For the past four decades the General Assembly has passed and governors have signed countless bills designed to protect the Ocean State’s natural resources. While most are ineffective, ignored or under enforced, they have created layers of bureaucracy and rolls of red tape, and left complying businesses at an economic disadvantage.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
During a recent interview for a story about the importance of wetlands, the interviewee asked a question in the middle of our conversation that neither of us could answer: Why isn’t Rhode Island leading the way when it comes to environmental protections?
Sure, the state has a fine collection of successes — the Coastal Resources Management Council's leadership on the climate-change front, the Narragansett Bay Commission’s combined sewer overflow project and the new Infrastructure Bank — but the collective work of the executive and legislative branches during the past four decades has treated the environment as an afterthought. That indifference has trickled down to the municipal level.
The state that created the moniker “Ocean State,” in 1972, to attract tourists and energize the economy should have done more since then to protect its 400 miles of coastline and unique collection of natural resources. Rhode Island has passed plenty of laws purportedly created to protect the environment since that day 43 years ago, but many of them are inadequate and most aren’t enforced, or are enforced selectively depending on who "knows a guy."
“The environment is seen as a this or that thing, not as our world, our lives,” said Meg Kerr, director of Clean Water Action Rhode Island. “We put it in its own little box.”
It’s not wise, on so many levels, to put Mother Nature in a corner, but the Ocean State plows ahead hardening the shoreline, destroying wetlands and pretending natural gas isn’t a fossil fuel.
On the flip side, local environmentalists and conservationists are quick to tout the successful passage of open space and clean water bonds, noting such ballot questions typically pass with about 60 percent of the vote. But what good is all that bond money if environmental laws are ineffective and/or seldom enforced, government leadership on the issue consistently lacking, and many state lawmakers deaf to the collective voice of the electorate?
All Rhode Islanders live within a 30-minute drive to Narragansett Bay or the Atlantic Ocean, and Rhode Island has a wonderful collection of preserved places, but most of the work needed to protect these natural resources has and is being done by non-governmental organizations, small nonprofits and selfless volunteers.
These organizations and people work to restore damaged wetlands and abused rivers. Much of their time is spent dealing with inflexible state agencies and rolls of red tape. They are left alone to battle well-funded D.C. lobbyists and special interest groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemical Council.
During the 2015 session, for example, the General Assembly ignored efforts to reduce the load of toxic chemicals the public is exposed to in everyday products. Bans on products containing formaldehyde, bisphenol A and carcinogenic flame retardants died in committee. Six industry lobbyists testified against the bills.
Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) since 2011, recently told ecoRI News that environmental laws protect public and environmental health and help make Rhode Island a place where people want to live, work and play.
“It can’t be about big business versus the environment,” she said. “That can’t be the dichotomy. Both are extremely important. Our parks, beaches, bike paths and forestry are part of the tourism economy, but they also contribute to quality of community and their health."
She's right, but evidence suggests the playing field still tilts heavily toward business interests.
Statehouse leadership has long seemed to consider the natural world an impediment to job creation and economic development. During the 2014 election season, in a time of growing climate-change concern, especially for a state with a built-up coastline, the main party candidates for governor could scarcely be bothered to talk about environment protections during their campaigns and choreographed debates. The winner, however, did pledge to elevate Rhode Island’s rank as a tourist destination.
DEM, the state agency responsible for protecting the Ocean State’s natural resources, was neutered in the mid-1990s by lawmakers more concerned about business relationships than environmental protections.
Since that business-friendly House commission power play of 20 years ago — referred to as the “Kennedy Commission” by those who were interrogated for wanting clean water, land and air — Rhode Island’s elected leaders have continued to ignore the fact that protecting the environment and investing in healthy ecosystems has the dual benefit of sustaining the economy and protecting public health.
“There’s this deep-rooted mindset that protecting the environment somehow hinders the economy,” said Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s advocacy director. “The idea is completely wrong.”
This mindset, however, drives Rhode Island policy. The Ocean State relies significantly on the natural world to steer its economy, but the state’s collective actions during the past four decades appear more concerned with placating those interested in abusing the environment.
Those around for the Kennedy Commission’s witch-hunt say DEM management and staff were unnecessarily vilified and humiliated. The institutional memory of that pro-business tirade by still-sitting legislators haunts the agency’s Foundry offices.
“Rhode Island stands to lose a lot if its natural resources dwindle and suffer,” said Jan Reitsma, DEM’s director from 1999-2003. “(Legislators) need to recognize the value of the state’s beaches and parks and invest in their protection in the correct way.”
A litany of toxic actions
For years municipalities such as Warwick and Portsmouth and the General Assembly in particular have allowed groups of residents and the Rhode Island Association of Realtors to delay action — by falsely scaring people into believing they would lose their homes and the real-estate market would collapse — aimed at phasing out cesspools, which, even when “working properly,” do nothing but push raw sewage and other untreated waste underground, where this toxic concoction migrates to drinking-water sources and swimming holes.
It took a lawsuit and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling it one of the worst treatment plants in the United States for much-needed improvements to be done, in the 1980s, at Providence’s Fields Point wastewater treatment facility.
In 1989, 17 years after the Clean Water Act became federal law, Clean Water Action’s Kerr moved to Rhode Island — from Washington, D.C., and North Carolina, where she had spent the previous nine years working for the EPA and North Carolina’s environmental department — and bought a home on Seaview Avenue in Cranston. She was stunned to discover 20 homes on that street, including her own, discharged wastewater directly into Pawtuxet Cove and Narragansett Bay.
“Straight pipes from the homes right into the cove and the bay. No sewage treatment at all,” Kerr recalled. “I’m still amazed the state allowed that to happen.”
That environmental/public-health problem was corrected in the early 1990s, but Rhode Island’s environmental vision remains out of focus.
For instance, Rhode Island banned new cesspool construction in 1968, four years before the Clean Water Act, but, nearly five decades later, the state still has some 24,000 holes in the ground being filled with human waste. Groundwater near cesspools contains up to 77,000 times the amount of fecal material as groundwater close to septic systems. Cesspools have been linked to Rhode Island beach closures.
This year the General Assembly — thanks to tireless work by Save The Bay’s Hamblett and a few determined legislators — finally got around to enacting a law that phases out cesspools. The law goes into effect Jan. 1, but phase-outs are tied to the sale of property, which will prolong the continued use of many cesspools for decades.
This celebrated law — environmentalists embrace all victories, as even the small ones take plenty of finesse and persistence — basically punishes those who ignored the manufactured fear and already replaced their cesspools, even if it cost them some of their savings. That’s what responsible homeowners do.
At the bill’s signing ceremony, Gov. Gina Raimondo proclaimed the new cesspool law will create construction jobs, increase property values, and make the state cleaner and healthier. She forgot to mention none of that will happen anytime soon.
The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.
“At some point we’ll realize that all these degradations we are doing to our rivers and streams don’t have to happen,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust. “Pressure on our natural resources is too great, but it’s difficult for us to even make simple changes, like diverting stormwater from a parking lot that is flowing directly into a stream below. We’re in a constant rush for economic development and job creation at almost any cost.”
A few months after signing the cesspool bill into law, Raimondo celebrated the construction of a new natural-gas power plant in Burrillville, by a Chicago-based company, as a job creator. She never mentioned the role fossil fuels play in changing the climate, the environmental damage caused by pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground to break apart rock and release natural gas, or the impact the facility will have on rural Rhode Island.
Once the power plant is built, near the banks of the impaired Clear River, it’s expected to create less than 30 jobs.
The Ocean State Steel site is a brownfield on Bourne Avenue in East Providence. The business operated from 1989-1994, when a Superior Court judge ordered the plant shut down because of ongoing air pollution violations. Attempts to bring the facility into compliance were fruitless and, despite the negative impact the polluting operation was having on the local community, pro-business officials in state government were furious when the plant was ordered closed.
“The economic development director at the time went berserk, arguing not to close them down,” recalled Louise Durfee, DEM’s director from 1991-94. “The plant was spewing pollution into the neighborhood and neighbors were concerned and angry. They put up with a lot.”
The Barrington Town Council allows a sales representative employed by a German company that manufactures plastic shopping bags to present a 6-minute infomercial on the virtues of these petroleum pouches. CVS and Shaw’s are exploiting a loophole in the town’s bag ban and the European company sees dollar signs.
State lawmakers annually fail to address the broken formula that funds the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. In fact, this important sector, which directly impacts the environment, public health and the economy, is routinely ignored by governors and legislators. They certainly haven’t presented any fresh ideas to improve public transit. This past session, legislators were likely too busy discussing the merits of banning some guy’s pet parrot from state campgrounds to properly address this increasingly important issue.
For five years, the state has allowed a waterfront metals recycler in Providence to contaminate the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay with polluted runoff and fuel from derelict vessels the company has no business storing. The company opened in 2009 without many of the required permits, including the one needed to conduct car-crushing operations.
The low price of scrap metal, not the state, will likely shut down the illegal business, which will then leave behind an ongoing pollution problem and a huge clean-up bill that could end up costing taxpayers millions. The property, a former Superfund site taxpayers already helped clean up, originally became contaminated between 1979 and 1989, when state officials failed to regulate the computer and electronics shredding facility operating there.
“It would be foolish to deny that some of this lack of enforcement stuff isn’t political,” said Reitsma, a former DEM director. “These political connections create a climate that makes it difficult for agencies to do their jobs.”
Save The Bay, the Providence-based nonprofit advocacy organization, largely fought the polluting waterfront scrap-metal recycling operation alone.
“The environment needs to be a bigger priority in state government,” Save The Bay's Hamblett said. “We need to give agencies the ability to do their jobs. They need funding and staff. DEM’s capacity to respond to violations has been eroded.”
Shrinking budget, growing problems
For many frustrated by Rhode Island’s passive approach to environmental protections, DEM takes most of the blame. Much of it isn’t deserved, at least not directly.
Local environmentalists note that the Legislature doesn’t allow the beleaguered agency to do its job properly. A long list of governors has failed to provide the agency with the support needed to go punch for punch with an apathetic General Assembly.
“DEM’s overall budget has been cut every year for at least a decade,” Hamblett said. “It can’t do its basic job of protecting Rhode Island’s natural resources. The agency has been pressured to be more friendly to business.”
The agency’s current director said programs, such as Gov. Raimondo’s Lean Initiative and the expedited citation process for alleged noncompliance — enacted in 2013 with 234 citations since issued — have made it easier to deal with budget cuts and staff reductions.
“Every state department has shrunk,” Coit said. “We have to be smarter with our resources and time, and change our way of doing things. We’re getting people out of the office and into the field, inspecting wetlands and checking permits.”
Both Durfee, the agency’s director in the early 1990s, and Kendra Beaver, a DEM attorney for 10 years in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, saw firsthand the impact of budget cuts and staffing reductions when it came to enforcement. In fact, Durfee was fired by then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun for her differing views regarding the agency’s budgetary needs.
During her tenure as DEM director, Durfee said she regularly received calls from legislators politely asking why this or that project was being held up. It was their subtle way of putting business before wetlands.
“There was always political pressure from the governor’s office and Statehouse,” Durfee said. “Environmental laws are public-health related. They help protect clean air, clean water, the water we drink, groundwater — that idea has become a bit obscured."
The number of full-time employees for DEM is capped at 399, and the agency currently has about 385, according to Rose Amoros Jones, DEM’s chief public affairs officer. The agency's current full-time staff includes 31 environmental police officer positions — four vacant positions need to be filled — 23 employees in the Office of Compliance & Inspection and six attorneys.
DEM’s current budget, according to Amoros Jones, is $99,304,621, including $37.6 million from general revenue, $29.3 million from the federal government and $18.4 million in restricted receipts.
Chris Fox, the executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, has butted heads with DEM on more than one occasion, and his organization is regularly cutting through red tape. Despite these many frustrations, however, Fox has the utmost respect for the work the agency does.
He and many others blame the General Assembly and Rhode Island politics for DEM’s failures.
“Fortunately, we have an agency with employees that really care about the environment,” Fox said. “Unfortunately, DEM isn’t given the necessary tools, staffing and money to do the job it wants to do.”
The state’s business-friendly approach to environmental management hasn’t gone unnoticed by those concerned about Rhode Island’s natural resources or those worried about their own health.
For instance, some residents of Westerly and Charlestown claim the state's business-first approach has damaged local wetlands and put their health at risk. This group of concerned residents spent five years fighting a quarrying operation, begun in 2010 by an out-of-state company with a less-than-stellar reputation, in the middle of a residential neighborhood and between two of Rhode Island’s protected treasurers — the Woody Hill Management Area and Burlingame State Park.
Despite repeated and constant pleas, quarry neighbors claim DEM, local officials and state lawmakers did little to address their concerns. Amoros Jones said DEM conducted nearly 80 inspections at the quarry for air pollution violations, and conducted water pollution, solid waste, hazardous waste and freshwater wetlands inspections. This past legislative session the General Assembly passed a law largely written to address problems at the quarry.
Residents say those efforts came long after damage was done. Their biggest concern is the 80-million-pound mountain chain of stone dust on the 108-acre property and the ongoing health and environmental problems posed by those 40,000 tons.
Silica dust, created by the crushing and/or cutting of materials such as stone, rock, concrete, brick and block, is a known human carcinogen. Prolonged exposure to crystalline silica can lead to the lung disease silicosis and to lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“DEM is like a blockade,” Charlestown resident Susan Clayton, who lives about a football field from the quarry and is currently battling cancer, told ecoRI News in early September. “We left voice-mail messages but never heard anything back. Taxpayers and individuals will be left to carry the load of problems created by this quarry.”
Earlier this year, DEM admitted Copar Quarries failed to comply with a consent agreement that addressed water pollution, but the business, like the one on Providence’s waterfront, wasn't forced to do anything. In fact, bankruptcy, not any state agency, ultimately addressed the neighbors’ longstanding concerns about the operation.
During a Statehouse hearing last spring, a DEM official told the House Committee on Municipal Government that the agency lacked a sufficient number of inspectors and lawyers to properly regulate the Copar operation.
Some of the people ecoRI News spoke with for this story during the past six months said they are tired of hearing excuses — particularly about not having enough staff or funding — as to why the state agency doesn’t fulfill its mission, as stated on the DEM website: “Preserving the quality of Rhode Island’s environment, maintaining the health and safety of its residents, and protecting the natural systems upon which life depends.”
Westerly resident Charles Marsh, a vocal opponent of Copar who is also concerned about the damage being done to South County wetlands by industrial operations and development, said Rhode Island continues to pass laws that state agencies, such as DEM, fail to enforce. What’s the point, he and others ask?
“Nobody is ever going to be compensated for the environmental damage and public-health damage that has been done,” Marsh said. “Taxpayers will pay for all of it. Cronyism is the root cause of most of Rhode Island’s problems. Our political animals aren’t worried about the environment and public health.”
He noted that the health of a neighborhood was jeopardized for the sake of quarry business interests. “We’re willing to risk Rhode Island’s drinking water by not enforcing environmental laws,” Marsh said.
DEM enforcement negligence ranges from minor impacts, such as ignoring the use of gas-powered boats on Wallum Lake, to major ones, such as allowing businesses to operate illegally without the proper permits and not holding other state agencies accountable for their environmental violations.
In the mid-1980s the General Assembly passed a law requiring all Rhode Island businesses to recycle. About 50 percent to 55 percent of the waste that is buried annually in the Central Landfill is commercial, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. The quasi-government organization is currently studying how much of that material is recyclable — odds are much of it is.
DEM employees have admitted many, if not most, Rhode Island businesses don’t recycle property. Most of the state's public schools don't even recycle. On the DEM website, the state agency even provides built-in excuses for businesses: added cost, space constraints or time commitment for training staff. On the same webpage, the agency also notes that Rhode Island needs to take a more active role in diverting waste from the landfill.
In the nearly 30 years since the state's recycling law was enacted, DEM has neither warned nor fined any business for noncompliance. The reason, according to Amoros Jones, is that no complaint has ever been filed. While the commercial sector isn’t held accountable for known, and sometimes obvious, recycling violations, residents who abstain from recycling have been fined or don’t have their trash bins emptied.
Food scrap is the single largest type of waste entering U.S. landfills, according to the EPA. An estimated 250 tons of organic waste heads to the Central Landfill daily, and only about 2 percent of Rhode Island’s compostable waste is diverted, according to the federal agency.
Rhode Island lawmakers have long ignored the need to divert food scrap from the ever-shrinking Central Landfill in Johnston. They have even ignored the job-creating promise of such diversion. They certainly haven’t embraced the environmental importance of composting.
Last year, when the General Assembly finally did act, it passed a diluted law that is less stringent than similar laws in neighboring states. The initial version of the bill required composting for all institutions by 2021. But after opposition from restaurants and school groups, the compliance threshold was reduced to a smaller pool of institutions — those that generate 2 tons or more of organic waste weekly.
Several exemptions also were added, such as a “fair-price” provision that allows institutions to opt out if it’s cheaper to ship food scrap to the landfill. K-12 public schools were exempted. No incentives created to push statewide composting forward; just more excuses to keep burying food scrap.
Then, sometime in the near future, when Johnston residents inevitably complain about foul odors, shortsighted lawmakers will grill Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation staff about the problem and demand action. A study commission will be formed to address the problem. It will recommend that Rhode Island create a statewide composting program. Special interest groups and lobbyists will complain. The study will end up in a Dumpster.
Lack of enforcement
This past summer, DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement conducted multi-day operations that targeted the illegal fishing of striped bass. Among those arrested was a 72-year-old Charlestown man charged with the possession of striped bass during Rhode Island’s closed season.
In fact, from June to September, the agency’s environmental police arrested about 40 people on such charges as taking blue crabs at night, being in possession of undersized scup, being in possession of tautog during closed season, and taking shellfish from a polluted area.
The polluted area was likely contaminated by a combination of stormwater runoff, lawn chemicals and discharges from wastewater treatment plants. All problems the state has long ignored or has been slow to recognize.
While targeting the infractions of individuals — some of whom may be trying to feed their families with undersized black sea bass — the state continues to ignore the big environmental picture. But it’s far easier and politically safer to arrest senior citizens and immigrants for exceeding the daily limit of summer flounder.
DEM's Office of Compliance & Inspection, which is typically enforcing more complex and egregious environmental violations than, say, busting some guy for possessing illegally caught striped bass and trying to sell them across state lines, actually has eight fewer full-time employees than the agency's Division of Law Enforcement, which received help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Law Enforcement to bring the 72-year-old Charlestown man to justice.
Neither division has enough staff to properly inspect, monitor and enforce Rhode Island's environmental laws. The Providence Police Department, for the sake of comparison, has 26 parking enforcement officers.
In the 10 years from 2003-2013 fines imposed by the DEM declined by more than half, from $1.1 million to $439,000, according to a 2014 NBC 10 I-Team report.
“Don’t try to tell me people aren’t violating environmental laws,” said Beaver, a former DEM attorney who is now the staff attorney for Save The Bay, referring to the steady decline of violations issued by the Office of Compliance & Inspection. “It’s not credible. It’s because enforcement is equated with being anti-business.”
Three years ago, out-of-state fishing trawlers, each about 150 feet long, scooped up massive hauls of herring off the Narragansett and Charlestown coast and allegedly damaged fishing equipment and boats. Several legislators and local fishermen expressed concern, and lawmakers introduced a bill to ban pair-trawling, like it is in Narragansett Bay.
DEM didn’t oppose or endorse the bill, which eventually died in committee. The agency wasn’t terribly worried about overfishing, but did express concern about the economic impact of fishing revenue moving out of state. Responsible environmental management didn’t seem to be a big concern for the agency responsible for providing it. The fight was too big.
Instead, at roughly the same time pair trawlers were gorging on herring, Rhode Island lawmakers were eagerly working to get “Rhode Island-style” calamari recognized as the official state appetizer, in hopes of giving the Ocean State its equivalent to the Maine lobster. The silly bill passed.
Addressing how to protect the Ocean State’s coastal waters and the life they support remains a conversation-in-waiting for other people’s kids. Business interests take precedent over natural resources, leaving state agencies to focus on the infractions that produce the least amount of resistance — to the detriment of the environment, public health and future generations.
In fact, as the system works now, companies that comply with Rhode Island’s largely unenforced environmental regulations are at an economic disadvantage — for bearing the cost of conducting their business responsibly.
“Lots of business people are good environmental citizens,” said Reitsma, a former DEM director. “A lot of people in the business community get the importance of environmental protections. Yet, at the same time, they see cheaters go unpunished.”
A Providence resident who works for an environmental consulting company with clients in Rhode Island told ecoRI News the current system, which has allowed companies to operate without the proper permits, angers businesses that want to comply. The individual, who didn’t want to be named, also said DEM’s backlog — the agency began 2013 with 152 cases pending and ended the year with 151, for example — its outdated technology and lack of attentiveness frustrates all businesses, regardless of their compliance intentions.
Like so many other people interviewed for this story, the person asked, “Why are there mountains of paperwork for regulations that aren’t enforced?”
Beaver said Rhode Island must enforce its environmental penalties, in the interest of environmental, societal and economic justice. “We can’t just make laws and then just not enforce them,” she said.
Reitsma said businesses know that if they appeal enforcement actions they will end up paying much less. “DEM doesn’t have enough lawyers ... so why would a business pay a fine when they know negotiations will wear (DEM) out and the cost will go down?” he said. “It’s a strange way to do enforcement.”
For a state that is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, it would seem state and local government, its 45 land trusts, numerous environmental organizations, its academic institutions and the business community could better work together protecting the resources that make Rhode Island the Ocean State.
Unfortunately, both the private and public sector work in a vacuum when it comes to protecting the environment. Since state agencies aren’t on the same page — even divisions within a single agency have no idea what the other is doing — and duplicating efforts, Rhode Island’s entrenched bureaucracy grows stronger by the year.
“There’s no real leadership in the House, Senate and governor’s office to adequately address the environment,” said Roselli, the Burrillville Land Trust president. “The tide has shifted away from regulatory compliance. The cesspool bill, for as good as it is, was an easy bill to pass. It’s a step in the right direction, but real leadership would ask how do we accelerate this?”
All of this dysfunction, which isn’t unique to the environment sector, comes from years of practice. The legislative and executive branches of Rhode Island government are slow to embrace change or recognize 21st-century challenges, especially when its comes to the environment. This lack of emphasis on protecting the Ocean State’s natural resources is a top-down problem that runs through all state agencies. They’ve been infected for quite sometime.
The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (DOT), for example, is facing pressure and fines — to be paid by Ocean State taxpayers — from the U.S. Department of Justice because of environmental damage caused by years of inadequately monitoring highway runoff. DEM, for its part, never enforced the permit.
DOT officials have noted that the state has never compiled a full inventory of its highway drainage system. In fact, during a recent Statehouse press briefing, DOT director Peter Alviti admitted his agency doesn’t even know where all of the parts are located.
In a press release to address the state’s noncompliance, complete with quotes from Gov. Raimondo and Alviti, that touts all the progress Rhode Island is making on the environmental front, DOT proclaims this assessment “will provide a comprehensive inventory of these assets and help the Department take a proactive approach to cleaning and maintaining these structures, rather than just responding to reports of flooding and damaged drainage systems.”
This action comes decades late, and after plenty of environmental damage has already been done. After the federal government forced DOT to do its job, its director gushed about the Ocean State’s beauty. “Rhode Island is blessed with abundant natural resources including Narragansett Bay and hundreds of lakes, ponds and rivers. It is imperative that we protect these fragile resources.”
To be fair, DOT’s environmental ignorance began long before Raimondo was elected in 2014 and Alviti was hired this year, but their reaction, perhaps sincere, comes across as hollow in the wake of four decades of empty leadership rhetoric about protecting the environment.
For all the talk about the importance of mitigating stormwater runoff, Rhode Island government, at both the state and municipal level, has been slow to minimize this pollution tidal wave.
A stormwater utility district, an idea first introduced in the United States in the mid-1970s, is essentially a tax designed to generate funding for stormwater management. About 2,000 U.S. municipalities have such districts, according to the EPA. The Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act of 2002 authorizes cities and towns to create such districts, “to eliminate and prevent the contamination of the state’s waters and to operate and maintain existing stormwater conveyance systems.”
No Rhode Island municipality has adopted a stormwater utility district. A few, however, are studying the idea.
Conservationists and business did work together this year with lawmakers to pass a wetlands bill, which basically created statewide guidelines for building near wetlands. Progress, for sure, but really only a tiny step in a marathon.
“The bill that was passed is better than what was in place, but it is worrisome that development organizations were in favor of it,” Roselli said. “Builders gained a lot by these new uniform wetlands codes. It’s a big win for builders. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
Builders certainly held plenty of sway in crafting the bill. During its final meeting, task force members voted 15-1 to give municipalities the option to protect sensitive ecological areas with a 300-foot “critical resource area.” Only the Rhode Island Builders Association opposed the idea; it never made it into the bill that eventually passed.
Gov. Raimondo’s praise for this new law is even a bit one-sided. “This legislation is an example of the good we can achieve when business, environmental groups and government work together. By streamlining wetlands permitting, our state is moving at the speed of business. Not only does this legislation build upon the other environmental successes our legislators have had this session, but it will spur economic development and make it easier to [sic] business in the Ocean State.”
A dozen years ago, state government and the private sector came together quickly and effectively to address an environmental disaster, creating a plan that has since reduced nitrogen inputs from wastewater treatment plants by 50 percent. It took a major fish kill in Greenwich Bay in 2003 to spur this collaboration. Properly protecting Rhode Island’s natural resources, however, demands a more proactive approach.
“It takes years of pushing and cajoling to get environmental laws done,” said Save The Bay’s Hamblett. “You can’t expect any legislature to act without a push from the environmental community to develop stronger policies.”
Regulations and policies without enforcement and incentives, however, are meaningless and burdensome. Rhode Island’s continued lack of environmental enforcement, from allowing rogue scrap-metal recyclers to pollute a waterfront to the state’s own contributions to ongoing environmental degradation, comes with a price, and the bill usually comes due after elected leaders have left office.
“Taxpayers are eventually going to pay for all this lack of enforcement,” said Kerr of Clean Water Action.
During the past few years even the state’s largest private foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation, has diminished its environmental support to focus more on economic growth.*
Last year, in an effort to be more user friendly, the DEM opened a new Permit Application Center to make the agency more responsive to the needs of businesses. The project was partially funded by a $47,000 grant through the Rhode Island Foundation’s Make It Happen RI economic development initiative and included redoing the agency’s main lobby.
According to the many people ecoRI News spoke with for this story, piecemeal projects, poorly supported initiatives and ignored studies do little to properly protect Rhode Island’s natural resources or improve the state’s business climate.
Former DEM director Durfee noted that consultants hired to navigate businesses through the permitting process often blame the state agency for their own delays. The excuse always works.
Former DEM director Reitsma said Rhode Island needs to streamline its ad hoc collection of regulations, incentivize environmental protections and more harshly punish businesses that fail to comply. He said DEM is too busy getting beat up on multiple fronts to work effectively.
“The agency is digging in to protect itself. It’s afraid to be bold,” he said. “Our political leaders have to have the guts to say we support environmental protections.”
A prescription that may be tough to swallow
A healthy environment is routinely identified, in dust-covered reports, at staged media events, during task force meetings and in the media, as an economic asset — the subtle implication being that Rhode Island’s natural resources are there to be exploited.
Less frequently discussed in the upper reaches of the Rhode Island deal-making class are the vital services the state’s collection of salt marshes, forests and estuaries provide. They reduce flooding, protect the coastline from storm surge and heavy winds, and provide clean air and drinking water.
They also are taken for granted, and their priceless functions threatened and often destroyed for private profit. It will take political will, pushed for by the voting public, to stop Rhode Island’s march to incessant economic development at all costs, according to those currently doing most of the pushing.
Reitsma pointed to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as example of what can be done when various parties work together and combine resources. “The amount of emissions reduced by this initiative has been astounding,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of how things can and should be done.”
Unsurprisingly, some members of the General Assembly have attacked the successful program.
Asking residents to use rain barrels, encouraging businesses to use permeable pavers and applauding municipalities for mitigating stormwater runoff with rain gardens means little if Rhode Island’s legislative and executive branches continue to allow economic growth to dominate the conversation.
Hamblett said environmental advocacy alone isn’t going to change the state’s collective mindset. “Business owners need to see the value strong enforcement and strong permitting have on the environment and economy,” he said. “Improving the business climate includes well-resourced, professionally run state agencies that protect our natural resources.”
That type of paradigm shift will require something Rhode Island has been sorely lacking since “Ocean State” replaced “Discover” on license plates.
“It takes strong, gutsy leadership to make tough decisions,” Roselli said.
One such bold idea, proposed by Fox, executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, would involve changing the name of DEM to, say, the Department of Natural Resources, purging the existing staff, adequately staffing the re-branded agency by rehiring those who embrace the new direction, and empowering management to make protecting the environment a priority.
Fox also mentioned increasing the cost of hunting and fishing licenses — of which he has both — and state beach passes — he also has one of those — as a way to help better fund environmental protections.
“Everyone’s hands are shackled by our political system,” he said. “It comes down to what the Rhode Island taxpayer is willing to spend. Are we willing to swallow more taxes and make some sacrifices?”
There’s no chance taxpayers answer that question in the affirmative, at least not until Rhode Island’s executive and legislative bodies begin to show some real leadership — the kind that doesn’t waste tax dollars on video-game companies and paying federal fines for destroying our own environment.
ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.
*ecoRI News has received grant funding from the Rhode Island Foundation.