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Monday, April 30, 2012

Rep. Walsh pushes for passage of new environmental laws

Murky Future for R.I. Environmental Bills

Rep. Walsh at the State Capitol where she is pushing "product
stewardship" legislation to deal with hard-to-dispose-of  products
(photo courtesy of Clean Water Action)
By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
PROVIDENCE — There were no environmental bills signed at the recent Statehouse celebration in honor of Earth Day. In fact, zero environmental bills have been signed into law during the current session, unless you count the Agriculture and Seafood Act signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee on April 26.

During the April 24 Earth Day ceremony, Rep. Donna Walsh, D-Charlestown/New Shoreham, said she expects two producer-responsibility bills — one for paint cans (H7233) and the other for packaging (H7027A) — to at least make it out of committee.

Producer responsibility, aka product stewardship, assigns some measure of product disposal to the manufacturer. In addition to paint and packaging, producer responsibility bills this year address medical sharps, fluorescent light bulbs, batteries and mattresses. An additional bill authorizes the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to consider future items for product stewardship.
The fate of all of these bills is less than certain.  
Walsh is optimistic, saying Rhode Island is “on the forefront of product stewardship,” but new bills face much stiffer resistance from lobbyists than a decade ago.
“I think manufacturers and producers are saying, ‘Product stewardship is here to stay and we better get on the bandwagon,’” she said at the Statehouse press conference.
Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-New Shoreham/South Kingstown, sounded much more hesitant about the future of the state's environmental bills this year. “We also have to remember it’s a balancing act,” said the chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture. A difficult economy, Sosnowski said, is one impediment. She also warned to “be careful” of legislators overreaching for fear of getting voted out of office. It’s important, she said, “to protect those who protect our environment.” 
During a Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) board meeting that same day, Sarah Kite, director of recycling services for RIRRC, said she suspected the paint and paper packaging bills have been slowed by industry lobbyists and local manufacturers. “I don’t believe that will go this year,” she said of the packaging bill.
Abel Collins, head of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club and one of the legislative monitors for the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), said there is ample time for bills to pass, even those opposed by ECRI. Three bills in particular are on ECRI's watch list: H7276 that would rescind the ban on municipal waste incinerators; H7866 that would ease development restrictions on sensitive lands; and S2491 that would allow lawsuits for injuries sustained on conserved land.
That last one, Collins said, "would force the state and municipalities to shut (parks and open space) down."
Collins also noted that major issues such as public transportation and climate change can't be ignored. Despite political gridlock in Washington, D.C, he urged progress in Rhode Island. "Really, this is the place where hope still lives," he said.
One piece of legislation expected to move through the General Assembly is the section of Chafee’s budget seeking bond referendums to fund $45 million for wastewater infrastructure improvements and open space protection. In two brief visits during to the Earth Day conferences, Chafee urged support for the referendums. “The people want to pass these bond issues,” he said.