PROVIDENCE — With Senate approval secured, attention is turning to whether the House will vote on the Environmental Justice Act, which would create “environmental justice focus areas” where permitting decisions would have to take into account the cumulative impact of pollution.
Last year, the Senate passed the Environmental Justice Act bill introduced by Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, but the legislation went nowhere in the House.
On Monday, Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, said she is hoping the bill she introduced will make it to the House floor for a vote in the next few weeks. “I am feeling very optimistic,” she said.
Alzate said she met with House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, to let him know the Senate passed a companion bill by a vote of 32 to 5 on May 4. And, she said, “I am following up with the speaker because it is one of my priorities.”
Euer said she is optimistic the legislation will become law this year, in part because the federal government is placing an emphasis on matters of environmental justice. In April, for example, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to create a White House Office of Environmental Justice. And she noted the increased attention to the environmental impact in areas of Rhode Island such as the Port of Providence.
Also in April, Representative José F. Batista and Senator Tiara Mack, both Providence Democrats, held a news conference, saying South Providence and Washington Park continue to be targeted for “unsafe, neighborhood-eroding” proposals, without input from the community. As one example, they cited the potential expansion of one of the city’s most controversial scrapyards on Allens Avenue.
“South Providence and Washington Park are already burdened with an LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) terminal, a growing commercial port, an asphalt plant, a huge and potentially expanding scrapyard that pollutes our waterfront and resists regulation, and one of the widest, busiest sections of interstate highway in Rhode Island,” Batista said. “Our kids suffer from alarmingly high asthma rates from the resulting pollution. Our neighborhood deserves much better, and we absolutely deserve a chance to speak up and be heard about the developments that continue to be pushed on us.”
Alzate said her bill would enhance the community’s say in the decision-making process. “It’s informing them about what is happening in their backyard, and giving them a voice,” she said, adding that similar issues of “environmental justice” are evident in other parts of the state, including Pawtucket and Central Falls.
In past years, the state Department of Environmental Management had been concerned that the proposed legislation would create a lot of additional work for regulators, Alzate said, but the agency is now open to the idea.
Indeed, Department of Environmental Management Director Terrence Gray wrote to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, saying the agency backs the legislation.
“Throughout Rhode Island’s history, certain populations and areas of the state have been subject to disproportionate amounts of pollution and other environmental hazards and have not had equal access to benefits,” Gray wrote. “DEM is committed to finding solutions that will consider these past injustices and ensure that all residents of Rhode Island benefit from a clean, healthy environment.”
Many other states — including Massachusetts, New York, and California — have “more robust environmental justice requirements in place,” he said, describing Rhode Island as an “outlier.”
He noted DEM would identify “environmental justice focus areas,” using criteria including the racial composition, median household income, and English language proficiency of the population living in a neighborhood, census tract, or other area of the state. And he noted the legislation would require DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council to consider the cumulative impacts of a proposed project in those areas before issuing certain permits.
“Importantly, much of the burden of the new requirements would fall on the project applicants rather than DEM or CRMC,” Gray wrote. “This incentivizes applicants to consider locations for projects outside of environmental justice focus areas while ensuring that the capacity of state environmental agencies is not strained by the new requirements.”
But the House committee also heard from opponents of the legislation.
Christopher D. Hunter — executive director of the Providence Working Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of industrial businesses in the Port of Providence — wrote in opposition to the bill.
“From home heating oil to road salt to asphalt, our members provide the goods that power Rhode Island and the wider region’s economy,” he wrote. “Our members are also among Rhode Island’s largest recyclers, recycling scrap metal from automobiles and manufacturers. Collectively, our members provide good paying, blue collar jobs and are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in total economic impact.”
Hunter said the proposed legislation “would create a vague and as of yet undefined ‘cumulative impacts’ standard that would then trigger a new regulatory process that would make it nearly impossible to site or expand industrial operations in the Port of Providence. This includes industries such as scrap metal recycling, which have an environmental benefit for our state and region.” He cited estimates that recycling of “scrap commodities” reduces carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 400 million tons each year.
Also, Hunter emphasized that the state and federal governments already have extensive regulatory processes that include multiple opportunities for public notice and comment.
Michael F. Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, also wrote in opposition to the bill. While it is working with other labor and environmental groups in the Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition, the council fears the bill would “slow down construction job opportunities with increased permitting burdens beyond the normal project review process,” he said.
“We urge a pause and a further discussion collectively on balancing the environmental needs of affected areas with an exhaustive project review process that lets projects stand on their own merits in accordance with regulations and requirements under current statute,” Sabitoni wrote.
But the legislation received support from other groups, including Save the Bay.
“Many communities and neighborhoods in Rhode Island have, for decades, been subjected to high levels of pollution located in their communities, and siting of polluting in already overburdened communities has continued,” Save the Bay advocacy director Topher Hamblett wrote. “There has been no consideration of cumulative impacts to the health and environmental impacts from siting industrial and commercial facilities in those communities, and little opportunity in the regulatory process for considering residents’ concerns.
The legislation would mark a “first step” in requiring state agencies to consider cumulative impacts of pollution, he said.
“All Rhode Islanders — regardless of race, color, national origin, English language proficiency or income — have the same right to clean air and clean water,” Hamblett wrote. “That fundamental right is not protected.”