Morley Field advocates celebrate a big win, but the battle for environmental justice in Pawtucket is not over
The Administration of Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien wants to pave over the only greenspace in the Woodlawn neighborhood to make a parking lot...
A meeting scheduled for Thursday night to discuss a proposed Targeted Brownfields Assessment for Pawtucket’s Morley Field was canceled by Terrence Gray, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) hours before it was to occur. Also on Thursday morning Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien called Director Gray to request the meeting be rescheduled as well.
You can view my previous reporting on Morley Field here.
In February the Pawtucket City Council approved a 20-year tax stabilization agreement for JK Equity, doing business as Blackstone Distribution Center LLC, the company that is seeking to pave over Morley Field, the Woodlawn neighborhood’s only public greenspace, for a parking lot. Tax stabilization agreements are essentially large tax breaks handed out to wealthy developers by cities and towns in exchange for economic developments that too often do not materialize.
Further complicating the story, the sale of Morley Field has brought charges of environmental racism. Morley Field is the the only greenspace in Pawtucket’s District 5, a neighborhood encompassing the Woodlawn neighborhood (just north of Providence, along I-95, west of Pawtucket Ave.), which is approximately 74% people of color with 59% of people living at or below the poverty rate. 29% of the population are children. Woodlawn is a working-class neighborhood where most people live in triple-deckers or multifamily units, often with no backyard.
In his release to the public about the cancellation of the meeting, Director Gray wrote:
I was out of the office earlier this week and came back to hear about some changes in circumstances that require us to postpone tonight’s scheduled meeting on Morley Field once again.
The major development we heard was that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rescinded its’ offer to the City of Pawtucket to fund a Targeted Brownfields Assessment at the site and directed the City to reapply, with the intent of correcting some issues on the application. This was the funding that the City was using to pay for the site investigation so the timing of the investigation is now uncertain.
We have also not yet received a conversion plan for the site from the City, which is required in order to transition the property from recreation use to other use. This is required as a condition of historical funding provided from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Since the clean up plan will need to be dependent on future use of the property, it will either have to be designed to support future recreational use or designed in concert with an approvable conversion plan.
Finally, according to the DEM regulation the responsible party (in this case, the City, as owner of the site) is required to schedule and conduct a public meeting on the investigation of a site proposed for recreational use. The City has also requested a postponement of tonight’s meeting in order to effectively meet that obligation.
I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused but, as you know, there are multiple issues involved in this case and DEM wants to make sure that measures are put in place where all the expected questions and comments from the community can be addressed.
The Pizza Party
Seeing the meeting’s cancelation as a win, advocates for Morley Field gathered in Pawtucket’s Payne Park to hold a celebratory pizza party.
“I just want to talk a little bit about why the meeting was canceled and what we can continue to do to support Morley Field staying an athletic recreational field,” said Pawtucket resident and artist Anastasia Azure, who used to do Qigong in Morley Field before the city closed the park. She now helps organize Morely Field advocates. “The meeting tonight was to discuss a brownfield targeted application that the city of Pawtucket applied for through the Rhode Island DEM, to the EPA. Essentially, Pawtucket was trying to get a portion of Morley Field remediated. However, Morley Field is an entire five-acre field. The EPA found out that the city was trying to split the field and they told DEM that it was not okay for the meeting to proceed and that the application needed to be filled out properly by the city of Pawtucket when it was time to remediate the entire field.”
So what can we do next to keep the pressure on? We have resources available to us at the EPA, the National Park Services, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and the City of Pawtucket. There are all these people that care, at all these different levels. It's a matter of making the right connections and sharing information so that we can have soccer games and play and have fun Qigong classes at Morley Field.
Right now, we are going to organize putting pressure on the DEM so that they enforce the Land Water Conservation Fund. Presently, the city of Pawtucket is in violation because they have denied public access to the field since June, 2022. And they also sold a quarter acre of Morley Field in 2017. They are responsible for that quarter acre that got sold. They need to replace it and do something with the replacement of a quarter acre. That has to happen.
And they need to open Morley Field. DEM is responsible. They have an enforcement obligation, as stewards of the Land Water Conservation Fund, to force the city of Pawtucket to take immediate corrective action. We need to support DEM to get them to take the right action, to have the city take the right action, and to make this an amazing recreational area. The other thing we can be doing as a community is supporting the city in applying for an outdoor recreation grant. The funding opens this fall so that there can be public access to the Moshassuck River and that the existing recreational trail between Moshassuck Street and Greenville Street can be opened and accessible.
We can help, with our public support, to encourage the City of Pawtucket to apply for an outdoor recreation grant that will allow for public access to the recreational trails at the Moshassuck River.
Congressional District One candidates Ana Quezada and Aaron Regunberg both attended the pizza party. Fellow candidates and Pawtucket residents Gabe Amo and Sandra Cano were notably absent. I spoke to Sandra Cano about Morley Field earlier in the day. (See below)
I spoke to Director Gray via Zoom on Thursday afternoon to clarify what happened.
Terrence Gray: I managed to take a couple of days off at the beginning of this week, and I came back to a giant wave of stuff.
Steve Ahlquist: That’s the way it works. It was waiting for you.
Terrence Gray: Yep, exactly.
Steve Ahlquist: I'm trying to figure out this brownfield assessment as it applies to at least one-half of Morley Field. I hear the term brownfield a lot, but given that this is a brownfield assessment, is Morley Field a brownfield or is it being assessed to see whether it is a brownfield or not? You know what I'm saying?
Terrence Gray: So I don't know the deep details on this, but my understanding is that there have been some contaminants found on the site and they're not at really high levels where there's a high level of concern of exposure. The city applied for what's known as a targeted brownfields assessment to dig in deeper and figure out the nature and extent of everything, so they could then come up with a cleanup plan.
The thing that's tricky with that is that a cleanup plan usually has to involve what the future use of the property is, right? So you're either cleaning up, in this case, a recreational scenario which is almost unrestricted use, or you can clean up to a commercial industrial level which has higher standards and less exposure. Our point is that because the city has not submitted a conversion plan for Morley Field, it's recreational use. Our position is that any kind of cleanup plan needs to be designed to be consistent with that use. If they're starting to sort of prejudge the outcome of a conversion plan and make the remediation basically half recreation and half commercial, then we're not there yet. That's not supported at this time.
Steve Ahlquist: You came back to work this morning after a few days off and you looked at what was going on and found out that the Environmental Protection Agency has rescinded its offer based on an incorrect or incomplete application.
Terrence Gray: Yes. There were a couple of things that weren't correct in the application. I don't know exactly what the details are, but I was told by staff that the City needs to resubmit if they still want this targeted brownfields assessment money and they need to correct the facts in terms of the application itself. But I don't know exactly what the deficiencies were.
Steve Ahlquist: My other question is a matter of timing and it's not super important, but it does have an effect on some other stuff I'm working on. You came in this morning and canceled Thursday's Morley Field meeting, but you noted in your press release that the City had also requested a postponement to meet their obligation effectively. In what order were those two requests to cancel made? Did you do it first and then the City asked for a cancelation too, or did you decide to cancel, and separately receive a cancelation request from the City?
Terrence Gray: We're unpacking minutes of my morning.
Steve Ahlquist: I know, and I'm sorry to ask this question.
Terrence Gray: This is how it played out. The first thing is I came back and I'm going through hundreds of emails, so I'm not paying attention to anything. Susan Forcier, RIDEM's deputy director talked to me and said, “We've got this issue coming up with Morley Field where Rachel Simpson is the only one that's going to be able to attend this meeting tonight." Rachel is the project manager who deals with cleanup issues. She has no idea what the conversion process is and what the city needs to do. Then Susan told me that she wasn't sure if anybody from the city was going to the meeting either. I was like, "Well, that doesn't sound kosher, to put one person out there.” We know that the community is concerned about the conversion of the site and there are still concerns about the cleanup, but the primary thing is the use of the property.
I also had a message on my phone from Mayor Grebien. I called him back and he wanted to know whether or not there was going to be a facilitator at the meeting or if it was just going to be Rachel and whether or not there could be more time so they could straighten out the CPA thing and complete their conversion application.
The big thing I told him is, "Look, the only way this stuff makes sense and is logical is if we have the conversion application first, and then we're orienting cleanup plans based on the future use of the site, whatever that is. Otherwise, it looks like we're predetermining the outcome of the conversion plan by approving a cleanup plan that dictates that half of the site is going to be used for commercial/industrial. That's not a predetermined outcome. So we had to put the cards back in order in a way. Then it didn't make sense to have the meeting tonight based on all these things that were up in the air right now. People who spent time going to that meeting were not going to get the answers that they were looking for.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay. Yeah, the people planning on attending the meeting are going to be at the park across the street for a pizza party and celebration this evening, so the meeting cancellation sounds like a positive thing from the point of view of people wanting to preserve Morley Field.
Terrence Gray: I didn't want to waste people's time with a meeting and raise expectations that they're going to get some real information when the truth of the matter is they're not going to get their questions answered.
Steve Ahlquist: That makes sense. The reason I was asking about the order is because yesterday I was asking questions about Morley Field, and when the meeting was suddenly canceled, it felt like maybe my questions motivated people to cancel the meeting. This was one of those instances where the timing felt a little weird.
Terrence Gray: To be honest with you, whether Pawtucket wanted or didn't want the meeting wasn't really that relevant. The fact of the matter is we didn't have the information that we needed to hold an effective public meeting and answer people's questions. That's the bottom line.
I wanted to respond to the advocates myself and let them know I am taking this conversion issue seriously. There's no predetermined outcome here. This is an uphill battle for the City. When the National Park Service set up these processes, they were meant to discourage people from moving away from land that the government has invested in for recreational purposes. There is a process, and we will work with the city if they apply that process, but it's not going to be easy.
The next step for the City of Pawtucket, if they want to continue with their plans to pave Morley Field into a parking lot, is to file a conversion application with the National Parks Service. When Morley Field was first created, the City applied for a received federal funding to help finance the park. Under the terms of the grant, Morley Field cannot be sold or converted to another use without the City providing equivalent or better greenspace for the Woodlawn neighborhood. By the City’s admission, there is no such space available. The fact that Woodlawn is a textbook example of an environmental justice community adds to the complexities and makes it even more unlikely that the National Parks Service will approve the City’s application.
As Director Gray said above, “When the National Park Service set up these processes, they were meant to discourage people from moving away from land that the government has invested in for recreational purposes. There is a process, and we will work with the city if they apply that process, but it's not going to be easy.”
According to Pawtucket City Councilmember Clovis Gregor, who represents the Woodlawn neighborhood where Morely Field is located, DEM has been derelict in its duty to hold the City of Pawtucket accountable to federally funded parkland in the city. Councilmember Gregor wrote a letter to DEM outlining the deficiencies and irregularities in the Grebien Administration’s pursuit of paving over Morely Field. You can read the full letter here.
“What they've been doing here is a quintessential example of environmental injustice,” said Councilmember Gregor to those at the pizza party. “Part of what we've discovered is that they sold a quarter acre of Morley Field.
“Newell Avenue Park, which is also in this district and for the kids, was dismantled and left there to rot. That's also a protected Land and Water Conservation Fund [LWCF] site and they're not supposed to do that. Also, part of McCoy Stadium, what was called the McCoy Annex, had two recreational fields over there. What they did was just turn 'em into parking lots, just like that.”
State Senator Sandra Cano (Democrat, District 8, Pawtucket) is a candidate for the Congressional District One special election who has been on leave from her job as Pawtucket’s Director of Commerce, first for maternity and then while she is running for higher office. [An earlier version of this story did not mention the maternity leave, it has been corrected after Senator Cano’s campaign manager contacted me.]
Steve Ahlquist: I want to get your thoughts on the situation in Pawtucket with Morley Field, which I'm pretty sure you're familiar with.
Sandra Cano: Yes, I'm familiar with it. I want to start by saying to you, as an employee of the City of Pawtucket, that I haven't been involved in that and I have been on an unpaid leave of absence. I want to make sure that whatever I say, I say as a civilian, as a legislator, but not as an employee of the City of Pawtucket. Is that fair?
Steve Ahlquist: Yeah.
Sandra Cano: First of all, because I am on unpaid leave I wasn't involved at all. So I don't have any data or intel or anything like that comes to the city as my job. I want to make sure that that is a differentiator and I'm talking to you as a person, as a civilian, and as a legislator.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay, so, what are your thoughts on Morley Field then?
Sandra Cano: I've been speaking to a lot of people about this in my run for Congress. I think that the disparities of low-income communities have deficiencies, in green spaces. It could impact human health and I believe it's an equity issue. As a legislator, I was the co-sponsor of the Environmental Justice Act just to make sure I put my views as a legislator on issues like this out there. Unfortunately, this situation requires, to my understanding, some mitigation of brownfields and we need funding. I would fight for open space grants and meet their obligation effectively if elected to Congress. And as a legislator, to be honest with you, we need to make sure that the cities that are the most impacted get the funding necessary to mitigate this type of problem. That is been my legislative position, and it will continue to be.
Steve Ahlquist: Can I specifically ask about Morley Field? It's in your district and it is an environmental justice issue.
Sandra Cano: It's not my district. I want to make it clear that it's not in my district.
Steve Ahlquist: I meant by CD One.
Sandra Cano: Oh, gotcha. Yes.
Steve Ahlquist: Sorry about that, I should have been more clear. It's in CD one and it's in a community that has no other green space. Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien has been a supporter of yours. He endorsed you for this race and has been pretty direct in ignoring the community and saying that he's going to pave Morley Field into a parking lot. And his administration has not been doing anything in terms of environmental justice for that community at all. So are you in favor? Is that something you support? Do you think that Mayor Grebien's actions and his administration's actions have been good?
Sandra Cano: I'm not going to speak for the administration, but I'm going to address the comment that you asked about. He has endorsed my campaign and I'm going to answer that the same way that I've been answering all the comments about people across the district that have endorsed my campaign that may not align with things that I believe in. I think I could agree to disagree on many issues with the mayor, but that doesn't reflect this endorsement. I want to make sure that you know that Morley Field is one problem and one issue. So I want to make sure that I address that in the best way possible. I could disagree with the mayor, but that is not a reflection of my relationship with him, of what is happening. I think that every time we have the opportunity for funding availability, through the competitive grant process, that would be helpful to disadvantaged communities that have fewer resources to apply for and manage federal grants. I must take that experience, knowing firsthand what is happening in my community. In a perfect world, we would not be in this situation. I think that there needs to be more funding to mitigate issues like brownfields across the state. We need to advance policies that directly empower communities to do a better job at recognizing that there are challenges when it comes to funding and maybe the federal system could do two things to address that.
I've done my research. They have a large set of direct grants for priority issues, and these are grants that get allocated to states and municipalities based on population or other criteria, that help to limit the application process. We need to do that for communities such as Pawtucket, Providence, Woonsocket, and Central Falls, communities that need green space. Those are the communities where there needs to be more equity in terms of that.
Steve Ahlquist: Well, just to be clear, as far as I know, the lots we're talking about that constitute Morley Field are not brownfields. Or at least they have never been officially certified as brownfields. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management just this morning put out a press release saying there were serious deficiencies in Pawtucket's application for brownfield remediation because the city hasn't made its case and the application was incomplete and out of order. So it's not a brownfield we're talking about.
Sandra Cano: Okay. I mean, you might know more than I would, like I said, I am removed from that conversation. What I'm trying to say is that regardless of whether this is a specific situation of a brownfield, this happens across the state, and my job if elected to Congress will be to make sure that I advocate for the equality of niche issues. I understand that green space is not a luxury. Green space is an equity investment. For me, that's it. I know that there are communities that have budgetary challenges around even educating the community about doing the right thing when it comes to our environment.
Steve Ahlquist: I think that's true, but I also think that the field in question has been underfunded by the city, ignored by the city, and intentionally left to rot by the city while other green spaces in the same city, located in more well-to-do communities have been getting the funding they need to keep them up. So if there are problems at Morley Field, a lot of that has to do with neglect by the city.
Sandra Cano: I understand your point of view and I am not contesting it.
Steve Ahlquist: I have what seems to be a related issue. I know that people have addressed this issue online, but I want to bring it up anyway. About a year and a half ago, there was a vote in the Senate on so-called plastic recycling plants that the Senate passed and the House didn't. It was an 18 to 13 vote. Five people were not in a room when the vote was made and you were one of the five people who did not vote either way on that issue. The reason I bring it up is because just like you've been relatively silent on Morley Field, you've also been silent on this issue. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio was very interested in passing this bill and a lot of Senators were conveniently out of the room when it passed.
[Like Mayor Grebien, Senate President Ruggerio is endorsing Sandra Cano.]
Steve Ahlquist: I don't want to use the term taking a walk because I think it has connotations and meanings that people will debate endlessly about what it means to take a walk or not, but this seems to show a pattern on your part of environmental issues taking a backseat to political issues when it is convenient for [present and] future political allies. Do you understand where I'm going with that? I'm trying to phrase this delicately. I'm not trying to make an accusation here.
Sandra Cano: That's okay. Listen, I don't take this question personally. I am only going to tell the truth about what happened. So two things. I don't like to address things that are done for political reasons and whatever was addressed online the other day, I just let people who know what happened discuss it, because I don't feel like I need to defend myself for something that I know I never did.
I am elected to take votes on legislation. And to your point, I'm not going to take a walk. On that day there were a couple that weren't there because of previous commitments and the session went extremely long that day. I had a very important meeting that day, a work meeting scheduled previous to the Senate agenda. As you know, people do work. I had to work and meet with the office.
If I wasn't there for that moment, it was because the General Assembly took a long time. I wanted to make sure I was there to vote on that legislation and I knew there were going to be amendments. I had committed to understanding those amendments to make sure that the right thing was done. Unfortunately, they took too long. In some cases, when you go back, they do research versus adjourning the session. Unfortunately, that day, they adjourned the session. I know, for example, that Senator Val Lawson and I both were frustrated because she had a fundraiser and I had a work commitment.
That being said, it's very unfair that people don't know the full story. That's why I am okay that there were people who defended me on that post and said what had happened that day. It was factual. It was true. I committed. And if it wasn't for that, Steve, I wouldn't have gotten the endorsement the following year from the climate organizations that know and can count on me. I am not afraid to speak. If I was that person, I wouldn't have been the sponsor of the Act on Climate and the Environmental Justice Act.
Steve Ahlquist: Okay, thank you. I also wanted to let you know that tonight's meeting on Morley Field was canceled tonight by RIDEM.
Sandra Cano: I didn't know that.
Steve Ahlquist: I just found that out about an hour ago. I know why DEM says they canceled it, but I also know that separately from the DEM canceling the meeting, the City of Pawtucket also requested the meeting be canceled.
I'm a suspicious guy. Once I started asking questions about Morley Field, suddenly the meeting was canceled. It felt related. I know everything isn't connected and everything doesn't revolve around me, but the meeting had been rescheduled twice before, I believe. I was told by the City, RIDEM, and by advocates that this was going to happen. Then I asked one question yesterday and suddenly it was canceled. Which felt weird.
Sandra Cano: So who do you have the question to?
Steve Ahlquist: I'm just saying it out loud. It just felt weird. You're saying that you just found out and I take your word on that.
Sandra Cano: Thank you for that. I did not have an idea. If that was any issue with me, I wouldn't have even tried to talk to you. But I don't have a reason not to. I always respond to the press every time that they want.
Steve Ahlquist: You've always been responsive to me and I appreciate that. Thank you.