BY BOB JAGOLINZER
Journal Staff Writer
JOHNSTON -- The earth-moving machines, their operators dressed for the cold and breathing with respirators, push and dig into a massive mound of steaming trash.
Another worker, also with a respirator, walks near the machines with a monitor, taking air samples.
Paul Bratti, a supervisor for Clean Harbors Environmental Services, stands beside a towering heap of rotting debris with a pervasive odor of rotten eggs.
"We want to be sure we don't hit something hot," he says -- such as a toxic concentration of methane or carbon monoxide gas.
In court documents and among state and local officials, this site has come to be known as "Vinagro East."
The property is owned by Louis L. Vinagro Jr., former trash hauler, pig farmer, and town mayoral candidate, who was sentenced Friday to 15 months in federal prison for tax fraud. New England Ecological Development Corp., the trash-hauling and recycling company that Vinagro owned until it was petitioned into receivership in September, is across the street.
Fire Chief Victor Cipriano estimates that the trash pile contains about 1.2 million cubic yards of construction debris -- wood shingles, foam rubber, scrap metal, wiring, plastic sheeting and other material.
It stretches over 19 acres between Green Hill Road and the Upper Simmonsville Reservoir, and towers over 100 feet high in spots.
And it's burning.
On a tape made with a thermal imaging camera, the fire below the surface appears as subterranean rivers of white, running like veins through the cooler dark areas.
In some spots, the pile is so packed down it supports the weight of heavy equipment. In others, the fire has softened it so much that men have sunk to their waists. Flames occasionally shoot from the pile and embers fly.
Cipriano estimates that in spots, the temperature in the pile has reached 750 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the debris decomposes, the rusting metal creates oxygen, which supports combustion. The fire "is trying to get to the surface, so it can get more oxygen," says Cipriano. When that happens, flames erupt.
Cipriano fears that the pile will erupt into an uncontrollable blaze that -- depending on the wind direction -- could send clouds of toxic smoke through town or into western Cranston and Scituate.
In the project that started last week, Clean Harbors workers are trying to clear a 10-foot-wide trench around the hottest part of the debris, an area of about five acres, to cut it off from the rest of the pile.
They had spent about a month preparing. A temporary road was built around the edge of the mound, so fire trucks could get around it. Tons of stone dust, which will compact like clay to smother fire, were hauled to the site. Air samples were taken to be sure no toxic gases were drifting off.
When the trench is complete, the stone dust will be used to cap the section and build a fire wall around it.
THE WORK is an attempt to find an interim solution to a problem that dates back years.
In October 1999, the state Department of Environmental Management ordered Vinagro to clean up what the agency said was 347,729 cubic yards of material on the land. DEM said it was piled there in violation of state solid waste laws and that Vinagro was illegally operating a solid waste facility. DEM ordered him to remove the material and dispose of it in a properly licensed facility.
DEM also told Vinagro to restore about 4,000 square feet of wetland that was disturbed by the dumping. And it demanded that Vinagro pay a penalty of $222,416. He was given 90 days to come up with an acceptable removal plan.
Vinagro appealed to a DEM administrative law judge and has contested every action the agency has tried to take, including the right of its inspectors to go onto his property. He has sought extensive documentation of DEM's actions, including what inspectors did with material they removed from the property. The result has been more than 1,000 pages of legal briefs on file in DEM offices.
With the NEED receivership, the "Vinagro East" case has now been transferred to Superior Court and is before Judge Michael Silverstein. Silverstein has granted DEM's request to have NEED pay for extinguishing the fire and also granted the agency's request for unrestricted access to the site. The remainder of the case has yet to be heard.
Meanwhile, Vinagro and NEED were indicted last month by a statewide grand jury on four and five counts, respectively, of operating an unlicensed solid waste facility on sites including the "Vinagro East" property.
Vinagro has declined to speak with a reporter about the situation.
But during a Town Council meeting last month, when he was discussing a request to rezone another piece of property, which the DEM has cited for a smaller pile of the same material, Vinagro derided the fuss being made about the Green Hill Road site.
"It's composting," he told the council. "I had the biggest compost pile in the state."
Vinagro said he kept the pile in check when he was running NEED by having someone there with equipment and material to smother flames.
THE PILE on Green Hill Road came to Cipriano's attention in late September, after NEED went into receivership. A motorist saw smoke and reported it to the Fire Department.
Cipriano had a tape made with a thermal imaging camera. When he saw it, Cipriano was appalled. He ordered firefighters to guard the pile at night, to be sure it did not flare into a big fire. On weekends, they were there around the clock.
Cipriano and Mayor William R. Macera decided the problem was not one that Johnston could handle alone.
They alerted the DEM and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Macera mentioned it to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman when they were introduced during a visit she made to Providence in early November. The agency took air samples in the neighborhood around the pile and also flew over the site with a thermal camera to help determine the extent of the fire.
Cipriano also alerted state emergency management officials, members of the state's congressional delegation and officials from Cranston and Scituate.
DEM brought in Clean Harbors, and after the firm's workers arrived, Cipriano withdrew the Fire Department guards. But "the battalion chiefs [still] go up there at least twice a shift," he said.
Besides the pollution and fire concerns, in a town that is still paying off a $21-million debt, the cost of putting out the fire is also a major concern to officials.
Cipriano estimates that the town has spent about $90,000 so far to have firefighters guard the pile at night and to extinguish the dozen or so small fires that have broken out. The work being done by Clean Harbors is to cost an estimated $140,000, which the receiver for NEED has been ordered to pay. In addition, DEM has spent about $60,000 in emergency response money to buy the stone dust and to have its people work on the problem.
"We'll be trying to get that back from NEED," said Michael Mulhare, the agency's environmental response administrator.
YET EVEN AS the fire smolders and work goes on to extinguish it, officials are also concerned with the long-term problem of what to do with the debris.
"The best way would be to get rid of it," by taking it to a licensed facility that can accept it, Mulhare said. "But there's the question of cost."
Vinagro says it can be used as cover at the state Central Landfill, which is a quarter of a mile from the site. In fact, Resource Recovery, the quasi-state agency that operates the Central Landfill, accepts construction and demolition debris and grinds it into material about two inches in diameter for cover at the landfill.
In a complaint filed in Superior Court by Vinagro last month, the former trash hauler said Resource Recovery is processing the debris with the same process that NEED used. But Vinagro claims the agency has exempted the material from the same testing that the material on his property would be subject to for use at the landfill.
Vinagro claims the exemption violates his constitutional rights to equal protection, by depriving him of the opportunity to sell the material to Resource Recovery. He wants the exemption voided, which could put him "in much better position" to try to sell the material to the agency, J. Richard Ratcliffe, Vinagro's lawyer said. Not surprisingly, the agency has a different view.
Claude Cote, a lawyer for Resource Recovery, said the agency does not pay for cover material. Haulers who bring in that material are charged a cheaper price than is charged for other waste. So Cote wants the claim dismissed.
AS THE COURT battles go on, the workers from Clean Harbor expect to spend about two weeks digging out the trench, building the fire wall and capping the hot area.
Bratti said the work already seems to be cooling the pile. "There's snow on it," he said last week as he surveyed the top. "If it was hot the snow would have melted."
Temperature probes are to be sunk in about 15 spots throughout the pile, so officials will know quickly if it starts to reheat.
While he agrees something must be done, Cipriano is concerned about whether the current plan will work. He prefers a method suggested by a Texas firm to break the entire 19-acre site into about 10 smaller piles, create fire lanes between them, and cap them. But that project could cost $500,000.
Cipriano is worried that separating the hottest area will do nothing about decomposition and heating of the remainder of the pile.
"Now the snow is on it, it's cooled down," Cipriano said. "But I don't know what'll happen in the spring [when] the pile heats up. It could get going again."
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