Rhode Island's Endangered Species: Access, Transparency, Accountability

By FRANK CARINI

This September will mark a decade of environmental reporting in Rhode Island for ecoRI News. One of the most distressing things we have encountered is the lack of respect far too many elected officials and the departments they fund have for our readers and the environmental issues that concern them.

Too few elected officials make time to address issues that are complex, controversial, and/or out of comfort zones. You know, the kind of questions to issues they were elected to address.

The routine responses to media inquiries run the gamut from ignored e-mails, unreturned phone calls, or politically crafted non-answers sent by handlers that either pass responsibility on to others or twist responses to fit scripted talking points. This behavior can only be interpreted as contempt for the public.

Lack of access, accountability, and transparency does more than frustrate journalists; it snubs the concerns of Rhode Islanders. Information, especially of the taxpayer-funded public variety, is to be shared, not hidden away because it doesn’t fit a political narrative.

The most recent example of this dereliction of responsibility was the story we recently published about the environmental and public health concerns surrounding the Port of Providence. While no public official granted us an interview — two elected representatives didn’t even respond to our requests — ProvPort’s spokesman quickly scheduled an in-person interview with the facility’s general manager.

The interview happened on a busy day when two of ProvPort’s six berths were expecting visitors. The conversation lasted an hour. Every question was answered, and this reporter was educated about ProvPort’s operation and its future plans.

However, no one was made available from the mayor’s administration for an interview to talk about the Port of Providence’s future, its vulnerability to sea-level rise and storm surge, or the adverse health impacts the city’s industrial waterfront has long had on two nearby neighborhoods.

The mayor’s press secretary pretended as if someone would be made available for an interview. Instead, he answered a few — of the many questions I ultimately had — via e-mail. Unsurprisingly, some of the answers directed responsibility onto others.

For example, concerning a question about why city officials have remained quiet while a few waterfront businesses continue with illegal polluting, it was noted that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council are responsible for air emissions and coastal regulations.

The flip response paints three pictures: the mayor and his administration don’t give a damn about the problem; they don’t have a clue how to solve it; or those who read ecoRI News don’t much matter to them.

In response to a broader question about future plans for the Port of Providence in this age of climate change, the press secretary wrote: “The City is a partner with ProvPort and there is an interest in ensuring the port’s resiliency to climate change. There is also a focus on a cleaner port that is positioned to better serve the future low-carbon economy. While we defer to ProvPort on specific details, it is our understanding that they are expanding their capacity to service the growing off-shore wind industry and are participating in the Green Marine program.”

The answer is ignorant and revealing. The city has only “an interest in ensuring the port’s resiliency to climate change” — a port that stores more than 3 million pounds of chemicals, home heating oil, jet fuel, diesel, and some 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas and has polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, total petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, formaldehyde, cyanide, asbestos, lead, ammonia, arsenic, and polychlorinated biphenyl trapped in its dirt and sediment.

The Providence waterfront is one bad storm away from unleashing a flood of nastiness.

And while it’s certainly no surprise that the city defers to someone else “on specific details,” the miserably inadequate response fails to note that ProvPort doesn’t represent all of the businesses operating in and around the Port of Providence, such as Shell, ExxonMobil, National Grid, the Narragansett Improvement Co., and Rhode Island Recycled Metals.

One can easily deduce that public health, climate change, and environmental issues associated with the Port of Providence just aren’t as pressing as photo ops of the mayor picking trash from a marine skimmer or riding a JUMP bike.

Media availability runneth over when elected officials want to, say, celebrate Providence’s status as a Tree City USA® community. That availability vanishes when questions turn to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory Program and the fact all 11 of the Providence polluters listed in it are within the city’s 02905 zip code — the area in and around the Port of Providence.

The media is invited to celebrate Earth Day with the mayor — “Our Annual Earth Day Celebration is a great opportunity for our communities to come together to beautify our vibrant public spaces by helping us keep our parks clean and healthy.” That invitation doesn’t extend to talking about the blight that runs up and down Allens Avenue.

To be crystal clear, this lack of accountability, access, and transparency isn’t isolated to the city of Providence. The governor has set the lowly standard. She tightened the gag her predecessor put on state employees.

Too many Democrats and Republicans, from corner offices in the Statehouse to rural town halls, only speak when the topic fits with their well-controlled message. They only agree to interviews after their ground rules have been accepted and tough questions axed. They think they’re sticking it journalists, but they’re really sticking it to their constituents and neighbors.

As a journalist and the editor of ecoRI News, I don’t need elected officials and their appointed bureaucrats to speak with me to do my job. It’s actually easier that way, but it doesn’t properly or fairly address a topic. It doesn’t educate those concerned about a particular issue about what state and local officials are doing to address it. It doesn’t advance community dialogue. It doesn’t serve the public good.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.