PROVIDENCE — On Tuesday, the state Senate will vote on a bill that would create “environmental justice focus areas” where permitting decisions would have to take into account the cumulative impact of pollution in certain neighborhoods.
Senator Dawn Euer, chair of the the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee, introduced the Environmental Justice Act, saying it addresses the reality that “polluting operations” have accumulated in certain parts of the state, often placing significant “health burdens” on low-income communities and communities of color.
“So this legislation is really intended to make sure that future permitting decisions about any polluting industries are taking into consideration those cumulative negative health impacts,” said Euer, a Newport Democrat. “The legislation defines environmental justice, creates a definition for cumulative impacts, and gives community control over the opportunity to participate in decisions on siting activities.”
At a hearing Wednesday, several people spoke about the impact that pollution is having on those who live near Allens Avenue in Providence.
Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy and policy for Save the Bay, said a mile-and-a-half stretch of Allens Avenue contains numerous sources of pollution, including an asphalt plant, petroleum terminals, and scrap yards, and the incessant traffic on Route 95 generates a constant source of air pollution, especially during traffic jams.
“Everyone in the state has a right to clean air and clean water – or we should,” Hamblett said. “But that is not the case. Some Rhode Island communities – and those are communities of color and communities where there’s intense economic stress – are unfairly carrying the burden of the cumulative impacts of pollution, and it is time for the General Assembly to step in.”
While the cumulative impacts of pollution in areas such as Allens Avenue is evident, permits for new facilities are considered on an individual basis, he said.
“And that’s where the problem is,” Hamblett said. “This long overdue legislation actually gives people some recourse, some playing field on which they can address cumulative impacts.”
Recently, attention has focused on a proposal by Sea 3 Providence LLC to add freight rail imports and build more storage tanks for liquefied propane gas at its terminal in the Port of Providence, off Allens Avenue.
Senator Joshua Miller, a Cranston Democrat, said he commutes down Allens Avenue, and he sees a lot of facilities that generate pollution. Yet when hearings are held on new proposals, there is a lack of understanding and appreciation for the impact on surrounding communities, he said.
“Facilities are planned in those communities with regulatory bodies who say they don’t understand or don’t have a participation mechanism for those who will be impacted,” he said. So the need for this legislation is “urgent,” he said.
Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and president of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, added a personal note to her support for the bill.
As a Latina who grew up in the West End and South Side of Providence, she said, “I’ve seen and I still continue to see how a disproportional number of my family members are impacted by pollution, by really critical health impacts like severe asthma.”
And many communities are facing these kinds of health impacts, De La Cruz said. “Communities are suffering and people are suffering,” she said. “When we talk about these issues, they are really personal to communities of color and people of color.”
The bill defines an “environmental justice focus area” as a neighborhood, community, or census tract that meets one or more of these criteria:
- Annual median household income is not more 65 percent of the statewide annual median household income
- “Minority population” is equal to or greater than 40 percent of the population
- At least 25 percent of the households lack English language proficiency
- “Minorities” make up at least 25 percent of the population and the annual median household income of the municipality in the proposed area does not exceed 150 percent of the statewide annual median household income.
The bill focuses on permitting for facilities such as:
- Sewage treatment plants
- Medical waste incinerators
- Electricity generating facilities
- Resource recovery facilities or incinerators
- Transfer stations, recycling centers, or other solid waste facilities
Brian P. Moran, director of government affairs for the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, told the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee that the group is concerned that Rhode Island is not ready to conduct the cumulative impact analysis required by the legislation. He said the state would need more staffing, resources, and technology platforms to allow permit applicants to analyze cumulative impacts, so Rhode Island should wait until it’s better prepared.
“Without that investment and understanding, I think it’s going to harm the state’s regional competitiveness,” Moran said. “And frankly, without that backbone and foundation, permitting is likely to grind to a halt, particularly the larger permits that are important for the economy of the state.”
Senator Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican, raised similar concerns, saying Rhode Island has passed other environmental laws before preparing to implement them. In this case, the state planning council that would handle this process has a lot of vacancies, he said.
“This is one of those issues I’m not so much against it, but we have to be prepared for the consequences and get things up to snuff and positions filled,” Rogers said. “We are passing bills on straws and everything else and there is a penalty for that, but I’m sure straws have been handed out and how many people have been penalized?”
But Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, spoke in favor of the bill.
“One of the best parts about this is the cumulative impact studies,” he said. “For too long in unregulated or minimally regulated areas of the state, pockets of pollution-causing industries have been able to accumulate,” so it’s important to factor in the cumulative impact and allow surrounding communities to have a voice in the review process, he said.
The Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee voted 6 to 1 to recommend passage of the bill, with Rogers voting “no.” Euer said Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, plans to introduce companion legislation in the House.