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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

RI environmental agenda for 2020

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Related imageAfter a lackluster session for environmental initiatives in 2019, environmental groups have high hopes for legislation this year.

Here are a few environmental efforts to watch:

Green Bond/Save Woodlands. A broad coalition of stakeholders is expected to rally behind the biennial environmental bond referendum and its funding for open-space protection. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is expected to release details of the 2020 Green Economy bond on Jan. 16, the same day Gov. Gina Raimondo is scheduled to issue her fiscal 2021 budget.

Rhode Island lacks a state-funded program to protect forests, so the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, The Nature Conservancy, Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Woodland Partnership, and Grow Smart Rhode Island are asking that the bond earmark $5 million for forest protection.

Protecting woodlands gained urgency in recent years because of the proposed — and ultimately defeated — Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant and the siting of utility-scale solar installations on open space.

These environmental advocacy groups are supporting legislation that creates a statewide process for cities and towns to write rules for renewable-energy development.

Environmental groups are also seeking legislation that allows municipalities to levy taxes for local conservation efforts such as protecting open space, preserving historic sites, and launching climate adaptation projects. The local-tax concept is modeled on a system in Massachusetts.

Save The Bay hopes to enact a 5-cent per barrel fee on petroleum products that enter the state by ship. The Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund, or OSCAR Fund, would raise about $1.9 million annually and support grants for municipal climate adaptation projects.

As it does most years, Save The Bay also will be asking the state to boost or at least maintain compliance and enforcement jobs at DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council.

Forever chemicals. Despite years of failed attempts to pass state restrictions on a long list of harmful chemicals, there will be another push this year by the environmental community to set restrictions for PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances

These so-called “forever chemicals” are everywhere and in just about everything. The are common in nonstick cookware, takeout containers, carpeting, clothing, stain-resistant products, and most anything that repels moisture. 

PFAS don’t break down and traces of them have been found in drinking water, food, and in human blood. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS have been linked to low infant birth weights, immune system disorders, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption.

A report by the Environmental Working Group found 11 drinking water sites in Rhode Island contaminated with PFAS, largely by firefighting foam and school floor waxes.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) is sounding the alarm on PFAS. Last year, the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) denied a petition from CLF and the Toxics Action Center to regulate PFAS. Instead, DOH and DEM opted for a wait-and-see approach until the EPA sets national standards. Meanwhile, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New Jersey are regulating PFAS. Other states are also considering such rules. 

Congressmen David Cicilline and James Langevin, both Rhode Island Democrats, co-sponsored the PFAS Action Act, which recently passed the House of Representatives. The bill provides funds for cleanups of contaminated sites, limits the use of new PFAS, sets safety thresholds, and requires drinking-water monitoring.

President Trump promised to veto the legislation if it passes the Senate.

Bills addressing a carbon tax, electric vehicles, and recycling are expected to be introduced in the Rhode Island House and Senate in the coming weeks, with committee meetings to follow.