I-Team: Environmental fines in RI dwindle

David Chopy

At the Providence headquarters of Rhode Island's Department of Environmental Management, David Chopy, head of the office of compliance and inspection, defends his agency's dwindling collections of penalties from polluters.

"It's hard to say we lost people so we're issuing fewer fines. It's just not that simple," he said.

It may be complicated, but Chopy admits the fines have plummeted over the past 10 years. Records indicate $1.1 million in fines was collected by the DEM in 2003. It was $439,000 in 2013.

The number of investigators at the DEM is lower too. There were eight in 1993. There are only two now, and both are charged with covering the entire state.

"The landscape is different. The economy has changed. We've lost a lot of our manufacturing base that generated a lot of complaints that our criminal guys used to look at," Chopy said.

The NBC 10 I-Team discovered a dozen, full 55-gallon drums, rusting away in the woods near Weaver's Cove in Portsmouth. The I-Team learned they had been there for at least five years on an old hazardous waste site.

"It's open to the public, though it's private land. Somebody can walk down here, so we want them secure some place," said John Leo, an emergency responder with the DEM.

About 50 discarded laboratory bottles were also discovered by the I-Team at a second site down the road. Some were filled with soil, some were empty. Leo and a representative of the land owner, from Melville Associates, picked up the bottles and debris, which appeared to have been thrown carelessly in the wood line off Burma Road.

NBC 10 was told all the materials will soon be tested for contaminants.

But should they have been spotted earlier?

"The majority of the investigative resources are not focused on hazardous waste or solid waste or water pollution; but rather shellfish, game complaints, licensing, not the environment," said a former state employee, who didn't want to be identified.

The employee, who has 30 years of experience with environmental crimes, pointed the I-Team to other contaminated and hazardous waste sites where the soil still sits.

DEM investigators found high levels of lead in illegally dumped waste on a Tiverton property in 2010 at 691 Brayton Road. State officials say the owner went into bankruptcy which complicated a clean-up. Four years later it remains unresolved but, according to Chopy, an open investigation continues.

In Cumberland, water flows from an auto salvage yard on Curran Road. The company, Advanced Auto Recycling, is owned by auto salvage giant LKQ, based in Chicago.

The dispute there has been an ongoing environmental and legal battle for years.

The DEM has fined the company $2,600. A neighboring land owner has filed suit against the salvage yard and the DEM to compel the agency into action.

"The department doesn't assess fines based on how big the company is. We assess it on what the violation is," Chopy said.

When asked if he thought his department was too lenient on polluters, not holding them accountable, and allowing them to continue to pollute unabated, Chopy said absolutely not.

"Deterrence is part of what we do and we think the fines that we're assessing are a deterrent. Some people, the ones that we're fining, are going to think we're too hard on them. The ones looking from the outside think we're too soft. So we're always trying to balance and come up with what we think is the appropriate penalty," Chopy said.

To view a prosecutorial record of the attorney general's office on environmental crimes, click here.