Save the Bay zeros in on four proposed bills before General Assembly
Save the Bay has weighed in on four bills currently pending in the state General Assembly. In an alert issued last week, the prominent environmental organization urged its supporters to contact their lawmakers and voice their support or opposition to the legislation.
The first of these proposals is House Bill 6063. The legislation to improve economic development was introduced by Rep. Helio Melo, a Democrat who serves East Providence. The bill initially proposed taking permitting powers from the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council. The duties would be placed under the purview of the newly created executive office of commerce.
According to Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay, there is cause for concern because some of the permits in question would relate to environmental protections. The bill as written, Stone says, would allow an office whose sole purpose is to promote economic development to decide on permits applied for by corporations.
“You would have a business lobby overseeing the applications for environmental permits by business,”
Rhode Island environmental law is enforced by the Department of Environmental Management under a delegated program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The federal outfit has expressed its concern about the pending legislation to DEM Director Janet Coit in a letter. The letter indicated that if the legislation were passed, it would trigger a federal review by the Environmental Protection Agency. Such a review could result in revoking the DEM’s delegated authority. If that were the case, the letter said, enforcement of environmental law in Rhode Island would be handled by federal agents in Boston.
Stone said the letter makes it clear that the bill will put the DEM’s authority to administer federal law at risk. If the EPA took over the permitting process, Stone says it would make the procedure more difficult, which is counter to the intent of the bill.
According to Jane Austin, special coalitions liaison for Save the Bay, the bill has now been amended by the House Finance Committee to remove language regarding the transfer of permitting powers. But, she said, there is still language that says the office of commerce would coordinate with the heads of the DEM and coastal council so the permitting process could be expedited.
Save the Bay proposed language to amend that. “It still recognizes their goals, but would ask that the office of commerce coordinate with those two departments to ensure that the process that applies to permitting for Rhode Island’s small business community is clear, understandable and user- friendly,” said Austin.
While the House committee responded to concerns from the environmental community, Stone remains apprehensive that the language still has the potential for conflict between two agencies with different charters.
“We’re attempting to clarify the language so that it’s a coordination rather than a directing role,” Stone said.
The amended bill was scheduled for a vote on the House floor this week. Further amendments can be added prior to the final vote.
While Save the Bay officials are troubled by Melo’s bill, the organization supports House Bill 6031. The cesspool phaseout act was proposed by Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Democrat who serves Narragansett and South Kingstown. The bill ties the removal of cesspools to the transfer of property.
“This bill would in many ways give the homeowner significantly more control over the timing,” Stone said.
Under current law, cesspools in certain coastal areas of the state are fixed to be removed on a specific date next year. Stone said he likes that the bill ties in cesspool removal with other items involved in the closing process, like removing lead paint and in-ground oil tanks.
“From what we understand, mortgage lenders are increasingly not lending to buyers if they’re buying a home with a cesspool,” Stone said.
The bill has had one hearing in front of the House Environment Committee and the DEM has asked for some changes. A second hearing has not been scheduled yet.
Rep. Frank Ferri and Sen. Michael McCaffrey, both Democrats who represent districts in Warwick, have proposed bills that would require owners of hazard dams to have them inspected on a regular basis. The time frame would depend on how hazardous the dam is, and to what lies downstream.
“In our view this is a necessary and logical requirement,” Stone said. “It requires something of dam owners that they should be doing anyway.”
The bill was born out of the 2010 flooding. A number of dams failed during the flood and others were damaged. The legislation supports removing dams where its practical to eliminate the hazard.
“In Rhode Island we have very few dams that have economic value,” Stone said. “We have a number of dams that have aesthetic value, but we have many dams that have neither economic or aesthetic value and present hazards.”
According to Stone, hazards include jeopardizing water quality and preventing migratory fish from swimming upstream.
According to a recent inventory, there are about 600 dams in the state. The bill says many are regarded as a significant hazard. The proposed legislation has met with some resistance from dam owners over inspection costs – they can run anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000.
The final bill of interest to Stone is proposing a task force to regulate wetlands and septic systems. Save the Bay is concerned about the legislation because there are presently 19 cities and towns in Rhode Island that are above the baseline standards in terms of environmental protections.
According to Austin, while Save the Bay is in agreement that the state needs to increase its standards, the proposed legislation could foreclose the opportunity for communities to put in stronger regulations down the road if necessary.
“If the task force does its job, the local communities will not need to establish stronger protections,” Austin said. “But they shouldn’t be foreclosed from doing that if the task force ends up with a set of watered-down standards.”
The bill’s initial language would have done away with any local protections. That language has since been amended – the role of the task force would be to strictly make recommendations. However, local communities would still be prohibited from establishing their own ordinances as part of those recommendations.
Save the Bay would like to see the cities and towns establish their own regulations, and will push for the task force to come up with the strongest possible recommendations.
The bill was scheduled to be heard in both chambers by the end of the week.