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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rhode Island Environmental Laws Find Themselves in Land of the Lost

Pass it and forget it

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

Rhode Island has a peculiar way of protecting public and environmental health. On paper, it’s awesome. In reality, it sucks.

In the early 2000s, for example, the General Assembly passed legislation designed to control the use of pesticides on school grounds. But in typical Rhode Island fashion, the law has never really been enforced.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, expressed her frustration with this all-too-common state practice during a Feb. 6 House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources hearing.

“Many parts of the bill have never happened,” she said. “I’m disappointed this bill was not property implemented.”

Carson noted the legislation mandated that after July 1, 2001, no person other than a licensed or certified commercial applicator was allowed to apply pesticide in any school building or on the grounds of any school.

“We don’t have any idea if that is happening,” she said. “Could be maintenance people are using chemicals.”

The law’s other six mandates — e.g., the creation of a task force and providing, each new school year, parents and guardians with a written statement regarding pesticide application policy on school property and a description of any pesticide use at the school the previous year — were also forgotten.

Carson has co-sponsored a bill (H7359), with same name as its ignored predecessor, “Pesticide Control,” that she and other lawmakers hope will remedy the past 23 years of neglect.

Honestly though, what is the point of crafting, holding hearings, voting, and sometimes passing legislation that is designed to protect Rhode Island public and environmental health?

As soon as the governor’s signature dries and the bill-signing show packed up, the legislation is forgotten. No follow-up. No support. No funding. No enforcement. Pure theater.

It’s an infuriating way to govern, if you want to call it that.

For instance, in 2008 the General Assembly passed and the governor signed a law mandating the state develop a plan for reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by its employees. It was to include a public transit pass program for state workers.

The law set the goal of reducing VMT by 35% in eight years. A committee was to be formed to implement the plan and the director of the Department of Administration (DOA) would report annually to that committee and the governor.

None of that happened.

The DOA did draft a plan, but it has never been finalized or brought to the General Assembly for approval. The “State Employee Transportation Guide Plan,” dated 2010, offers recommendations on how to get state employees walking, bicycling, taking public transit, and carpooling to work.

A DOA official bragged to ecoRI News reporter Colleen Cronin last month that some of the measures that were suggested in the 14-year-old draft plan have been accomplished, such as creating a Transit Master Plan and a Bicycle Mobility Plan.

Big deal. That’s like asking your kids for a Christmas wish list and then never going shopping.

The taxpayer-funded Transit Master and the Bicycle Mobility plans are currently experiencing the same fate as the State Employee Transportation Guide Plan: lost in the Statehouse abyss of inaction. 

It’s a shameful way to run a state, but that’s what happens when you don’t properly fund and staff agencies, waste taxpayer money on such things as video games, incompetent bridge inspections, and a soccer stadium, and continue to pay for more environmental/climate studies when you already know what needs to be done and how.

The DOA official explained to my colleague that because the law was passed so long ago and under a different administration, “I don’t have any information about the decision-making at that time.”

I do. Here’s a link to the 2008 law and a link to the 25-page DOA draft plan. There also must be a hard copy of the plan lying around 1 Capitol Hill.

“We are committed to moving the needle for state government and are continuing to review opportunities to develop additional actionable strategies on an ongoing basis,” the official wrote in an email.

I don’t even know what that means, but I do know there’s an excellent chance that if any “additional actionable strategies” are implemented they would soon be forgotten.

I also know the state wasted 16 years that could have been used to reduce transportation sector emissions and perhaps improve Rhode Island public transit.

Three years after the legislation became law, public transit rider and advocate John Flaherty, currently Grow Smart Rhode Island’s deputy director, advocated for a 2011 resolution urging DOA to follow through with the 2008 law.


The 2021 Act on Climate law mandates that “state agencies shall … develop programs to encourage state employees to reduce their vehicle miles and use sustainable transportation alternatives, including public transit systems.”

Rinse. Repeat. Ridiculous.

Speaking of foolishness, the reason given last year for the state still not abiding by a 2000 amendment to general law is pure Rhode Island gold.

A Division of Motor Vehicles spokesperson told me in April, via email, that a flooded building was the reason for the delay.

“DMV Safety and Emissions Facility suffered catastrophic flooding in September 2022 that delayed development of the Heavy Duty Inspection and Maintenance Program,” the spokesperson wrote. 

“DMV and DEM staff continue to meet and work on finalizing regulations for the program. While we are working diligently on those regulations we cannot yet offer a timeframe for their implementation. In the meantime, the DMV is working on a long-term solution for replacing its flood-damaged inspection facility in Providence.”

In the meantime, the transportation sector accounts for much of the greenhouse gases spewed in Rhode Island, at nearly 40% of the total.

The aforementioned amendment to state law acknowledged that heavy-duty diesel vehicles contribute significantly to air pollution and diminish “the quality of life and health of our citizens.” 

The amendment also noted the “Citizens of Rhode Island frequently raise concerns about emissions from heavy-duty diesel engines” and “Technology exists to determine the level of exhaust emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.”

The 24-year-old amended law directed the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Environmental Management to launch a heavy-duty inspection and maintenance program, like the one we have for cars and light trucks, by 2003.

No such program exists, even though the state admitted Rhode Islanders wanted it, would have benefited from it, and the technology existed to make it happen.

In 2021, a DEM official told ecoRI News, “I’m not exactly sure why, what’s taken so long.”

The Smith Hill answer seems pretty straightforward. “Vescere bracis meis,” or, as Bart Simpson would say, “Eat my shorts.”

Environmental laws are celebrated in the Statehouse, at least initially, but many, such as a 1989 law that likely made the sale of nips illegal, soon find themselves in the land of the lost.

The General Assembly passed the Beverage Container Recyclability law 35 years ago. It mandated, among other things, that retailers can only sell beverages in containers that “have attained a 50% recycling rate by 1992.”

That recycling rate likely was never reached for any plastic beverage container — although I’m pretty confident the state never bothered to check — and now it’s inconceivable for nips.

Plastic bottles that are less than 2 inches tall and 2 inches in diameter, which include most nips, are too small for the Central Landfill’s single-stream recycling sorting equipment to process, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

In the meantime, lawmakers keep debating and holding for further study bills that would prohibit the sale of nips. For example, a 2022 bill would have banned the sale of any sealable bottle, can, jar, or carton that held less than 3.4 ounces of alcohol. A nip is 1.7 ounces.

The state logo should be a hamster on a wheel.

Three-plus decades ago Rhode Islands lawmakers passed the Natural Areas Protection Act of 1993. The legislation was supposed to provide, among other things, the “highest level of protection to the state’s most environmentally sensitive natural areas.”

It was designed to elevate “the health and welfare of the people of Rhode Island by promoting the preservation of areas of unique natural interest for scientific, educational, recreational, cultural, and scenic purposes.” It was going to “allow significant public and privately owned lands of critical environmental concern to be designated as natural area preserves.”

Not one natural area preserve has been created in 31 years. Early last year ecoRI News was told that, “No one currently at DEM recalls the genesis of this Act.”

Rhode Island is often touted as an environment-friendly oasis by outside publications and entities, both local and out of state, that like to make lists. Those pronouncements and rankings are typically created by simply looking at the long list of environmental laws the state has on the books. It is impressive, but looks are deceiving.

Many (most?) of these laws aren’t supported, funded, enforced, or even remembered.

To quote a famous military intelligence officer: “I know nothing. I see nothing. I hear nothing.”

Welcome to the Ocean State.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.