Opposition to Bracing R.I. for Environmental Rollbacks

Rep. Chippendale says Trump's proposed EPA budget cuts are only hypothetical


PROVIDENCE — In preparation for potential budget and staff cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state lawmakers have passed a resolution to measure those impacts on Rhode Island, specifically at the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), which receives 30 percent of its budget from the federal government.

DEM’s director, Janet Coit, said the potential cuts pose “very dire concerns” and “devastating impacts on our environmental programs.” She noted diminished budgets for air and water pollution prevention as well as the agency’s new business-friendly permitting center.

As the House prepared March 29 to vote on the resolution, Rep. Michael Chippendale, R-Foster, objected. He first defended DEM as a vital agency that is overburdened, underfunded and understaffed. However, he described the bill as partisan, befuddling and a knee-jerk reaction to media hype and tweets.

Chippendale said it was unnecessary “to take time to deal with stuff that hasn’t even happened yet and what may happen based on stuff that was in the media.”

The resolution, he noted, was submitted before President Trump signed an executive order killing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and released his budget. However, it’s worth noting that Trump vowed to gut the agency and environmental regulations during his campaign and after he was elected. Trump’s budget cuts 31 percent of EPA funding. A Republican budget proposes eliminating a fifth of the federal agency’s staff.

Yet, Chippendale insisted that the cuts are only hypothetical.

“(DEM) doesn’t even know if that stuff is going to even happen,” Chippendale said. “We might as well put a line in there that says you should also nail Jell-O to a wall. This is a silly, silly resolution.”

Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, chairman of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, said Coit will meet with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., April 6 and 7 to learn about the potential cuts. Coit will also be speaking at the event.

“I think it’s better to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Handy said. “Frankly, it’s not just tweets. There’s executive orders and other things that a lot of us are worried about on our environment here.”

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Middletown, said Coit also is meeting with the Gov. Gina Raimondo and the state’s congressional delegation about federal budget cuts.

“I don’t think this is premature in light of some things that could occur with the federal EPA and a possible billion dollars being taken away from that budget,” Ruggiero said.

At an early-March hearing, Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, the sponsor of the resolution, said preemptive action in needed, otherwise the General Assembly won’t be able to fill budget gaps until the 2018 legislative session.

The resolution passed, 64-6. It was opposed by Chippendale, and Republicans Antonio Giarrusso of East Greenwich, Patricia Morgan of Coventry, Justin Price of Richmond, Robert Quattrocchi of Scituate and Sherry Roberts of West Greenwich. Five other Republicans and all Democrats supported the resolution.

As for its 2018 budget, DEM is mostly spinning in place after years of staff reductions. The number of full-time employees has dropped from 520 to 385 during the past 15 years. Since 2005, the number of compliance and inspection officers has dropped from 35 to 25. Consequently, the number of violation notices issued to polluters has dropped from 141 in 2005 to 33 in 2016.

DEM is requesting two new air-quality specialists and three environmental police in its 2018 budget. The governor’s budget doesn’t add staff to either of those areas. Raimondo, however, is requesting funding for one full-time employee to perform merchandising for the Outdoor Recreation Council, which is chaired by her husband.

If the federal budget is enacted, Coit expects water pollution monitoring and permitting to be most threatened. The state board that addresses climate change, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, is mostly funded with federal funds.

“Do we slow our permitting or do we slow out monitoring — when you see dead fish and stinking coves?” Coit said. “We have so many needs in the water area.”

When asked if she had a contingency plan for the loss of funds, Coit said, “We don’t really have contingency plans, we’re really spending all of our efforts trying to prevent something bad from happening.”


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