Environmental Winners and Losers from 2015 Session

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Several environmental bills were close to heading to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk for signing before Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello recessed the General Assembly for the summer.

Although state lawmaking typically wraps up for the year by July 1, Mattiello took the unusual step of stating plans to meet again in the fall — a move the General Assembly hasn’t done since 2011. The Senate must also agree to reconvene for legislation to advance. 

With summer break underway, here’s what happened so far and what might move forward if there is a fall session:

Notable winners
Raimondo’s infrastructure bank. There will be more details in the months ahead, but what was originally called a green bank offers a funding and lending program for municipal, commercial and residential energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects.

An official plan to phase out the state’s remaining 25,000 or so cesspools was a victory for Save The Bay and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Environmentalists consider new statewide buffer zones and building setbacks a success, because the law protects streams and vernal pools in addition to lakes and rivers. Developers benefit by having a streamlined permitting process and one set of standards to follow.

Some losers
Renewable energy. An agreement between renewable-energy developers and National Grid to pay for the expensive costs for large wind and solar projects to connect to the power grid stalled at the last minute. The legislation was advanced by North Kingstown wind turbine developer Wind Energy Development, to move forward with at least a dozen projects, including replacing the Portsmouth High School wind turbine. The bill passed the House and made it out of committee in the Senate. It seems likely to be considered if there is a fall session.

Also failing to advance was an extension of the renewable-energy standards. This is the annual increase in the amount of renewable energy that comes out of your wall socket. The current target of 14.5 percent ends in 2019.

Efforts also failed to revive a 25 percent state tax credit for residential renewable-energy projects. A statewide model for taxing renewable-energy projects at the municipal level was also scrapped.

Of note
Waste management. Mattress recycling tops the list of new recycling programs. A take-back program will be funded through a yet-to-be-determined fee paid at the time of purchase. Several other recycling-related bills stalled in committee, such as a statewide plastic bag ban, take-back programs for syringes and compact fluorescent light bulbs, and broader producer-packaging programs.

Food and farming. Very little passed to advance agriculture and increase local food protection. None of the several bills seeking labeling of genetically modified foods made it out of committee. Bills allowing raw milk sales, wine sales at farmers markets and direct sales of wine all sat on the bench.

Legislation that makes changes to the system for determining fish catch limits passed the House and Senate.

Health and pollution. After the cesspool ban, reducing noise and rock dust from quarries was the main public-health achievement. Air-quality monitoring at T.F. Green Airport was extended for two years.
What didn’t pass? A ban on smoking at public beaches; a ban on smoking at the state’s two casinos; outdoor wood-furnace regulations; licensing of naturopathic physicians; regulations on e-cigarettes; limits on fireworks; a ban on formaldehyde in children’s products; a ban on micro-beads; a ban on bisphenol A; a ban on hazardous flame retardants in children’s bedding, clothes and toys; a ban on cigarette sales at pharmacies.

RhodeMap RI. Most bills intended to dilute the effects of the new state economic plan were halted in committee. One bill did pass the House and could return in the fall.

A bill allowing civil lawsuits for encroachment on conservation land died in committee, as did a bill allowing municipalities to impose fines for environmental violations that cause a nuisance to the community.

Developers were helped by the overturn of a ban on hotels at Twin River Casino. They also received a break on property taxes on new homes and condominiums that are being built or not on the market.

Wildlife. Bans on rhinoceros horns and shark fins didn’t advance. Suspended was a ban on lead shot and the creation of a no-hunting buffer around conservation land.

A ban on wire “battery cages” for housing egg-laying hens passed the House only, as did an exception for allowing parrots in state campgrounds. Bills defining the treatment of dogs and other animals passed only one chamber of the General Assembly. Bills limiting ownership to 10 cats per household were held for study.

Climate change. The House approved the creation of a commission to study the economic impacts of sea-level rise. No Senate approval is needed. A joint committee to study ocean acidification was held, as was a carbon tax proposal and a limit on the use of geoengineering to address climate change.