Environmental Management or PR Department? It's Hard to Tell

By FRANK CARINI

This tweet was sent out after the recent celebration of the expansion of an East Providence business — an event attended by Gov. Gina Raimondo, middle, and DEM director Janet Coit, right. (DEM Twitter)

This tweet was sent out after the recent celebration of the expansion of an East Providence business — an event attended by Gov. Gina Raimondo, middle, and DEM director Janet Coit, right. (DEM Twitter)

The recent tweet was and is poppycock, especially from a government agency whose job is to protect the environment. It reads more like a chamber of commerce posting: “TY @AspenAerogels for helping to protect our environment & feed our innovation economy!”

The company being praised by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) for its environmental protections is an East Providence business that has spilled some 4,700 gallons of ethanol in the past two years, been fined by DEM for air pollution violations and is well paid by the fossil-fuel industry.

This isn’t meant to slam Aspen Aerogels, criticize its environmental record or question its business practices. DEM has marketed the company, falsely, as some sort of environmental protector. It doesn’t deserve that moniker. Are we now going to brand “environmental protector” in the same manner as “green,” “natural” and “local”?

Like nearly all companies, Aspen Aerogels isn’t “helping to protect our environment.” Businesses can be environmentally responsible, and many are, but very few actually protect the environment. Capitalism doesn’t protect natural resources; it’s built to do just the opposite. To help balance that fact, government agencies were created to protect, monitor and manage those resources. In Rhode Island, apparently, the agency created to do just that also is responsible for pumping up the state’s business climate.

Even in this age of climate-change concerns and dwindling resources, it’s already difficult to have substantial discussions about real environmental protections. That conversation is even more challenging when the state agency responsible for environmental management doesn’t respect the concept. Look no further than its ridiculous tweet from Oct. 26.

Touting a business that uses materials mined from the earth and whose products are used by “19 of the world’s top 20 petrochemical companies” — a list that includes the likes of ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical and DuPont — for its help in protecting the environment is both disingenuous and disconcerting.

DEM celebrating the environmental stewardship of a company that took 2.5 hours to report the spill of 4,500 gallons of ethanol to the East Providence Fire Department and a business the agency itself fined for failing to capture volatile organic compounds and ammonia emissions and fined another time for violating the Clean Air Act is absurd. It also sends a conflicting message.

When did the state agency entrusted with “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” become the taxpayer-funded public-relations arm for Ocean State businesses?

A quick look at the DEM Twitter feed reads more like that of a chamber of commerce than an environmental management agency. The feed is filled with thank-you’s to businesses and has 20 tweets dedicated to the recent announcement that the Volvo Ocean Race 2018 will be held in Newport — a great event worthy of celebrating, but couldn’t all the economic gushing have been left to the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation?

While DEM’s role shouldn’t be about the destruction of Rhode Island’s business environment, it also shouldn’t be one of economic development cheerleader. Environmental management doesn’t mean applauding businesses and corporations for using the Ocean State’s natural resources.

Frank Carini is the editor and co-founder of ecoRI News.