The environmental movement in Warwick was dealt a tremendous blow Sunday with the death of Stephen Insana.
Insana, the founder, intellectual force and muscle behind the Buckeye Brook Coalition, was 46 years old. His death leaves local environmentalists, friends all, emotionally weary, and wondering if, and how, they’ll fill his large shoes.
“Steve was a very sophisticated and effective advocate, and a complete grass roots champion of the environment, in particular Buckeye Brook,” said John Torgan, Save The Bay’s Baykeeper.
Torgan, a 16-year-veteran of Save The Bay, said Insana was one of the first people he met after coming to Rhode Island. The two hit it off immediately, sparking a 16-year-friendship. Insana’s death, of which the cause is unknown, shocked Torgan. The two spoke about two weeks ago and Insana was in good spirits. He talked of going fishing, one of his beloved hobbies.
Insana, who completed a Boston Marathon, enjoyed running and was a brown belt in karate.
Insana never fit the stereotypical mold of an environmentalist. A blue-collar guy, he worked as a corrections officer at the ACI and ran his own landscaping business.
Insana’s vast array of knowledge was all self-taught. Half of it he amassed from growing up in and around the brook. A simple walk down the brook with Insana turned into an extended history lesson covering Native American settlements to threats from development.
The rest was gained from the countless hours he spent in the Warwick Public Library reading about the environment.
“Steve never went to school to study any of this. He just learned it all on his own,” said Torgan.
“He put that brook on the map because of his passion and hard work...we went to him when we needed information on that area.”
About five years ago, Insana saw a contractor spilling silt and dirt into the brook. Insana wasn’t having it.
“Steve yelled at the equipment operator and they stopped. He lectured them on the pollution laws and storm water regulations,” said Torgan.
“He basically sent them packing.”
Insana was just as incensed several years ago when the brook reeked of glycol, the main ingredient used in aircraft de-icing fluid. He brought reporters to the brook’s edge in the middle of the winter to show them its discolored waters and to get the sweet smell of glycol for themselves. His outcry and the resulting publicity resulted in the Rhode Island Airport Corporation installing a de-icing fluid recovery system costing millions of dollars.
Insana didn’t personalize his issues with RIAC. The brook was his first concern and when it came to an Earth Day cleanup of the stream, he welcomed a team of RIAC workers.
In the spring, Insana closely monitored the brook for the return of alewives and herring for which it is named. With the sighting of the first fish he would be on the phone to the Beacon.
“This is such a huge loss for the community and the Bay. All of us at Save The Bay extend our condolences to the Insana family,” Torgan said.
Paul Earnshaw, the current President of the Buckey Brook Coalition (for the last year, Insana was Vice President) said he couldn’t agree more.
Like Insana, Earnshaw grew up around the brook. As boys, the two vaguely knew each other. It was at a meeting to install sewers in the area about six years ago that they got formally acquainted.
“Everyone else was asking questions about how much the sewers were going to cost and how they were going to be paid for, but I talked about the positive environmental impact. Steve came up to me, put his arm on my shoulder and said ‘You and I need to talk,’” said Earnshaw.
Earnshaw said that Insana felt a Native American-like connection to the earth.
Despite the fact that he’s been the group’s president for the last year, Insana was always the Buckeye Brook Coalition’s true leader. He received numerous awards for his advocacy, and was pushing to have the brook designated as a Wild and Scenic area by the federal government.
Earnshaw said it would be difficult, but vowed to make sure the organization continues protecting Buckeye Brook, and the bay.
“We’re going to hurt for a while. But we all have a piece of Steve in us, and we’re going to rally,” said Earnshaw.
“We will keep Steve in our heart, and he will be our strength in everything we do.”
Like Earnshaw, Mayor Scott Avedisian, who has his own reputation for environmentalism, was a big fan of Insana.
“Steve was relentless. He was always working on some project,” said Avedisian. “He consistently pushed people to pay more attention to the environment.”
Avedisian said Insana and Buckeye Brook will always be synonymous, but hopes people realize that he did more for the city than protect the brook. Insana, he said, was also active in preserving Barton Farm, Morris Farm, supported the Rocky Point acquisition and was behind just about every other environment protection issue.
“There isn’t a part of the city that he didn’t touch in some way,” said Avedisian.
Warwick resident John Paul, a member of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, the Mill Cove conservancy and the Conimicut Village Association, said Insana proved that ordinary, average, everyday people do extraordinary things.
“Steve was just one of us who stepped up for what he believed in,” said Paul. “It wasn’t a hobby or a pastime for him. He believed in what he was doing.”
With reports from John Howell