NORTH SMITHFIELD – Residents described it as an explosion, shaking houses down to the foundations, vibrating windows and knocking items off the shelves, even as far as five miles away – and without the promised warning.
Contractor A1 Drilling & Blasting Company has been removing ledge along a site on Iron Mine Hill Road to make way for Green Development’s 38.4 megawatt solar array. The company has reportedly been working on the lots for months, but according to many who heard and felt it, the blast on Thursday, Aug. 20 was different.
Several reported a jarring noise that felt like a crash or accident right outside of their homes. And most say they did not hear warning whistles promised in a letter to neighbors by A1.
“The whole house was shaking,” said resident Mike Rapko, who lives about a mile away. “The windows started vibrating. I thought it was an earthquake and I called the police.”
According to Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, phones at Town Hall began ringing within minutes of the explosion, heard around 4 p.m. on Thursday.
Ezovski noted in his newsletter this week that North Smithfield Fire Chief David Chartier and Fire Marshal Brian Gartland responded immediately to assess the circumstance. The administrator said the group spoke with the blasting contractor and learned that the blast had created an “unexpected performance.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Planning Board member Megan Staples, who advocated for mechanical removal of the ledge in place blasting when her board was reviewing the developer’s application.
“One of my main concerns when the Green Development application came before us was the water and the reservoir downhill, and there were a lot of residents concerned about damage to their property,” Staples told NRI NOW this week.
Staples notes that her board didn’t get detailed plans for blasting until well into the application process, and when they did, the work was far more extensive than expected.
“It’s a giant mountain up there,” said Staples, noting that the developer said that her suggested alternative would be too expensive. “I know that mechanical removal is cost prohibitive and takes more time.”
On Thursday, Staples, who lives around four and a half miles away from the site, says she was talking on the phone with a friend when a sudden noise shook her house.
“There was this giant bang,” she said, noting she was first worried that a dresser might have fallen on her 10-year-old son. “I began screaming and I ran upstairs. It was so scary.”
Staples said that her second thought was that her furnace or hot water heater had exploded.
“I really thought it was the house. I was so confused,” she said, noting that she didn’t know the cause of the noise until she received Ezovski’s newsletter the following day.
Staples notes that the panic felt by many residents could have been avoided if A1 followed the process laid out in their letter to residents, sounding whistles to let locals know a blast is coming.
“There was no warning,” she said. “I think if residents would have known, they would have felt better. That was really, really jarring.”
Resident Denis Chamberland notes that he lives less than a mile from the site and has yet to hear the whistle. He noted that A1 plans to continue with blasts around once a week until November.
Chamberland said he feels the Town Council should have used a slower process for approving the project and that all residents should have had a chance to weigh in.
“When you’re talking something this size, it should have went to a vote,” Chamberland said.
Rapko, who notes he followed the approval for the project closely, pointed to what he deemed a lack of oversight – a result of removing the Zoning Board from the process. The Iron Mine Hill Road project is within the town’s recently created Solar Overlay District, where larger projects can move forward without zoning approval.
Councilors who approved creation of the district in 2018 pointed to financial incentives, and Rapko notes the approval resulted in the town receiving an extra $2,000 per megawatt from Green developer Mark DePasquale. North Smithfield is expected to receive around $7 million from Green over the next 25 years for creation of what will be the state’s largest solar array.
But the development comes with another type of cost: some 180 acres of trees have been cleared to make way for the 122,000 solar panels.
And Rapko notes that it was the Zoning Board that would have ensured protection of the Woonsocket watershed.
“If the Zoning Board of Review was involved, they would have been on top of this project,” Rapko said, noting that residents would also have had a forum for their complaints.. “It never should have happened. It can’t be just a normal blast. I’ve lived here over 30 years and I’ve never felt something like that.”
According to Ezovski, the state fire marshal said that there appear to be no violations at the site and that the office, “will continue to monitor the situation to make sure it is in compliance with rules and regulations with regards to blasting.”
In the meantime, he’s set up a meeting between the contractor and town officials, including the planner, fire marshal, and an engineer representing the town before additional blasting takes place this week.
“In addition to seeking assurance that methods will change to reduce the chance for a repeat of the same experience, we will be asking that seismic monitoring be expanded and that the area of notice to residents be appropriately expanded,” Ezovski said. “Though no damage has been identified from the event to this point, we are all very concerned and working to prevent a repeat experience.”
The administrator noted that the impact of last Thursday’s event has been attributed to the length of the blast time.
“We have been advised that extended times such as that will not be used in future work the blast timing will be shorter,” Ezovski said.
Additionally, a second round of letters has been issued to notify abutters beyond the required 500 feet from the site and a phone notification system is being established to notify those in the area of each specific blast. Future blasts will be subject to additional seismic monitoring.
For Rapko, it’s a level of oversight that’s long overdue – and should have been in place in advance.
“Why didn’t this take place months ago?” Rapko asked, noting that the crushed stone from such blasts gets sold, creating an incentive to do more work in order to finance the project.
“They’re hauling off the stone and making profit from that,” Chamberland said. “There’s a lot of money in crushed stone.”
“Someone’s got to investigate what happened on August 20, and they should hold the blaster accountable,” Rapko said.
A1 representatives said they had no comment on the event, and did not answer NRI NOW‘s call for comment.
Anyone who believes their home has been damaged from the blasting operation is instructed to call the State Fire Marshal at (401) 889-5555.
Editor’s note: An original version of this article listed an incorrect figure for solar revenue that has since been updated. We apologize for the error. The latest updates from the town administrator have also been added.