R.I. Lawmakers Advance Few Environmental Bills

In session’s final days General Assembly did approve increase in amount of toxic flame retardants allowed in children’s products

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — It was a meager year at the Statehouse for addressing climate change, renewable energy, and other environment-related matters.

Few bills gained traction in the House and Senate, with only a single bill passing the General Assembly that originated in the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. Big-idea initiatives such as a carbon tax, binding greenhouse-gas reductions, and an endorsement of the Green New Deal attracted large turnouts at hearings but failed to advance.

A statewide bag ban had positive prospects, with endorsements from Gov. Gina Raimondo, business groups, and the environmental community. Passage seemed almost certain considering 14 municipalities have already adopted bag bans and a 22-member task force, launched by Raimondo, wrote the bill. A couple of tweaks to the House bill, however, eroded support from business groups and some environmentalists. Both versions of the legislation stalled during the final week of the 2019 session. The House bill died in committee. The Senate version passed the full chamber but never received a committee hearing in the House.

The bag ban was coupled with “straw-law” bills (H5314, S202) that required eateries to only offer plastic straws upon request. The Senate passed its bill, but a House committee vote scheduled for June 26 was abruptly canceled because of provisions that allowed eateries to offer plastic straws from self-service dispensers and a clause that mandated that state law preempt local straw and single-use plastics ordinances.

The House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources may have lost some of its momentum this year after Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, chairman for eight years, lost his seat for failing to back Nicholas Mattiello as House speaker. Former vice chairman David Bennett, D-Cranston, was moved to chair of the committee. He noted that he can only presents bills to House leadership and they decide what passes out of committee to the House floor.

Bennett said he’s taking a long-term approach to passing legislation. “We might not have got a lot (of bills) passed but we got a lot of them further. Eventually it will come.”

DEM budget
After years of losing staff, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) received funding for four new full-time employees for its parks division, but only after requesting 11 staffers — three for its depleted Office of Compliance and Inspection, an agency branch that has been criticized for poor oversight of industrial polluters.

Freshman Sen. Samuel Bell, D-Providence, criticized DEM for altering its mission in recent years from a watchdog of polluters to their ally. He noted DEM’s reluctance to assess fines and ending publication of its annual compliance and inspection report.

“It didn’t used to be that way,” Bell said.

Burn notice
Bills (H5448, S408) that would have opened the way for facilities to turn plastic waste into resins and fuels died in committee. Environmentalists opposed the bill over the process, known as pyrolysis, that creates harmful emissions. They also feared the bills created a loophole that would allow incineration facilities to open in Rhode Island.

Some other bills opposed by environmentalists also didn’t pass, such as legislation to privatize the Providence water system. Both bills were withdrawn after public outcry against the plan prompted Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza to pull the idea.

There have been some gains this year outside of the General Assembly, such as funding, albeit delayed, to study a state carbon-pricing program and support from Raimondo for the Transportation & Climate Initiative, a multi-state coalition to reduce emissions from the transportation sector.

Some bills may come up for a vote later this year, as leaders in the General Assembly said they may reconvene briefly in the fall to pass a bill that will keep the gaming company IGT from relocating its Providence headquarters.

Here is a look at the bills related to public health and the environment that did pass this year:

More flame retardants: In a nod to the chemical industry, the General Assembly approved on its second-to-last day a bill (H5119) to increase the amount of harmful flame retardants in bedding, upholstered furniture, and children’s products. The increase of non-polymeric organohalogen flame retardants from 100 parts per million to 1,000 parts per million was deemed acceptable by Clean Water Action Rhode Island, the only environmental group to weigh in on the bill. It didn’t fight it because it aligns Rhode Island 2017 law with other states that had recently set chemical safety standards for these products.

In 2015, a coalition of groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, filed a petition asking the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban four categories of consumer products — children’s products, furniture, mattresses, and the casings around electronics — if they contain any flame retardant in the chemical class known as organohalogens.

Two years ago, a Providence firefighter for 15 years, until she retired in 2016 because of occupational cancer, testified at a Senate committee hearing that flame retardants may slow fires but the smoldering of fabric and furniture releases a harmful concentration of toxins. The chemicals are ingested by firefighters and the public through breathing or touching the invisible emissions, she said.

“If we can limit the amount (of exposure) by limiting the fire-retardant chemicals and lowering the cyanide levels it’s going to be a big help,” she testified.

Infrastructure: H6242 adds resiliency projects to the list of projects that qualify for funding and financing through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank.

Bicycles: H5507 codifies the law for bicyclists at traffic lights. A bill setting fines for traffic violations against bicyclists, pedestrians, skateboarders, and wheelchair users died in committee.

Sustainable business practices: H5145 and S395 allow businesses to create a voluntary sustainability program. The secretary of state will issue a certificate of transparency and sustainability standards to those companies that create programs and post their standards and annual reports online.

Building: H5484 and S689 clarify which flood maps should be used to set standards for construction of buildings that are elevated to reduce flooding. H5989 and S687 allow builders to hire independent building inspectors in place of municipal inspectors if none are available within two days.

Natural-gas oversight: In response to the weeklong natural-gas outage in Middletown and Newport in January, the General Assembly passed H5679, which requires natural-gas infrastructure to adhere to certified standards. The Senate created a study commission (S194) to evaluate the state’s electric and natural-gas transmission and distribution system infrastructure.

Animal rights: H779 increases fines and penalties for cruelty to public safety canines and horses.

S699 prohibits pet shops from buying dogs and cats from breeders or individuals who have criminal violations related to animals. It’s also unlawful to sell or display any dog or cat on any roadside or outdoor market.

H5433 and S465 allow for seizure of animals by the state veterinarian for cruelty to the animal.

Bills that died in committee: Carbon Fee (H5869, S662); Coastal Climate Adaptation Trust Fund (H5628, S412); Energy and Water Efficiency Standards (H5667, S552); Energy Facility Siting Board Changes (H5446, H5666, S016); Green New Deal (H5665, S659); Global Worming Solution Act (H5444, S658); Solar Customer Protections (H5133); Solar Siting (H5789, S661); Smart Growth (S312); PFAS regs for drinking water (H6064); PFAS regs for packaging (H5565, S218); and Woodland Preservation Act (H5813 S663).