R.I. Environmental Enforcement Keeps to Slow Lane

Editor’s note: The following is a condensed version of the first story in a three-part series about environmental enforcement in Rhode Island. To read the full story, click here.

By ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island’s commitment to protecting its natural resources, is, say many of those directly involved with such protection, slow to get into gear.

While the economic benefits are often touted of the state’s 14 state beaches, seven major state parks, 40,000 acres of state forestland, and 400 miles of coastline as central to the economic health of the state, state agencies charged with enforcing environmental-protection regulations — the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) — are understaffed, with requests for funds to increase enforcement and legal staff generally ignored by the Statehouse.

DEM’s current staff of 374, for example, falls far short of its 650-member workforce of a decade ago. CRMC is so understaffed that it often has to rely on after-the-fact complaints, such as a $1.8 million Point Judith house illegally built on public land.

Moreover, small-fry violators such as fishermen who catch more than their limit of striped bass receive more immediate attention and publicity than larger violators, such as a 2011 notice of violation for 2010 illegal wetland and floodplain work in Cumberland that wasn’t resolved until 2016, or the several junk vessels that remain sunken in the Providence River and the companies responsible not being held accountable.

Additionally, press releases issued by the governor’s office, General Assembly, and DEM stress the importance of Rhode Island’s “business friendly” approach, emphasizing outdoor-related jobs and hunting and fishing licenses issued.

“There’s no value assigned to the resource itself, and the habitat, and the ecosystem,” says a former DEM attorney. “It goes undervalued and is incrementally destroyed by a lack of enforcement.”