Government

Interim Director Gray Nominated to Lead DEM

PROVIDENCE — Terrence Gray has been nominated to be the permanent director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

A 35-year veteran of the department, Gray assumed the duties of acting director last year after the departure of former director Janet Coit, who resigned to accept a job in the Biden administration.

During a recent confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Gray laid out his priorities as permanent director: modernizing DEM’s operations — parts of its internal systems date back to the 1990s — and stepping up climate change response in the state’s environmental programs.

“[The Act on Climate] was clearly a wake-up call. We have to put the pedal to the metal and start responding,” said Gray, who also chairs the state’s Executive Coordinating Council on Climate Change (EC4).

Gray’s short time as acting director has been marked by climate setbacks. Last fall, Massachusetts and Connecticut backed out of the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI), citing rising gas prices. The multi-state compact would have reduced vehicle emissions by 26% and raised $20 million annually for Rhode Island to invest in cleaner transit options and renewable energy development.

And the latest report on statewide emissions is grim. A new report released early last month showed overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increasing by 8.18% in 2018, putting Rhode Island 1.76% higher than its 1990 baseline as defined in last year’s Act on Climate.

The state’s climate goals may be in jeopardy. The Act on Climate’s first benchmark is a reduction of 10% below 1990 level emissions by the year 2020, and since the data is always on a three-year lag it may be too late for state leaders to turn the ship. The EC4 is on track to updating the state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan, scheduled to be finalized and released by the end of this year, according to Gray.

Gray’s nomination received support from environmental groups, engineering firms, town managers, and commercial fishermen.

“Terry has the ability to listen to complex situations, and boil it down to what matters, and that’s the truth,” said John Chambers, an engineer from Fuss & O’Neill.

A lifelong Ocean State resident and graduate of Warwick’s Pilgrim High School, Gray started working at DEM just out of college in 1987. He started as a hazardous waste program engineer. “I think the pay back then was about $15,000,” he said.

Gray said his proudest accomplishment is his work with the brownfields program, leading the site remediation division and advocating in the General Assembly for the enabling legislation. The program identifies contaminated sites for cleanup, with an eye for redevelopment. Funded by federal grants and state bonds, DEM oversees the remediation process and signs off on the cleanup work.

“It’s an alignment between environmental benefits and economics benefits, it’s truly a win-win situation,” Gray said. “We get cleaned up, we get redevelopment, we get reuse.”

But DEM, like its sister agency the Coastal Resources Management Council, faces enforcement issues — the department doesn’t have the staffing or money to go after every offender. Gray promised legislators the six new positions for permitting as outlined in Gov. Dan McKee’s budget would be focused on ensuring people are adhering to their permits.

“It’s going to be a challenge moving forward because we need an investment in our environmental police force,” Gray said. “All of the challenges in regulatory compliance are also challenges when we’re doing enforcement in the woods, and the beaches, and out on the bay.”

Gray’s nomination passed out of committee unanimously and is scheduled for a full vote of the Senate on May 17.

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  1. If the new DEM Director really wants to do something about reducing carbon emissions, without waiting for the Legislature to do it, is enhance carbon recapture (sequestration) by the state’s publicly owned forests, on management areas, parks, and land trust, NGO, and town-owned properties that were protected by Open Space Grants on which the State of RI holds conservation easements. This would demonstrate real administrative leadership over DEM agencies that insist on cutting forests for superfluous reasons, such as creating early successional habitat for commodity wildlife. This would also demonstrate a recommitment by the state to protect forest biodiversity, something the former Director did her best to eliminate.

  2. The selection of Terry Gray is a GREAT appointment. While working at DEM I found Terry was always a very open person to new ideas and always had time to listen. I found that even on those topics I knew he was not sharing my point of view he always listened and would give constructive counter points. Congratulations on an appoint that was not a political appointee but a person with great depth and knowledge of DEM.

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