On Thursday, members of the Providence City Council’s Finance Committee voted to approve a revised version of the tax exemption agreement for ProvPort, Providence’s private-public deepwater port operator.
Last November, the initially proposed agreement came under fire by community activists in Washington Park, the neighborhood adjacent to the port, for its timeline and potential negative impacts on public health. Combined with pollution from nearby I-95, port facilities impact air pollution in the neighborhood, which has among the highest rates of children with asthma in Rhode Island.
Following the contentious process, the council postponed a final vote on ProvPort’s lease and tax exemption agreement on the day of the scheduled vote in early December, though the council partially moved the agreement forward in the middle of the month, the Providence Journal reported.
The 30-year agreement passed out of the committee includes new community input into ProvPort’s master planning process, increased transparency with the city regarding tenant leases at the port and sustainability projects that aim “to advance climate adaptation and mitigation infrastructure.” The agreement will likely go to the full council on Feb. 2, according to a statement from the committee.
Per the tax exemption agreement, 7% of the port’s revenue will go to the city as a payment in lieu of its property taxes; 1% will go into a reserve account funding “community benefits” projects surrounding racial and environmental justice, among other initiatives and another 1% will go into a reserve account funding the sustainability benefits. The agreement also limits the expansion of any infrastructure in the port used for fossil fuels and requires the reporting of “all chemicals stored on the property.”
Community engagement and EPA concerns
Monica Huertas, executive director of the People’s Port Authority, an organization that fights for community oversight of the Port of Providence, said in December that the proposed agreement required “much more extensive community engagement,” The Herald previously reported.
“We want to build, but we want to build healthy, good things that are going to be sustainable for the community,” Huertas said at the time.
ProvPort did not want to pass the agreement in “a contentious vote,” said Bill Fischer, a spokesperson for ProvPort. “This is supposed to be a public-private partnership, and we’re supposed to have a good working relationship with the city of Providence.”
“It just felt forced and quick,” Fischer said. “And that's not the way we want it to go down,” Fischer said.
Sue Anderbois, a city councilor for Ward 3 on the Finance Committee, said that economic development should serve to make residents’ lives better, meaning growth should be balanced with environmental concerns.
The port “can affect people's lives and their health, so they deserve a chance to weigh in on what's happening,” Anderbois said. The city “should be talking to the people whose lives are most affected.”
Anderbois added that she once went to a gym located in a neighborhood by the port. While driving there, she said she could smell the byproduct from the ports and would think to herself, “ ‘I should not be exercising here — it's not good … and people live there year-round.’ ”
Prior to the Jan. 26 meeting, Ward 2 Councilwoman Helen Anthony, chair of the Finance Committee said that when the revisions were first introduced in December, “there was no question in my mind that the process was being rushed.” “We've definitely had a lot of community engagement since then,” she added.
When asked about ProvPort’s community and environmental impact, Fischer said that ProvPort “partners with the city and community” and engages with neighborhood associations around the port. He also pointed to the fact that Waterson Terminal Services, the port operator and manager for ProvPort, voluntarily received a Green Marine verification, an initiative that assists participants in exceeding environmental regulations.
Anthony added that ProvPort is not the only port in Providence, and the city will work with other ports as well to ensure that they are being environmentally conscious.
News also broke in early January that Univar, a chemical distribution company and ProvPort tenant, reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act that put neighboring communities at risk.
The EPA found violations in Univar’s locations in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Colorado, leading to $600,000 in penalties. The alleged violations surrounded Univar’s “failure to comply with industry standards of care” for “hazardous and/or regulated chemicals.”
Anthony said the news about the alleged violations slowed down the process of the agreement after its initial postponement. Similarly, Anderbois added that the news about Univar underscored the importance of accountability and community input.
Fischer said that ProvPort was unaware of the violation until the EPA’s announcement, noting that he found out by reading the Providence Journal. Following the news, ProvPort sent Univar a notice that they needed to adhere to environmental regulations, Fischer said.
Renewable energy hopes
Officials also expressed hopes that port facilities would contribute to the state’s growing offshore wind industry in the future.
“ProvPort is really positioned to support offshore wind development, not only off of Rhode Island's waters but off of most of the upper eastern seaboard of the United States,” Fischer said, adding that he believes the port will primarily focus on offshore wind development in the future. The port currently has an agreement with Ørsted, a clean energy company specializing in offshore wind, for an offshore wind construction hub.
“We have an opportunity to be part of the clean energy economy,” Anthony said. “The future will not continue (with) polluting the port downtown and putting our residents in danger.”
Elysée is a writer for metro, a producer for the Bruno Brief podcast and an aspiring card game creator. She is a second-year student studying International and Public Affairs on the Policy and Governance Track.