Environmental Protections Not a Statehouse Priority

Lawmakers haven’t passed any significant environmental bills this session

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The legislative process has slowed to a crawl for environmental bills, as the 2019 session of the General Assembly nears the finish, which may come soon as June 28.

The House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources has no new bills to hear and will only meet to vote on bills that have been held for further study or transferred from the Senate.

Just a handful of environment-related bills appear in to be in play, including the statewide ban on plastic retail bags. The House bill (H5671) lacks the “stitched-handle” requirement that prevents retailers from simply switching from the standard thin-film bag to plastic bags that exceed the thickness requirement. Fourteen Rhode Island municipalities have banned the bag, but the state bill preempts those ordinances, thus preventing those cities and towns from making their bans stricter. The statewide bill, however, is still sitting in committee.

On June 6, the Senate passed its bag ban bill (S0410), which includes the the stitched-handle provision. The House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources must approve the bill before it can go to the House floor for a vote. 

Straw law. An “ask-first” straw law bill (S0202) passed the Senate on June 11 and has been sent to the House environment committee, but like the bag ban bill, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. The bill has been criticized for allowing eateries to offer plastic straws from dispensers, while also preempting cities and towns from passing their own laws on straws and other single-use plastics. The House version of the bill (H5314) doesn’t contain the same provisions but hasn’t moved out of committee. 

Solar siting. The Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture passed a stripped-down bill (S0661) on May 29 that simply requires municipalities to adopt solar-development rules by 2020. The bill hasn’t been moved to the Senate floor, but it has caused a rift among environmental groups. The House version (H5789), which contains stricter siting requirements, is still in committee.

There is also opposition to a Senate bill (S760) that expands net-metering rules. Opponents fear that it will increase solar development in forests and residential areas. A Senate committee hearing was scheduled for June 19.

2020 budget. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) requested 11 new employees in the new budget, including three for compliance and inspection. However, the House budget (H5151) only included four new employees, all for the parks division. Overall funding from the state for environmental protection stayed flat, at $13.2 million.

The House budget removed $1.8 million from DEM’s budget for dam repairs. It reduced improvements for marine facilities from $3.1 million to $2.6 million. Funding was increased for upgrades to the pier at Galilee.

The House plans to debate and vote on the new budget on June 21, a session that can run late into the night and the next day.

PUC confirmation. The confirmation of Laura Olton for chair of the Public Utilities Commission appears to be stuck in neutral. Olton, a Massachusetts resident, has been scrutinized over her residency status and her employment with National Grid, the state’s leading electric and gas utility.

Her confirmation must first go before the Senate Commerce Committee before it heads to the full Senate for confirmation. But Olton’s name has yet to appear on the committee’s agenda.

Other bills that are stuck in committee and appear stalled for the 2019 session: Carbon Fee and Dividend (H5869, S0662); Global Warming Solutions Act (H5444, S0658); Incineration (5448, S0408); PFAS in Drinking Water (H6064); PFAS in Food Packaging (H5565); Woodland Preservation and Stewardship (S0663, H5813); Green New Deal Resolution (S0659, H5665); and Plastic Food Container Ban (S0268).