By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The state environmental agency is getting better at issuing permits but it’s getting worse at stopping polluters, according to critics of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s proposed 2016 budget.
At a recent Statehouse budget hearing, DEM director Janet Coit praised the agency for its customer-friendly improvements, such as faster permitting, a new customer-service center and the implementation of a workplace efficiency program.
But there was sharp pushback from critics who said dwindling environmental enforcement is allowing polluters to harm the environment and create public-health problems.
“The enforcement capacity at the agency has been whittled away for 10 years now, ” Save The Bay executive director Jonathan Stone said during the May 12 hearing.
Since 2005, Stone said, DEM has cut its legal staff from nine attorneys to six; compliance and inspection officers have been reduced from 35 to 22; and the Office of Water Resources, which oversees water quality and wetlands, has dropped from 68 to 51 employees. DEM said during the last 10 years it has reduced the number of attorneys from eight to six. Compliance and inspection personnel has been cut from 39 to 23. And water resources staff has dropped from 86 to 69.
The job reductions have allowed polluters such as Rhode Island Recycled Metals (RIRM) to pollute the Providence waterfront for several years, while putting companies that comply with the laws at a competitive disadvantage, Stone said.
“It’s not just not about the number of people, (DEM) does not have adequate resources to provide a level playing field for the business community,” he said.
RIRM has been flouting environmental rules since it opened on Allens Avenue in 2009. The waterfront scrap-metal yard never applied for the necessary permits, received numerous violations, ignored orders to stop polluting the Providence River, and never complied with a 2013 consent agreement to clean up the site. The company also sits atop a former Superfund site and has damaged the protective soil cap that covers the contaminated ground, according to DEM records.
Rather than focus on environmental damage, Stone also noted the harm lawless companies such as RIRM do to the economy.
“If you are a small business and you want to invest in jobs and stay in Rhode Island and you feel like you are put at a disadvantage to your competitors, you’re not going to stick around or you are not going to locate here,” he said.
In an e-mail to ecoRI News, Coit said that DEM has partnered with the Attorney General in order to take action in court. "Unfortunately, regulation and compliance are not one-time activities, and often sustained efforts are required to address industrial facilities. We are concerned about this site and are actively pursuing remediation and clean-up."
Residents living near Copar Quarries in Bradford criticized DEM for its inability to stop the rock quarry from incessant noise and air pollution.
“We’ve seen nothing but inaction from DEM for four years,” said Steven Dubois, whose backyard abuts the quarry. “They’ve done nothing.”
Dubois claimed Copar revived the long-dormant quarry without permits. He said dust from the mining coats his property daily, but DEM can do nothing more than issue fines due to a lack of legal and enforcement personnel.
“DEM is afraid of their lawyers and they told us point blank they are not going to go to court,” Dubois said.
“Don’t cut the (DEM) budget,” Charlestown Town Council member Denise Rhodes said. “We need money in this budget specifically to address this issue because it’s a health hazard.”
Christina Holden Shea of the Concerned Citizens of Bradford & Charlestown noted that DEM hasn’t reined in other habitual polluters such as the demolition company TLA/Pond View in East Providence and asphalt plants in Coventry.
“We are not the only citizens group dealing with this,” Holden Shea said. “There’s quite a few of us in neighborhoods, residential areas dealing with these things that just pop up. ... So hiring more people to monitor improper equipment, I’d like to see that happen.”
DEM said Copar has also failed to comply with a consent agreement that addresses water pollution and has been "put on notice." Inspections of the property for air and water pollution compliance are ongoing, Coit said.
The lack of staffing has also hurt in other areas. Coit noted that DEM’s parks department has suffered from staff cuts. During the hearing, she explained, that DEM has 41 full-time employees to run 13 state parks, compared to 141 park employees for the city of Providence. As a result, DEM has transferred more than 20 low-profile parks to the cities and towns where they reside.
“So we are definitely really stretched thin,” Coit said.
Meanwhile, legislation continues to be advanced to make DEM more business friendly. DEM has increased its efforts to promote tourism, agriculture and seafood. The recent Volvo Ocean Race in Newport was considered a multimillion-dollar event, helping bring in $45 million in economic revenue through Fort Adams State Park, according to state officials.
“The governor is very focused on keeping jobs in Rhode Island, growing jobs and promoting jobs,” Coit said. “And I want to emphasize how much the infrastructure and parks and facilities of DEM are part of our tourism sector as well as a growing agriculture sector.”
Coit said, like other agency directors, she needs more staff and funding. In the meantime, DEM focuses its attention on what it considers the most important cases. “My team is dedicated to providing the enforcement we need and they do it well."
New duties also are expected to be assigned to DEM. A House bill would shift permitting for building near wetlands from cities and towns to DEM. Funding for the program, however, has yet to be addressed.
“You could end up shooting yourself in the foot if you pass the bill and you don’t fund the enforcement, compliance and permitting in the wetlands department in particular,” Stone said.