Neighbor & burial official at odds over dumping at Union Cemetery


NORTH SMITHFIELD – A neighbor of a historic cemetery is questioning why owners of the facility are being allowed to operate what she described as an illegal waste dump on the property, and this week, pleaded with town officials to take action.

But according to both the person who runs the facility and the North Smithfield building and zoning official, the dumping by local contractors follows standards for “clean fill,” and is legal under guidelines provided by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The dispute played out before the board this week when resident Gail Berlinghof made a presentation questioning activities at Union Cemetery. Town Council President John Beauregard said that while authority over the issue ultimately falls with the building inspector, he wanted to allow both sides to be heard.

“Nothing is going to be settled here tonight,” Beauregard said.

But first, Councilor Paul Vadenais objected to allowing Berlinghof to speak on the issue.

“We shouldn’t even be hearing this,” Vadenais said. “This is 100 percent an administrative function. We shouldn’t even be wading into this thing. We’re crossing a boundary that we shouldn’t be crossing.”

Berlinghof noted that she has lived behind the cemetery her whole life, and that the space actually inspired her work and interest in cemetery preservation.

“It’s one of the prettiest and most well-maintained cemeteries in North Smithfield,” she said.

Berlinghof showed photos showing tire tracks and various piles of debris, including one she said was taken in April.

“It’s been four years of dumping and constant noise,” she said. “There are a few questions the abutters of union cemetery are asking. Will they find out in 20 years that their wells have been polluted?”

View a map of the Family Fairgrounds

The presentation showed evidence of excavation and clearing of the property as well as photos showing a pile of tar, rebar, tires, an oil tank, an old mattress and more.

“There’s got to be a way to stop the landfill,” Berlinghof said. “Who monitors this?”

The 39.5 acre cemetery holds many modern graves, but is also the resting place of the Arnold Family from the early 1900s. It is also home to one of the town’s oldest relics known as the Peleg Arnold stone. The rock, engraved with the words, “12 miles to Providence,” is from 1774, and once served as a mile marker, symbolic of the region’s roll as a transportation hub during the time of stagecoach travel in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Berlinghof, who serves on the town’s zoning board and is also a member of the North Smithfield Heritage Association, noted that building inspection did send a letter to the cemetery owner in October of 2021 ordering that the dumping cease.

“They did not stop,” she said.

The town has since changed building officials, and according to President of the Union Burial Society of North Smithfield Douglas Keene, both the department and RIDEM have investigated the area multiple times and found no problems.

“Gail’s presentation left me a little bewildered,” Keene said.

Douglas Keene

Keene noted that the cemetery, located on Route 146A just across the road from the town’s border with neighboring Woonsocket, has episodes of illegal dumping two to three times a year. He said when it happens, he calls police to report the incident, then cleans up the trash and pays for proper disposal.

“If we’re notified of stuff and we find it, we clean it up,” Keene said. “If it’s egregious enough we’ll file a report.”

Keene said he does accept clean fill from five local contractors who are allowed to dump in an area within specifications.

“The dump site is clean,” he said. “It’s what’s allowed by DEM to be dumped. The fill is clean and we’re providing a service.”

The process, Keene said, will also allow the cemetery to stay in business by preparing new areas of the property for future burials.

“We’ve been cleared by DEM multiple times,” he said.

Building and Zoning Official Lawrence Enright, who began working for the town in April, told a similar account, noting that there have been some instances where the individual contractors have dumped unauthorized materials.

“I’ve been to the site multiple times,” Enright said. “He’s told his contractors not to dump any of that there It’s not really trash and refuse, it’s clean fill – and what DEM states is clean fill.”

Councilor Claire O’Hara said that while Keene runs a good business she’d like to know if there are updated standards for such dumping.

“I’m questioning: is there a better way?” O’Hara said. “If we can do something even better, I’d like to.”

No action was taken at the meeting, and Berlinghof later shared some of her photos of the property with NRI NOW.

“I’m pretty sure we lost that battle,” she said. “I was told ‘you can’t win them all.’  Yes, I agree with Claire O’Hara, where the Keenes have done great things for our town, but to who’s sacrifice?”

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  1. The whole problem is North Smithfield is another little bedroom town where the cemetery members are too connected. Too many family members on the board and involved in different associations to do with the town and state. They bury all the illegal garbage the same day it’s dumped. According to someone who has seen it there is many loads of contaminated soil buried back there. I can see the town getting sued for allowing this when the neighborhood is getting sick from all the years of this.

  2. Certainly, based on the pictures within the article, this by no means meets the definition of “clean fill.” Assorted dumping sites exist all over North Smithfield and while the Keene family is held in high esteem, this is a dump. Apparently, even the new building/zoning guy won’t take this on, but many issues went unresolved even with the previous one. Paul Vadenais is right. These issues belong before Zoning and if not resolved at that level, do as the previous inspector told me, get a lawyer. Because rather than the Town doing anything it became my problem.


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