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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Post-mortem: how the environment did in this General Assembly session

General Assembly Passes Slate of Environmental Bills Before 2021 Session Ends

By BRIAN P. D. HANNON/ecoRI News staff

The General Assembly had a busy year of environmental legislation as a variety of bills passed both chambers and landed on the governor’s desk for his signature or refusal. Others, however, fell by the wayside during the 2021 session, which wrapped up July 1.

While environmental advocates and allied lawmakers failed to achieve their full agenda, there were notable bill passages in the realm of climate, energy and environmental justice.

Democratic Gov. Dan McKee already signed what is arguably the most significant environmental law for Rhode Island in years. The new chief executive — who took office earlier this year after former Gov. Gina Raimondo became President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary — put his pen to the 2021 Act on Climate in April following passage of matching Senate and House bills (S0078 Substitute A and H5445 Substitute A).

Act on Climate provides a framework for lawmakers to craft additional legislation to fulfill the goals outlined in the law. One of the most prominent early contenders was the Transportation Emissions and Mobile (TEAM) Community Act (S0872 and H6310), which would establish a cap-and-invest program to reduce transportation emissions 26 percent by 2032 in an effort to execute the regional Transportation & Climate Initiative. However, the TEAM Act did not get past the House Finance Committee.

Some of the notable environmental bills receiving General Assembly approval persevered through committee hearings and amendments stretching to the final days and hours of the session.

The High-Heat Medical Waste Facility Act (H5923 Substitute A), which effectively bans the installation of facilities employing extreme-heat pyrolysis technology, passed the House on June 30 and the Senate on July 1. In a related matter, a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) decision on a proposal by MedRecycler Inc. to build a West Warwick pyrolysis incinerator is expected by July 13.

The General Assembly took a step toward limiting the proliferation of plastic pollution, one of the most visible targets of the environmental community, with passage of an act (S0155 Substitute A and H5131 Substitute A) preventing restaurants and other food-service businesses from distributing single-use plastic straws unless specifically requested by customers.

The General Assembly also sent the governor a bill (H5760 Substitute A) seeking the establishment of a Forest Conservation Commission to identify funding and develop incentives to help landowners maintain their properties as forests rather than convert the land to development. It also creates a Forest Land Conservation Fund that enables the state to buy development rights from forest property owners who want to conserve their forestland.

The General Assembly adopted the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund (S0035 Substitute A and H5967 Substitute A), which establishes a fund to provide grants to municipalities and state agencies for projects that protect or enhance natural systems and habitats to improve the resilience of these systems to a changing climate. The fund would also help preserve and enhance public access to the shore. The program is funded through an additional 5-cent fee on each barrel of petroleum imported to the state by ship. It is expected to generate about $2 million annually.

Lawmakers voted to adopt minimum energy- and water-efficiency standards for appliances through companion bills (S0399 Substitute A and H5966 Substitute A) that could reduce emissions by 256,000 metric tons and decrease business and residential utility bills by $10 million annually beginning in 2025. Products covered by the legislation include gas fireplaces, water coolers and showerheads.

A bill (H5328 Substitute A) establishing a state program to reduce school food and paper waste in cooperation with DEM, the state education department, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation and individual municipalities passed the House on June 16 and the Senate on June 30.

The House agreed to pass a successful Senate bill (S0994) to establish a network of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. The legislation requires the state Department of Transportation, Division of Motor Vehicles and Office of Energy Resources to develop a plan for the statewide EV charging infrastructure by Jan. 1, 2022.

Both chambers passed a pesticide bill (H5641 Substitute A) preventing the use of neonicotinoids without professional certification. Some legislators objected on the grounds the measure severely limited the number of people who could apply the insecticide to protect certain field crops, but supporters noted any exterminator or farmer wishing to use the chemical could obtain certification after over-the-counter sales are halted in 2023. Lawmakers also were assured the proper use of neonicotinoids would not adversely impact the state’s most valuable class of pollinators, bees.

The General Assembly passed the Permanent Air Quality Monitoring Act (S0607 Substitute A and H5922 Substitute A) extending the long-term air-pollution tracking program at T. F. Green International Airport in Warwick through July 31, 2024.

Lawmakers approved two acts involving the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). The bills (S0473 and H5920) would authorize the state’s 21 coastal municipalities to adopt CRMC’s building permit application process addressing coastal hazards including sea-level rise and flooding.

Residents celebrating birthdays, gender-reveal parties and anniversaries may be required to remain environmentally conscious if McKee signs a bill (S0038 Substitute A) preventing the simultaneous release of 10 or more gas-filled balloons into the air. The measure is intended to decrease the spread of party favors that can become litter and cause harm to wildlife and the environment.

Failed efforts
Among the notable bills that tried but failed to reach the governor’s desk, the Senate passed the Renewable Energy Standard Act (S0629 Substitute A) to require all of Rhode Island’s electricity to originate from renewable energy sources by 2030. The bill did not pass out of the House Corporations Committee.

The Senate also passed the Environmental Justice Act (S0105 Substitute A) seeking to require the Division of Statewide Planning to designate areas for additional protection against environmental hazards caused by development. The measure stalled after its referral to the House State Government and Elections Committee.

The House approved the Green Buildings Act (H5919), but the bill was not taken up by the Senate. The proposal sought to require major facility projects by state agencies and other publicly funded improvements to be built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, a building rating and certification system overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council.