When Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri (R) took office earlier this year, one of his first actions was to kill the controversial and already beleaguered Quonset Point project, a massive deep-water container port on Narragansett Bay. "It's dead," said Carcieri in an interview shortly after his swearing-in.
A pet project of former Governor Lincoln Almond, the proposed facility would have rivaled the Port of New York and New Jersey in size and capacity and would have required dredging a 52-foot- deep shipping channel in Narragansett Bay. The Sierra Club and other conservation groups had been opposing the project for several years and succeeded in making it an election issue.
Taking Measure: Sierra Club activists protest the proposed mega-port at Quonset Point; the tape measure, stretched along the beach, demonstrates just how huge the monster ships using the port would be.
Sarah Kite, the Sierra Club's Rhode Island conservation organizer, told the Providence Journal that she'd been waiting for the proverbial fat lady to sing. "I'll even accompany her on piano," Kite said.
The proposed dredging was a major factor in getting the Sierra Club involved, says Kite, but it was the impact on land that became the centerpiece of the Sierra Club's campaign. "The container port would have brought a minimum of 1,000 additional trucks a day," says Kite. "We'd go to public meetings and ask people, 'Is that something you really want?'"
In 1997, as Governor Almond pressed for the project, the Rhode Island Chapter was awarded an Environmental Public Education Campaign grant from the national Sierra Club to fight the container port. This enabled the campaign to hire Kite as a full-time organizer. Caroline Karp, an environmental studies professor at Brown University and the chapter vice chair at the time, picks up the story:
"Save the Bay, a local non-profit group, took the lead on fighting the port from a marine standpoint, while the Sierra Club focused on land-based issues.
"Governor Almond recruited a group of executives to sit on the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and present a plan for the port at a series of public meetings," she says. "They outlined a future in which a new generation of mega-ships-too big for the ports of New York or Boston to handle-would bring goods from Asia. As the EDC saw it, Narragansett Bay would be the best place to site such a facility.
"The Rhode Island Chapter staged an event that demonstrated just how huge these ships would be. We used a thousand feet of yellow barricade tape and people stretched it along Wickford Town Beach in sight of the Quonset docks, with balloons marking the ends. There was lots of TV coverage, and from that point on the Sierra Club became the group the media came to for the opposition point of view."
Karp also challenged the EDC at the public meetings, questioning its claims that future international trade would depend on these mega-ships. "The developers were stunned that there was public opposition to their plan," Karp says.
Club activists participated in rallies, postcard drives, tabling, door-to-door outreach, and a rally at the statehouse to "Keep Our Bay Blue." Around this time, Karp began receiving phone calls from heads of business organizations and government agencies, telling her, "You're on the right track. Keep going."
"These were people who felt they couldn't openly ally themselves with the Club," she says, "but it was a sure sign that opposition was solidifying around the state. Karina Lutz was the chapter director at the time, and she was doing a knockout job. Club membership in the state grew by leaps and bounds because of the Quonset Point project."
Karp also invited her students at Brown to prepare reports on their particular areas of interest or expertise, like water pollution, crime rates associated with port projects, or accident rates associated with shipping, and then present them to the public at EDC hearings.
One new member the Club attracted around this time was Hazel Turley, who, through a contact, revealed that two of the biggest port promoters on the EDC were tax delinquent. She produced copies of incriminating documents at one of the EDC's public meetings, and within minutes a local television station had lights and microphones on the two developers, who, according to Karp, "fled in their Mercedes."
Shortly thereafter, a third port promoter on the EDC was exposed in a credit card scandal and resigned from the commission. The port idea was then temporarily shelved, and when Governor Almond resurrected it a year-and-a-half later, it was in greatly diminished form.
Meanwhile, the chapter staged "ironing board brigades" that resulted in the governor's office being deluged with thousands of postcards from citizens, including many kids opposing the port. (Kite says ironing boards are ideal for postcard-signing campaigns because the boards can be raised or lowered to let both children and adults sign.)
At this point, Club activists started to feel that victory was within their grasp. "The governor kept shrinking the port plans," says Kite, "all the while insisting that they would still meet their original goals in terms of volume of traffic."
Almond was a lame duck and by the general election, both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates had come out publicly against the port project.
Karp credits Kite, Alicia Karpick, Robin Porter, and Karina Lutz for their "amazing job" throughout the battle. "This was an archetypal environmental struggle," she says. "Had the Club not helped flush this out of the closet from the beginning, the outcome might have been very different."
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