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ENVIRONMENT

Rhode Island making progress on next ‘Green Report Card’ but work remains

The General Assembly passed landmark climate legislation but failed to act on ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water and other key issues

The Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — The last time it issued a “Green Report Card,” the Environment Council of Rhode Island was so disappointed that it didn’t give the General Assembly a letter grade at all — just an “incomplete.”

But the Assembly made several significant strides during the legislative session that ended on July 1, Environment Council president Priscilla De La Cruz said Monday.

The group issues report cards every two years, so the next one won’t come out until next summer. But De La Cruz said, “We definitely did make progress. It was quite an unusual legislative session – for good reasons.”

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She said the legislature had not passed a major piece of legislation on the environment, climate, or energy over the past seven years, but this year it passed the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.

“That was the very top priority,” De La Cruz said.

The coalition, which includes 70 environmental groups and individuals, had not set other priorities because it wanted to keep the focus on the Act on Climate, she said, but once that bill passed, the group identified three other priorities, and one of those became law.

The Assembly passed energy-efficiency legislation that authorizes the Public Utilities Commission to continue assessing a charge on electric and gas companies to fund programs for energy efficiency and conservation until January 2028.

But the House did not pass legislation, sponsored by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, that would have required all of Rhode Island’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

And the Assembly did not pass legislation addressing the “forever chemicals” – known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – found in some public drinking water sources.

De La Cruz said it’s urgent that Rhode Island enact PFAS regulations to ensure “clean and safe drinking water,” and she said the 100 percent renewable energy standard is a “key policy” component for the Act on Climate.

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“There is a lot of more to do if we want to reach the goals of the Act on Climate,” she said. “I think this session really set a positive tone and framework for what we can accomplish in a future session, whether in a special fall session or next year’s session.”

Kevin Budris, staff attorney for the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office, agreed that the Assembly “took some great steps” on environmental legislation during this year’s session.

In addition to the Act on Climate, he noted the Assembly passed legislation that would prevent the state from issuing permits or licenses for any new “high-heat waste processing facility.”

That legislation came in response to a proposed medical waste-to-energy plant in West Warwick. A New Jersey company, MedRecycler, touts the project as a way to reduce waste while creating “clean, renewable energy” through a high-heat process called pyrolysis. But environmental groups say the proposal in no way represents a renewable energy project and instead poses a major environmental threat.

“This law represents a significant step forward for Rhode Island,” Budris said.

He argued that, as it’s now worded, the law would halt the MedRecycler project even though it has already entered the licensing process. And in any case, he claimed, there are “ample other reasons” for the state Department of Environmental Management to deny the license request.

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While the Assembly took some steps forward, Budris said, “There is a lot of work left to be done so that Rhode Island can actually meet the goals set out in the Act on Climate.”

And he noted that the Assembly once again failed to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, although more than half of Rhode Islanders live in a town or city with a local plastic bag ban. “It was a significant disappointment,” he said.

The Assembly did pass a law to prohibit anyone from intentionally releasing 10 or more helium or other lighter-than-air balloons outdoors. Wildlife advocates say that balloon releases pose a hazard for birds and marine animals.

And it did pass a law that creates the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund, which would allow cities, towns and the state to apply for grants to fund projects that restore and improve the climate resilience of vulnerable coastal habitats, plus river and stream floodplains.

“We are very happy that the policy was put in place,” said Christopher “Topher” Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay. “This is a fund to help the Narragansett Bay watershed be resilient to climate change.”

But Save the Bay was disappointed that a key revenue source for the fund – a proposed fee of 5 cents per barrel (42 gallons) on petroleum products – was removed at the very end of the legislative session, he said.

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“One important point is that Rhode Island as a state needs to put money into OSCAR to leverage any federal funds that will become available for climate adaptation projects,” Hamblett said.

Sponsors of the legislation are committed to “capitalizing” the fund, he said, and federal funds could spur projects in the near term. But, he said, “It’s important that Rhode Island make a long-term commitment to fund OSCAR with state money.”

Representative June S. Speakman said she was glad the Assembly passed her bill to create a forest conservation commission to seek new funding and identify incentives for landowners to maintain their land as forest. The bill will provide more planning and analysis to ensure, for example, that areas are not deforested to make way for solar panels, she said.

But Speakman, a Warren Democrat, said she was disappointed the Assembly failed to pass her bill to require PFAS drinking water regulations. She said concerns were raised about how much the bill would cost drinking water systems, but she said President Biden mentioned PFAS projects in a speech about proposed federal infrastructure funding.

“This is a dangerous group of toxins, and it’s essential that state government address it immediately,” Speakman said. “I would urge the Department of Health and the governor’s office to quickly develop the standard – the maximum contaminant level – and to allocate the resources to address it.”

Alana O’Hare, press secretary for Governor Daniel J. McKee, said the Department of Health has provided an analysis of potential PFAS maximum contamination levels to the governor’s office, and they are “in discussion regarding terms of the levels, plan, timeline, and potential fiscal impact to both the state and municipalities for implementing regulations.”

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.