On an early December day in Olneyville, about 50 yards from the Woonasquatucket River, Justin Kelley recorded on video clouds of dust pouring from the old U.S. Rubber Company mill from gaps around a ground-level door facing Eagle Street. The historic mill was being transformed into luxury apartments by Brady Sullivan Properties, a New Hampshire based developer with a growing portfolio of mill rehab rentals across New England.

As an experienced painter and blaster, Kelley knew this dust was the residue of sandblasting in the old industrial building — dust that would in a building of this type inevitably include particulate lead and likely also include cadmium, arsenic, asbestos and other hazardous materials. In fact, the work site bore prominent yellow signs warning “CAUTION: LEAD HAZARD.” He also knew from his work experience that such a site was legally required to maintain an airtight barrier to contain the hazardous dust and prevent the kind of public exposure he was witnessing.

This breach of health and safety in the workplace and surrounding neighborhood unfortunately did not come to a surprise to Kelley. Most directly because he had observed these dust clouds emerging from the U.S. Rubber site twice before in recent weeks. He also had first-hand experience with general contractor Brady Sullivan, as he told Common Ground in a recent interview:

"I actually worked on a Brady Sullivan job site as a painter for a non-union subcontractor from New Hampshire at the Carpenter Street Mill. The job force there was comprised of myself and a few of the guys like me, native-born workers who were paid low wages, a series of immigrant workers and a bunch of guys from a halfway house in New Hampshire. Right there you see they found people who have vulnerabilities, who are desperate, so they can manipulate and control the workforce."

Beyond Kelley’s first-hand experiences, Brady Sullivan has a public track record regarding lead exposure, thanks in part to a dogged investigation by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR). To quote an article posted on nhpr.org last April:

"According to state and federal officials, Brady Sullivan hired (subcontractor Environmental Compliance Specialists, Inc.) ECSI to do a demolition job at Mill West in Manchester (NH) last May. The contractor sandblasted lead paint off the walls using a demolition material called Black Beauty. Residents in dozens of apartments were exposed to toxic lead dust. The City of Manchester reported ECSI lacked the required permits, and EPA found the company lacked the necessary employee training to deal with lead.

"An NHPR investigation last year found that after the lead exposure occurred, Brady Sullivan downplayed the health risks posed by the dust to its tenants.

"ECSI was subsequently fined $19,600 by (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) OSHA for exposing its workers to arsenic, cadmium and lead at Mill West; those penalties were later reduced to $12,250."

In fact, Kelley also observed a possible breach in the containment barrier at the pedestrian bridge over Eagle Street connecting the worksite to completed and occupied apartments in the adjoining U.S. Rubber mill building, perhaps exposing residents to hazards as happened at Mill West in Manchester.

Justin Kelley’s observation of this worksite was no coincidence, it is also part of his job as a Business Representative at the International Union of Painter's and Allied Trades District Council 11, Local 195. Unlike in service or industrial unions, which may have represented the same handful of workplaces for decades, in the building trades, part of a business rep’s job is keeping track of the ever-changing slate of construction sites in the region.

When Kelley and a colleague spoke to workers on the site, they told him that the dust collection machinery required in the building to prevent contamination to the workers and surrounding environment was broken and there was a huge dust cloud hanging in the air. Kelley continued, “The workers were picking up the blast particulate and the spent material, the lead paint and everything coming off the ceilings and walls. We asked them ‘Are you putting it in these 50 gallon drums?” which is the usual standard procedure. They said, ‘No, we're putting it in a dumpster.’ They were putting it into a bobcat and putting it in a dumpster.“

Given that NHPR has also reported on Brady Sullivan and their sub-contractors being cited in New Hampshire and investigated in Massachusetts for illegally dumping, burying and burning toxic and carcinogenic debris, reports of non-standard handling of hazardous debris at a Brady Sullivan worksite should raise large red flags.

While the workers had some personal protection, if it is not accompanied by proper training and enforcement of procedures, it may do little good, as Kelley described:

While the workers had Tyvek suits on, they had paper masks instead of respirators with proper filters. On break, they immediately went outside and peeled down their suits, sat down, and ate lunch, without washing up. They were not provided a wash station. They didn't go through a decontamination process between blasting and taking a break, so there was a high likelihood of take-home lead. If they have children or they're around children, take-home lead will cause poisoning to the children. The workers also were not given blood level tests, which is required by law.

Kelley’s presence in this still mostly low-income neighborhood was also relevant to another important role he holds, as a Co-Chair of the Organizing Committee of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, the main organizational connection between Rhode Island labor and activist community organizations, including the Olneyville Neighborhood Association.

Jobs with Justice and the Childhood Lead Action Project, which has been fighting lead poisoning in Rhode Island since 1992, began holding actions outside US Tire distributing leaflets to drivers and pedestrians reading “YOUR FAMILY MAY HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO LEAD,” starting with a press conference on February 14th. Complaints were made to the Rhode Island Department of Health, RI Department of Environmental Management, and OSHA which, after several visits from the Department of Health, resulted in a stop work order being issued until the issues around containment and contamination were resolved. By March 1st, sandblasting had been completed at the site.

Kelley outlined next steps on this issue:

"The Rhode Island Jobs with Justice coalition is going to continue to work with the Childhood Lead Action Project and trade unions. We're going to continue to work together to educate the community and the workforce here, over the next several weeks, leading into a meeting on April 22nd, where we're going to have a community meeting, inviting people from the community, stakeholders, experts, elected officials, and draw out the question of 'Why has this been allowed to happen? What are the steps to take to hold a developer like Brady Sullivan accountable?'"

The real rub in all of this is that they've received tens of millions of dollars in historic tax credits from the State of Rhode Island to perform this work, so essentially we're subsidizing a developer, general contractor, owner/operator who flies in their helicopter from Manchester, New Hampshire. We're subsidizing them with public money to potentially poison the community and the workforce, and work with subcontractors who have numerous other documented issues with wage theft, OSHA violations, other health and safety violations.

We can see through documentary and anecdotal evidence that this is a major problem, and we need to find a better way to either attach standards to tax subsidies for developers: safety, community, worker safety standards, apprenticeship standards, responsible contractor standards. Making sure that if we're subsidizing this work -- which is great, we want to see development occur -- we need to see it occur in a way that is responsible to workers and the community, otherwise these people should not receive these tax credits.

RI Jobs with Justice also held a well attended Community Forum on Race and the Environment at the Bell Street on the evening of February 27th, hosted by RI JwJ Executive Director Mike Araujo, which is intended to the first in a series of meetings aiming to create a set of recommendations as requested by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

While urban environmental issues, including lead poisoning, have been an issue in Providence and other Rhode Island cities for decades if not centuries. A growing consciousness of environmental issues as manifestations of race and class discrimination — and ongoing community organizing based on this consciousness — has given new momentum to citizens confronting this chronic problem.

And while it is easy to discount the trade union’s role in this story as self-serving — maybe they’re just trying to make life more difficult for non-union contractors and flex a little bureaucratic muscle — from any social justice perspective, the place for a union organizer to be is where workers in his trade are facing the most dangerous and exploitive situations, and to call for justice for both workers, union members or not, and the community as a whole. In the long run, however, individual workers cannot as free agents maintain environmental, health and safety standards against disinterested employers. Only collective action and solidarity, as part of a union, has the strength to maintain worker — and community — safety over the long haul.