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Friday, November 2, 2012

Donna Walsh Scored "A" on Environment

Rep. Donna Walsh fights for family farms, clean water
and manufacturer responsibility
By News staff
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Donna Walsh (Dist. 36) scored a solid A on the Council's scorecard for her consistent support of environmental legislation.
PROVIDENCE — The recently released Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) biennial Green Report Card gave the General Assembly a collective B- for its environmental work during the 2011 and 2012 sessions. Individually, the nonprofit coalition of 60 Rhode Island organizations failed 10 senators and 14 representatives.
Those who earned an F are Senators Frank Lombardo, D-Johnston, and Bethany Moura, R-Cumberland, and Representatives John Carnevale, D-Providence; Doreen Costa, R-North Kingstown; Robert Jacquard, D-Cranston; Karen MacBeth, D-Cumberland; Patricia Morgan, R-Coventry; Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield; Joseph Trillo, R-Warwick; Robert Watson, who is not seeking re-election this fall; and Daniel Gordon, who is no longer in office.

The headlines from the past two years have been dominated by pension reform, questionable decisions by the Economic Development Corporation and municipal bankruptcy. In fall 2011, a special legislative session was called to handle a single issue — the unfunded pension liability for state employees. In this context, attention to environmental issues dropped throughout this two-year period. Although significant pieces of legislation were passed early, opportunities for progress on key environmental issues were missed, according to ECRI.
Here is ECRI’s take on some of the key environmental issues and laws addressed by the General Assembly during the past two years:
Renewable Energy Legislative Package
The greatest victory in this two-year session was the 2011 passage of a nation-leading package of three renewable energy bills. Rhode Island now has one of the best – and most comprehensive – sets of renewable energy statutes in the country, according to the ECRI report card. In fact, these statutes have been used as models for efforts by environmentalists elsewhere in New England, as well as New York, Iowa, Oregon and California.
Net Metering (S457; H5939)
The new law allows all renewable sources to net meter, except landfill gas. This was a major victory, according to ECRI, because prior net-metering law in Rhode Island allowed only wind and solar. This new law provides full retail rate to all net-metering facilities, and lifts any cap on the number of meters a self-generator can offset. Rhode Island had been one of only two net-metering states with such a cap, and the Ocean State was the lowest.
Distributed Generation Standard Contract (S723; H6104)
The purpose of the statute is to provide a simple, user-friendly mechanism for small renewable energy projects that can’t afford an army of lawyers to negotiate a separate contract with the utility. For these smaller projects, there will be a simple, plain-English contract, and a standard price for each separate type of renewable energy. Distributed generation contracts are for 15 years.
Interconnection (S721; H6222)
Getting renewable energy projects — especially small, local ones — interconnected to the electricity grid had been a major bottleneck in Rhode Island. This statute sets a definite timeline and fee schedule for interconnections, providing regulator certainty for emerging renewable energy companies.
Transportation Investment

Another pressing issue has been untangling the funding for transportation in Rhode Island. This includes infrastructure improvement, investment in public transit, and implementing “complete streets” design for all road-users.
In 2011, the General Assembly enacted a significant change in the state’s transportation funding system, which ended the need for biennial bonds to raise the money to provide Rhode Island with the funds needed to receive federal highway dollars. This money comes from the license and registration fees paid by motorists. These fees are reinvested in transportation infrastructure — a common sense solution for a pressing fiscal problem.
The General Assembly, however, didn’t include the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) in this funding system, leaving it to face significant budget shortfalls. ECRI advocated for the Transit Investment and Debt Reduction Act of 2012. It garnered broad support from constituents, community groups and organizations, including the Coalition for Transportation Choices, and more than half of the House members.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, it was not brought to a vote or included in the state budget. Because of a failure to provide stable and predictable funding for RIPTA, budget shortfalls are predicted early in 2013.
Making Progress on Solid Waste
With the Central Landfill in Johnston having only another 20 or so years of usable life left, it is essential to invest time and energy in alternative ways to dispose of waste. This begins with reducing unnecessary consumption and improving recycling collection systems.
A producer responsibility framework bill (H5888; S459) was introduced in 2011. This innovative proposal would have created a consistent and predictable plan to involve product manufacturers in the disposal of their products. Even though it provided regulatory certainty and predictability for small and large business alike, the bill was met with opposition from many trade associations. It would have brought together stakeholders to develop a product take-back program for up to two new products every two years. Each program would be developed in collaboration with product manufacturers. This would have developed new opportunities for economic development while solving our waste crisis.
Though the Legislature failed to act in 2011, this leap backward was followed by two steps forward in 2012. Thanks to dedicated leadership, Rhode Island became the fourth state to enact a producer responsibility bill for unused paint. This program, which will be implemented in 2014, will reduce the amount of paint that is sent to the state landfill, provide more convenient collection for consumers and reduce regulations on small businesses that choose to collect the product.
Additionally, with the passage of S3073, Rhode Island will be the first state to look at policy models to collect and recycle more packaging materials under a producer responsibility program. Commission members have been named and meetings are set to begin in November. The commission will produce a report highlighting its findings in March 2013.
The Governor
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, elected in 2010, entered office amidst a whirlwind of financial challenges. Given these fiscal issues, the governor remained steadfast in many commitments to the environment. He has demonstrated a commitment to environmental issues by taking the simple, yet important, step of signing most of the conservation and environmental bills passed by the General Assembly. 
Highlights include a package of renewable energy bills, legal protection for conservation easements and product stewardship for unused paint. Past governors allowed environmental policies to go into effect without a signature, demonstrating a lack of commitment.
After two years in office, Chafee has proven to be an advocate for land and water conservation. He has introduced Question 5, a bond referendum on the Nov. 6 state ballot, to fund upgrades in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.
He deserves commendation for his judicial use of veto power over dangerous environmental bills that came out of the General Assembly. He exercised this prerogative by vetoing a proposal to halt mandatory sewer tie-in in Warwick (H7936; S2086) — the General Assembly overrode his decision. This law allows cesspool owners in Warwick to defer tying into existing sewer lines until they sell their homes. The continued existence and operation of cesspools threatens both our drinking water supplies and Narragansett Bay.
He also vetoed H7942, which would have radically changed the structure and scope of the current Climate Change Commission. Enactment of this bill would have been a step back in our state’s ability to handle the impending threats of this serious global challenge.
Though working to support and sign some positive environmental legislation, Chafee has missed some critical opportunities to make progress through his budget proposals. For Rhode Island to properly protect its resources, take serious action on climate change and invest in public transportation, the governor has work to do. 

Despite stating support for RIPTA, Chafee didn’t include the funding proposal found in the Transit Investment and Debt Reduction Act of 2012. It gets people to work, reduces the need for a family to own multiple vehicles and provides mobility for those who don’t drive. Funding for public transportation is an essential environmental issue. Rhode Island’s largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation sector. The most important method of reducing these emissions is to expand and improve public transit.