Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News Staff
PROVIDENCE — There’s no doubt that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has gotten smaller. Since 2006, the number of full-time employees has decreased from 531 to 400.
DEM director Janet Coit said, despite the agency's shrinking staff, which has been cut further thanks to an ongoing early-retirement buyout program, that her agency is “in good shape” to fulfill its current programs. Coit, though, is worried that $32 million expected from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn't guaranteed because of budget cuts proposed in Washington, D.C.
“My grave concern is that the federal funds could be cut if Congress acts anywhere near the budget that the president proposed,” Coit said during a recent Senate budget hearing for DEM’s fiscal 2019 budget.
So far, 27 DEM employees have taken buyouts through a $25 million budget savings plan aimed at all state employees eligible to retire.
Save The Bay, however, says DEM's staff has diminished while responsibilities have only expanded because of new mandates, such as the Fresh Water Wetlands Act of 2014.
“The staffing reductions over the years have taken their toll,” said Save The Bay’s executive director, Jonathan Stone, during the March 14 hearing.
DEM has been criticized for weakened enforcement within its Office of Compliance and Inspection, which goes after polluters and responds to oil and chemical spills.
The Office of Compliance and Inspection has dropped from 45 to 23 employees since 2003. Save The Bay and other groups have questioned DEM for spotty oversight of polluters, such as the scrap-metal collectors on the Providence waterfront.
“On some level, at some point you run into constraints about your ability to do inspections in a timely fashion,” Stone said.
Coit noted that the voluntary retirement program has mainly attracted employees from the Natural Resources Bureau, while no senior staff have left the Bureau of Environmental Protection. Some programs and projects are on hold until new employees are hired to fill the vacancies. Most delays are in the Parks and Recreation Division and to a lesser degree in Marine Fisheries and Planning and Development.
DEM and Save The Bay also made a plea for support of the latest bond, the $48.5 million 2018 Green Economy and Clean Water Bond.
Stone noted that Rhode Island's 19 wastewater treatment plants discharge 120 million gallons of treated effluent a day into Narragansett Bay and other local waters. He reminded the senators that keeping those facilities maintained and investing in pollution-reducing projects ultimately pay for themselves by helping the shellfishing and tourism industries.
The November bond also includes money for making shoreline parks more accessible and resilient to climate change.
After hearings in the House and Senate, DEM and other state agency budgets will be announced this spring. DEM is seeking $103. 5 million for fiscal 2019. It’s current budget is $108 million.
Here is the list of DEM positions vacant because of early-retirement buyouts: supervising environmental scientist; deputy chief of Parks and Recreation Division; air-quality specialist; deputy chief for Marine Fisheries; senior clerk; administration for financial management; senior environmental scientist; principal civil engineer for Division of Natural Resource; senior environmental scientist; environmental scientist; assistant director for financial and control management; senior forest ranger; research vessel captain; supervising environmental scientist; associate director for natural resources management; senior air-quality specialist; fiscal clerk; chief of Parks and Recreation Division; deputy chief of legal services; principal wildlife biologist; principal marine biologist; assistant regional park manager; senior environmental scientist; administrative assistant; senior environmental scientist; carpenter.