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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Here we go again

Return of Environmental Bills Held for Further Study Planned for New General Assembly Session

By ROB SMITH/ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island legislators return to the General Assembly chambers this week, and environmental advocates are hoping to pass an ambitious agenda. 

The Legislature is expected to consider a number of environment and climate-related bills that fell by the wayside last session, which did see the Act on Climate bill signed into law.

At the top of the list of legislative priorities is the reintroduction of the Renewable Energy Standards Act. 

The 2021 bills (H5762 and S0629A) codified an executive order signed by former Gov. Gina Raimondo by requiring energy providers to source 100 percent of electricity sold in Rhode Island from renewable energy by 2030. 

It passed the Senate last year with 30 votes, before stalling in a House committee.

State lawmakers are prepared to introduce at least three bills targeted at regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” The carcinogens are found in plastics, packaging, and waste and water supplies. Researchers have linked the fluorinated chemicals to thyroid disease, low birth weight, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

PFAS have become a public-health concern of state officials. In 2019 the Rhode Island Department of Health officials tested every major drinking water supply in the state. The agency found 48 percent of sites tested positive for PFAS, with 24 percent containing elevated levels above the recommended standard.

Of the schools with a private well on-site that were tested, 43 percent contained PFAS levels above the recommended standard.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce at least two bills similar to ones introduced last year: one prohibiting the use of forever chemicals in food packaging (H5356A and S0110), and another establishing maximum contaminant levels in drinking, surface, and ground waters (H5523 and S0107A).

One of the other big victories last year for environmental advocates was the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience (OSCAR) Fund. The bill provides grant funding to municipalities and state agencies for adapting public infrastructure for climate-change impacts, preserving public access to the shoreline, and providing a match to help local municipalities acquire federal money.

The law, however, was passed without any funding mechanism. Lawmakers had originally proposed charging a nickel on every barrel of petroleum products imported into the state, a move that would raise an estimated $1.9 million annually for climate-related projects. Environmental advocates say they will attempt to get OSCAR funded this year.

While specifics are still being worked out, bottle deposit bills are expected to make a return to the Legislature after a brief absence. In 2020, Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown, introduced a bill to place a 10-cent redemption rate on returned bottles.

The Conservation Law Foundation claimed such a deposit would lead to a 90 percent redemption rate, based on similar rates in Oregon and Michigan. The measure was projected to divert some 15,000 tons of plastic containers annually from the Central Landfill in Johnson. The bill was held for further study.

Trade and business groups claimed the rate, higher than Rhode Island’s neighboring states, would cut into beverage sales, and increase costs for rent, labor, energy, and food.

While the Transportation & Climate Initiative may be on pause for the new session, environmental advocates are expected to reintroduce 2021 bills (H7680 and S2365) requiring the state to convert half of its light-duty, non-emergency vehicle fleet to electric by the end of the decade.

The legislation would establish a revolving loan fund controlled by the state treasurer to buy electric vehicles as needed for state departments and agencies. A similar bill last year was introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello D-Providence, but was held by committee for further study.

The 2022 General Assembly session began Jan. 4.