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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Maybe it's about time to get one

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
PROVIDENCE — Environmental groups were heartened by the election results delivered by Rhode Island voters. All 28 candidates endorsed by Clean Water Action and the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club won office, including seven new members to the General Assembly. The land and water bonds, ballot questions 5 and 6, both garnered an impressive 70 percent approval at the polls.
The state Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Janet Coit spoke enthusiastically of having environmental advocates in the General Assembly and the massive support for the referendums that invest $40 million in open space and wastewater and drinking water upgrades. “People really came out in droves to support the environment,” Coit said at a recent meeting of the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI).

The endorsement for the environment, she said, was a welcome contrast to the occasional hate e-mails she receives and the shrinking funds for DEM’s eight natural resource divisions and six environmental oversight departments. Overall, Coit said, budget constraints have created a subdued work environment.
“Morale throughout state government is not good," she said.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee is expected to seek additional spending cuts for next year. “It would help to have more staff and funding, but I don’t see that happening,” Coit said.
Nevertheless, DEM plans to advance local farm and seafood initiatives, as well as its role in a commission to reduce consumer packaging.
Coit also wants to engage the business community regarding the DEM’s role in economic development. In particular, she hopes to address a proposal by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) that shifts several state departments, including DEM, under the oversight of business committees. The General Assembly may also consider adopting some of RIPEC’s suggestion when it convenes in January. Coit intends to meet with RIPEC’s director, John Simmons, to address a growing belief that state environmental protections impede economic development.
In a statement, Coit said DEM “is looking forward to talking to RIPEC and others in the business community about work underway to improve efficiency and predictability of permit programs, and to deliver customer service.” 
Climate change, she said, was one topic that regrettably doesn’t fit neatly into DEM’s upcoming projects. Coit was dismayed that the issue didn’t get much attention during campaigning at all levels of government. “I felt like the environment wasn’t on the map,” she said.
Efforts on the state level also appear to have stalled, as the Rhode Island Climate Change Commission suffers from a lack of funding and direction from the General Assembly.
Coit said the DEM aims to continue efforts it lunched this year to build partnerships with outside groups such as Save The Bay and the Coastal Resources Management Council, to address climate change and other initiatives such as the “green” economy and land conservation. These and other programs will be addressed at a public workshop hosted by DEM on Nov. 29.