R.I. Offers Loans to Tiverton Homeowners with Contaminated Land

July 25, 2006

Rhode Islanders whose homes are contaminated with toxic waste can now apply for low-interest loans from the state government under a bill signed by Gov. Don Carcieri.

The signing ceremony was held in a Tiverton neighborhood where landfill beneath a cluster of homes has tested positive for arsenic, cyanide, lead and other toxins. State officials believe those toxins are waste dumped decades ago by the Fall River Gas Co., which was bought by Houston-based Southern Union in 2000.

Contamination has created financial limbo for many in the working-class neighborhood. No one will buy their homes, and banks won’t lend homeowners money with the houses as collateral. The new loans are supposed to offer temporary relief.

“If the roof leaks, we don’t have to dip into our retirement funds anymore,” said Gail Corvello, the leader of a neighborhood group pressing for a cleanup.

The Rhode Island Housing and Mortgage Finance Corp. hasn’t yet decided what the loans can be used for, said Mike Milito, the company’s deputy assistant director.

Property values have plummeted in the north Tiverton neighborhood since a construction crew digging a sewer in 2002 uncovered blue soil, which was tainted with arsenic.

After an investigation, the state Department of Environmental Management concluded the pollutants were byproducts created when the Fall River Gas Co. converted coal into gas. A former company employee said the company dumped the waste in the Tiverton neighborhood over a 10-year period beginning in the 1960s.

Residents have filed a civil lawsuit against Southern Union, and the company is contesting a DEM ruling that found it responsible for the contamination. Some neighbors have refused to let DEM contractors test their properties, and DEM Director W. Michael Sullivan said the agency needs funding for more testing.

“In other places around the nation, these things have taken decades in some cases,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview.

Carcieri and other state leaders are attempting to block a $498 million sale of the Rhode Island assets of Southern Union’s New England Gas unit to National Grid until Southern Union proves it can pay for a cleanup.

Until then, people like RoseMarie Pimentel are stuck in the middle. She’s been trying to sell her late mother’s house since early last year. A handful of prospective buyers have made inquiries.

“Once they find out about the contamination, that stops it,” Pimentel said. “It’s a dragged-out affair. It’s a nightmare.”

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