General Assembly Fails Environmental Test

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — If the environment were a math test, the state legislature would have scored pretty poorly during its latest session. Of the dozen or so pro-environment bills, only a handful made it into law.

The big winner, of course, was the package of laws that created a framework for electricity distributors, such as National Grid, to buy power from wind, photovoltaic, hydroelectric and other renewable energy projects. The distributed generation guidelines are expected to kick-start Rhode Island's foundering renewable energy sector, which has lagged behind Massachusetts, New York and other states with existing alternative energy incentives.

Under the new laws, small renewable projects capable of generating up to 5 megawatts of power, or about three commercial-scale turbines, can qualify for fixed electricity pricing over a fixed period. The guarantee helps these power generators produce a predictable revenue stream, which in turn attracts financial backers to underwrite the projects.

Support for the legislation came from state agencies, environmental groups, farmers and builders. Action is already underway on the program, as the state Office of Energy Resources held its first meeting Friday to consider pricing for these new long-term electric contracts.  

Another winner
Modeled on the Rhody Fresh milk collaborative, H6259 and S0997 created a seafood marketing collaborative to support local fisherman and locally caught seafood. You know it's a good law when Rep. Robert Watson, R-East Greenwich, lashes out against the bill during the floor vote. "This bill speaks volumes to what we shouldn't be doing," he said.

Bad bills that went nowhere
S533
and H5554. These homebuilder-friendly bills advocated for setting state standards for wetland zoning that included a provision that would have allowed building on erodible land up to a 45-degree slope. Died in committee. 

Rep. Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket, made a late push to overturn the state incinerator ban so that a trash-to-energy facility could be brought to his city. H5315 passed through committee but never had a corresponding Senate bill to move it ahead. A resolution, however, did pass to again form a commission to study trash incinerators.

Failures
H5888
and S459. A determined push by Clean Water Action Rhode Island to make companies somewhat responsible for the trash they sell was met with strong opposition. Even though the bill only targeted sharp medical instruments and mattresses, lobbyist representing big special interest groups, such as the auto industry, spoke out against the measure.

"We're going to bring (the bills) back next year," Sheila Dormody, director of Clean Water Action, said.

Certain batteries containing mercury, specifically those in $10 watches hawked by Avon, were given a longer life and can now be sold until the end of this year under bills S1042A and H6241A. The state ban on mercury in all batteries was supposed to take full effect July 1.

The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation runs the Central Landfill in Johnston, which is expected to run out of space in 24 years, and endorsed bills S454A and H6204 to take in recycling from other states. Both passed. Accepting recycling from elsewhere means more waste at the landfill, as at least 10 percent of the recyclable material brought to the facility is trash. That percentage is likely to increase next year with the statewide switch to single-stream recycling. Of course, the new law brings in more revenue. 

“Rhode Island cannot afford policies like this legislation that might make a quick buck, but cost significantly more in the long run as we shorten the life of the landfill,” Eugenia Marks of the Audobon Society of Rhode Island wrote in a prepared statement from Environment Council of Rhode Island.

The American Chemistry Council and a local bag distributor helped defeat two bills that tried to cut down on plastic bag use with incentives for customers.

The 25 percent state tax credit for installing home- and small-business-based wind and solar units was stripped from the 2011 budget by the General Assembly and then-Gov. Don Carcieri last year. Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown/Middletown, tried to bring the incentive back with H6117 but it never saw the light of day.

H5499. A prohibition on children's baby bottles containing bishphenol A failed. BPA has been linked to reproductive abnormalities, impaired brain function, cancer, early puberty and obesity. The bill died in committee April 6.