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Encyclopedia > Alton, Rhode Island



Alton, Rhode Island is a small township (about 250 residents) within the city of Richmond, RI [1]. It is located about one hour south of Providence, the state's capital. (From Providence, take I-95 south to Exit 2 to Woodville Alton Road, turn left on Collins street briefly, and turn right on Church street/Route 91.) St. Thomas Episcopal Church is a gathering place for community members, given its prime location in the center of town. Alton is located between Wood River and Pawtatuck Rivers, making it a prime location for fishing aficionados. (Anonymous Alton resident, personal communication, 18 Jan. 2007)

A major employer in the town is Charbert ([2]), a fabric dye factory located on 299 Church street, in the center of town. (Alton Community Action, [3]) Charbert is a division of Narrow Fabrics of America [4].

Local pollution

Residents of Alton have complained about Charbert polluting their air and water since 1978, when a rotten egg smell (hydrogen sulfide) was first perceived. (Providence Journal article, 6/21/04) This is primarily due to Charbert's five open-air, unlined lagoons used to treat its wastewater from factory production. As a result, toxins present in the wastewater have seeped into the groundwater, which all residents use for drinking water, and into the air that local residents breathe.

19 homes in Alton had their water tested in 2004 by the Department of Health. Charbert paid for these tests, which considered the levels of 63 different VOCs (volatile organic compound) and MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether) in the drinking water supply. (Each home has its own private well; there is no public water system.) Three homes were placed on a bottled water supply in response to the test results because their MTBE levels were above health advisory levels. (Katie Mulvaney, "MTBE found in wells near Charbert mill," Providence Journal, 12/17/03) The drinking water supply in four homes on River street that directly face the Charbert factory is tested on a quarterly basis; the other homes have not had their water tested again since 2004. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapour pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. ... MTBE is highly flammable and is widely used as an oxygenate. ...

What's in the water? GZA GeoEnvironmental, an environmental science company hired by Charbert, conducted most of the research on possibly contaminated sites.

GZA has detected high levels of MtBE in the drinking water of several properties. MtBE, a gasoline additive no longer used in Rhode Island, has been tied to health problems and may worsen contamination by other compounds. Although MtBE may not have been introduced by the Charbert factory, residents report that it was present in local drinking water before being added to gasoline Rhode Island. (Don Chambers, personal communication, 18 Jan. 2007) For more information on the health effects of MtBE, visit the Environmental Protection Agency website at [5].

GZA has neglected to test a number of areas with suspected chlorine-containing compounds because they are afraid of disturbing them. Chlorine is a toxic gas. They have tested only shallow soil on the Charbert property in order to uncover potential sources of contamination; but without testing deeper levels, they cannot assess the extent to which the contamination may have spread. For more information on the health effects of chlorine, visit [6].

A waste oil tank covered with concrete tank graves was removed in the 1980’s. Although GZA and the DEM agreed that they did not want to disturb the concrete, there have been no tests to determine whether or not those tanks may have contaminated the soil around them. Limited contamination has been found so far, but that is due in part to a limited investigation.

Major players

Charbert: factory located in Alton since 1962; has history of air and water pollution. Subsidiary of Narrow Fabrics of America that is headquartered in Alton.

Alton Community Action: organization of local residents committed to fighting to get Charbert to clean up its act.

Toxics Action Center: collaborates closely with Alton Community Action.

GZA GeoEnvironmental: hired by Charbert to do research and testing in the ground for groundwater contamination and land.

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management: the government agency in charge of keeping the local environment clean and mediating between Charbert and local residents. Its director, Michael Sullivan, is a former Alton councilman, but has decided to recuse himself from the case.

Clark Memorial Library: This library has an archive of all of the documents related to the dispute between Alton and Charbert since its inception. The documents are available for public view. The library is located at 7 Pinehurst Drive in Carolina, RI. Access the library's website at: [7]. (Most of the information in this entry was found in these documents.)

Timeline of recent events

11/30/1978: First air and water quality complaint at Alton (Providence Journal (Projo), 6/21/04)

March 2004: Alton Community Action (ACA) forms (Projo, 8/4/04). Visit their website at: [8].

6/9/2004: Richmond Financial Town Meeting agrees to spend $45,000 to study feasibility of public water system to serve Alton.

6/21/2004: RI Department Of Health (DOH) finds that air quality in Alton bad enough to be considered a nuisance- a legal level where the state can require Charbert to reduce the smell (Projo, 6/21/04)

7/15/2004: Charbert agrees to aerate one of lagoons in the hope of mitigating the hydrogen sulfide smell. (Fortunately, the smell of rotten eggs has mostly been eliminated.)

7/17/2004: ACA sends email to Attorney General’s office (Projo, 7/20/04)

7/21/2004: ACA sends emails to Governor and head of RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) (Projo, 7/21/04)

7/28/2004: Charbert announces it is considering building a water treatment plant to replace the its waste lagoons

7/30/2004: Residents of Alton release result that indicate air pollution levels higher then found by DEM (Projo, 7/30/04)

8/13/2004: DEM issues notice of violation to Charbert, fines them $9,500 (Projo, 8/18/04)

9/13/2004: Charbert appeals DEM notice of violation (Projo, 9/13/04)

3/18/2005: The DEM and Charbert have been meeting privately to craft an agreement. DEM allows the Town of Richmond to join its talks with Charbert by granting it intervenor status. (Projo, 3/18/05)

7/22/2005: DEM and Charbert agree to find and implement a solution to odor. The town of Richmond, though granted intervenor status, says it was not included in the talks. (Projo, 7/22/05)

7/26/2005: Town of Richmond sues DEM for agreement it made with Charbert because the town was not included in the talks and does find solutions to all problems outlined. (Projo, 7/26/05)

8/2/2005: Town of Richmond files a lawsuit against Charbert seeking closure of waste lagoons and damages from odor. (Projo, 8/2/05)

9/15/2005: Town argues before RI superior court Judge (Projo, 9/15/05)

11/30/2005: Toxics Action center puts Charbert on its “Dirty Dozen” (ACA, http://www.altoncommunityaction.com/dirtydozen.html), marking the Charbert site as one of the top 12 polluters in New England that “pose a significant threat to public health and the environment and need immediate action by industry and/or government officials.”

Contact Information

Contact Charbert


Charbert, a Division of NFA 299 Church St. Alton, RI 02894

Bonnie Jacob, Human Relations Manager (401) 364-7751 ext. 114

Contact Alton Community Action





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