel Browning Law or send us an e-mail at Info@DesautelESQ.com. It’s not info. It’s help.

MARISA: It’s not.

CLARICE: Reach out to us at Help@DesautelESQ.com. Only worked there two years. We’ll get there. Have a good week, everybody.


In this episode, we are going to discuss the Seekonk River oil spill. There have been two spills in this area over the past few months and we are going to discuss what happens if you have contaminated soil on a property, we will explain what a C-A-P is, (the environmental remediation industry will put into place as an engineer to control for a contaminated site) and a little history about the site of the spill.

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