Langevin and Reed on B.I.Present $1.2 million grant to Sewer Dept.
In a trip to Block Island on Tuesday, Sept. 3, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Jim Langevin took the time to tour several facilities and answer a wide-range of questions from islanders about both national and local issues.
The congressmen came to the island in order to present a $1.2 million federal grant and loan package to the New Shoreham Wastewater Management facility, which will help pay for upgrades to the town sewer system — but this was far from their only stop while here.
“Block Island is a unique and beautiful place, and the real strength of the community is its collaboration, co-operation and local leadership,” Reed told The Block Island Times in an interview at the end of his trip. “This is one of those communities in Rhode Island where they know what they want to do and they’ll ask us to assist them.”
Sen. Reed took the ferry to the island at 10 a.m., and his first stop was Ballard’s Inn, where he met with members of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce to talk about island issues. The Chamber members had a range of questions that they asked of Reed — ranging from the Internet service to changes in visas for foreign employees.
“Most of us depend heavily on international students to work,” said John Cullen, who owns Water Street retail business B.I.T.’s. Cullen asked Reed about State Department regulations concerning international workers, which Cullen said change quite often. Reed said that sometimes changing regulations are in response to an international event, but he suggested calling to find out. Reed also noted that there was an immigration reform bill that passed in the Senate on a bi-partisan basis, but the bill is currently held up in the House on a “very partisan basis.”
Next was a tour of the Block Island Medical Center, where Reed heard from the center’s staff about the operation of the facility and some of the island’s unique challenges when it comes to medical care. He also asked about the center’s hours of operation, the vehicles used for rescue calls and inquired about the island’s lack of a pharmacy.
Reed also gave a warm greeting to the interns from Brown University (one of whom was tall, leading the shorter Reed to crack a joke about basketball) and a “thank you” to Mary Donnelly, the recently retired state nurse who is also the administrator of the Mary D Fund.
While Reed was touring the Medical Center, Rep. Langevin arrived at 11 a.m. on the high-speed ferry. The two congressional members met a crowd of island officials and wastewater treatment employees at the town sewer plant, where they presented the grant award, from the United States Department of Agriculture.
“This a testament to the hard work of all the town officials,” said Reed to the crowd of who attended for the presentation of the award. “These funds will be used to upgrade this facility and all five pump stations. We know how critical water resources are to this island. We know how critical they are to protect the community from pollution.”
Langevin complimented the Block Island Sewer Commission and employees for their “proactive” role in helping preserve the island.
After this, it was a stop for a luncheon at the 1661 Inn, hosted by the Democratic Town Committee. Here, Reed and Langevin mingled with a crowd of about 50 attendees, delivered a speech to the crowd, and answered questions from attendees. One of the most pressing questions was about their position about the Syrian conflict, and about 10 minutes were spent talking about this issue. Both said that they were currently weighing their options.
“I think we have to look at very carefully,” said Reed. “This is one of those real world situations where there are no really good options. The options of action are costly, and the options of inaction are costly.”
Langevin said that, “I don’t want to see us get bogged down in another conflict in the Middle East. None of us do, and I would insist that anything that’s done is limited and targeted if it does go forward.”
Following the luncheon, there was a tour of the new Block Island Conservancy education center, where they heard about the island’s efforts to preserve open space and educate the public about conservation.
Langevin told The Block Island Times later he was particularly impressed with the island’s conservation efforts.
“People have been coming here for decades, and it’s still the same,” Langevin said. “So much of the character of Block Island has been preserved, and it’s what makes it so attractive.”
Before their departure around 3 p.m., both Reed and Langevin also had separate interviews with The Block Island Times, and weighed in on various island issues.
One of the biggest local concerns of Block Islanders seemed to be the high population of deer on Block Island and the rising cases of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme. This concern was brought up both at Reed’s trip to the Block Island Medical Center, and was also one of two questions asked of Reed and Langevin at the luncheon’s public question and answer session.
“The deer tick is one of the more paramount concerns,” Langevin told The Block Island Times, and he noted that he has suffered from Lyme before.
“We’re going to collaborate and see if the University of Rhode Island could have some expertise that could be helpful,” Reed said.
Viable year-round economy
The Times asked the congressmen what they could do to help Block Island have a more viable year-round economy.
“I talked with one gentlemen, Sven Risom, about a new model of year-round manufacturing,” answered Reed. Risom owns North Light Fibers with his wife, and manufactures yarn and fibers that it then sells on Block Island. Reed said he wants to help businesses such as Risom’s, through means such as federal programs.
“Part of it is trying to encourage this entrepreneurship. The Small Businesses Association, for example, has programs to support starting businesses,” said Reed. “We’re going to get SBA to take a look and see if they’re doing as much for Block Island as they should.”
Langevin said that his solution would be to promote education on Block Island and encourage children to pursue a higher education or trade education, in a variety of areas like Information Technology, for example.
Energy costs and Deepwater Wind
The Block Island Times also asked about both the high energy costs and Deepwater Wind’s proposal to build a five-turbine wind farm off the coast of Block Island.
“I know it’s a controversial issue,” said Langevin, referring to Deepwater. “I tend to be one that favors alternative energy and I think we need to do more to invest in it... I’d like to see that we get some guarantees that those wind turbines are going to be built in Rhode Island, with Rhode Island workers being trained or actually doing the work.”
However, Langevin continued that some people have raised questions about how beneficial Deepwater will actually be to the island, so he said he is open to continuing the dialogue with the island, and making sure the wind farm is not “over subsidized,” to ensure that there is a net benefit to Block Island.
Reed responded more broadly to the energy issue: “Energy is an issue here. We’re trying to be not just helpful to Block Island, but the whole state to develop policy which will allow us to lower energy rates.”
Reed continued: “New England pays probably twice as much for natural gas as the rest of the country. We’re contacting the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Secretary [Ernest] Moniz, asking to improve the distribution system in the north east.”
“The more lower cost electricity, particularly the more hydro-power we can bring online, the more we can lower the cost of natural gas,” suggested Reed. “If we can lower the overall cost of energy in the region, that could benefit Block Island.”
Reed added, after being asked, that these lower costs would help Block Island especially if Deepwater Wind’s proposed wind farm connects Block Island to the mainland energy grid. However, if Deepwater weren’t to go through, he said that lowering costs of gas could also lower the costs of the propane for the Block Island Power Company.
One concern Sen. Reed heard early on in his trip was about the poor Internet service on-island. While at Ballard’s, he talked with members of the Chamber of Commerce about this issue. Chamber members relayed stories about slow service, no service or service that shut down unexpectedly and caused a loss of revenue.
Reed did not directly address how to solve this issue, noting that part of it involved at least one private company, but he did agree that it was a concern. He also told the chamber that with the Deepwater Wind cable, there will be room to install fiberoptic Internet cables that could help the island.
“The issue of adequate cell coverage and Internet, that’s a long-term issue that we’re going engage with because again its critical to every business on the island and tourists, too,” Reed told The Block Island Times later in the day.
When asked, Langevin said he was not aware that there was a problem with the Internet on Block Island, but he also agreed that this is a concern to the island. Langevin had not been present at Ballard’s when this question came up.
Reed and Langevin also addressed the issue of beach erosion. Sen. Reed had been on-island the day after Hurricane Sandy had struck Block Island in October, 2012. He said he was impressed by the repairs that the town has done since then.
“One of the things that we’ve got to do consciously is when we start planning development on shore is to recognize that there are new weather patterns,” said Reed, in response to a question from The Block Island Times about how to handle beach erosion and future storms. He said that building and re-building has to be done with this is mind. “Part of it is better planning, and then being available as we were to step in very quickly, not only with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] help, but with longer-term help,” he said.
Langevin seemed to agree with Reed, adding: “It takes federal resources to make sure that we’re protecting the coastline here on Block Island.”
Overall, both congressmen appeared receptive to helping Block Island on its many issues. As Reed commented earlier on in the day, at his visit at Ballard’s: “I’m here to listen.”