Gorham’s Toxic Legacy
Rhode Island has a long history of industrial manufacturing. Slater Mill, on the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is considered the “birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.” By the early 1800s, that fervor for manufacturing had spread, and companies, like the Gorham Manufacturing Company, appeared throughout the state. Known for its world-class products in bronze and silver, Gorham left behind a toxic legacy at the site where its Mashapaug Pond factory operated for nearly 100 years.
Today, the Gorham Manufacturing Company is infamous in the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood for polluting the water, soil, and air of the community. For all of the nineteenth century, and most of the twentieth century, there were few restrictions on companies’ use of potentially harmful materials. At Gorham, workers regularly used cleaners with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), solvents, heavy metals such as lead, and other contaminants. With little thought to the environmental impact, these pollutants leached into the surrounding soil and water.
By the 1960s, industrial manufacturing had largely left Rhode Island and other states, and Americans were left to deal with the waste that factories had produced. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established in 1970, set guidelines to control industrial dumping and provided ways to force polluters to clean up contaminated sites. Two years later, the Clean Water Act of 1972, set water quality standards and prohibited the dumping industrial waste directly into waterways.
Textron, Inc., bought Gorham’s assets shortly before the passage of the Clean Water Act. In doing so they became responsible for the cleanup of the Gorham site, including Mashapaug Cove and the ground water. With help from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Textron has funded the effort to make the Gorham site safe for human use. It is a long process that is taking many years. Thus far, Textron has completed the ground remediation of the area that is now home to Alvarez High School and the Mashapaug Commons shopping center. Air filtration systems have also been added to both the school, shopping center, and nearby homes on Adelaide Avenue, ensuring the safety of local residents.
Further cleanup work includes covering contaminated soil with clean infill, dredging the Gorham “cove” of Mashapaug Pond to remove toxic sediment, and undertaking groundwater remediation throughout the area. Although it has been a slow process, this parcel will soon be safe for human recreational use. Eventually, the polluted land will hold a new neighborhood park and athletic fields for Alvarez High School.
Today, high levels of heavy metals, VOCs, PAHs, and dioxin are still found in the sediment of Mashapaug Cove. Carp, bass, and perch swim valiantly through the water, collecting chemical contaminants in their tissues. None of the fish in the pond are safe for human consumption. It is impossible to know whether these toxins are due solely to Gorham or if they have continually accumulated through storm-water runoff. Despite the extensive remediation work, Mashapaug Pond and the fish within it will remain contaminated, a legacy of the state’s industrial heritage.
Why weren’t people concerned about environmental pollution until the late twentieth century?
What responsibilities should companies like Textron have regarding the cleanup of pollution from previous centuries?
How can we help to avoid further pollution of our natural environment?
What might it be like to attend a school built on top of formerly toxic land?