Late-Night Scramble Concludes Another General Assembly Session
Environmental legislation sees its share of wins and losses
June 17, 2023
PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly officially concluded its legislative year early Friday, with legislators working overtime to pass the last bills until almost 2 in the morning.
As per usual, lawmakers spent the past few weeks, since the House introduced its version of the budget, passing a flurry of legislation before the end of the 2023 session, with a number of high-profile environmental priorities passing, and some failing.
Now that the dust has settled, here is what is headed to the governor’s desk:
Lead pipes were a high priority for lawmakers in both chambers, as they considered legislation to finance the replacement of lead service lines and new ways to keep landlords accountable for lead poisoning and other hazards.
S0002, introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, established a lead service line replacement program, requiring water suppliers to inventory the amount of service lines that contain lead within their systems. The law would allow the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to use federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — and additional money from state revenues if needed — to help homeowners replace lead pipes.
Three other pieces of legislation, introduced and backed by Attorney General Peter Neronha, are aimed at renters with negligent landlords.
S0729aa and H6238A, sponsored by Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, and Rep. David Morales, D-Providence, would allow tenants to pay their rent into an escrow account if there are unaddressed lead hazards in their homes. So long as tenants remain current on their rent, the money deposited in the escrow account would be inaccessible to landlords until they mitigate lead hazards found in their property.
S0804aa and H6239A, introduced by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, and Rep. Mia Ackerman, D-Cumberland, would create a statewide registry for rental units, where landlords must list identifying information with the Rhode Island Department of Health, including filing a lead conformance certificate for buildings built before 1978.
S0739 and H6201, sponsored by Sen. Valerie Lawson, D-East Providence, and Rep. Matthew Dawson, D-East Providence, would allow families impacted by childhood lead poisoning to recover up to three times their actual damages if their landlord is found to have violated lead safety laws.
State shoreline activists notched a big win this year; after years of advocacy and a special legislative study commission, lawmakers passed legislation codifying the rights of people to walk up and down the coastline. Under the compromise legislation passed by both chambers, H5174A and S0417A, coast-goers would be able to legally walk along the shore without trespassing in a corridor 10 feet landward of the wrack, or seaweed, line.
The legislation essentially overturns a 1982 Rhode Island Supreme Court case that fixed the legally passable boundary at the mean high-water line — a line the study commission, after months of investigating, found to be entirely unworkable for everyone, including private property owners.
The Legislature also made some slight changes to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, which governs the state’s transit system. Plans to merge the agency with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation were ultimately scrapped, with lawmakers instead passing a scaled-down version of the legislation that puts the RIDOT director as chair of the RIPTA board — RIPTA is a quasi-public agency. Transit advocates strongly opposed both versions of the bill.
Lawmakers also passed solar-siting reform. The issue of where to place ground-mounted solar arrays around the state has been a point of contention for the past decade, as some local residents and municipalities have opposed their placement on green space or near residential areas.
The final bill defines and protects “core forest” areas — defined as unfragmented forest blocks spanning single or multiple properties totaling 250 acres or more, unbroken by development, and at least 25 yards from any mapped roads.
Original legislation lifted the capacity limits on the state’s net-metering program and expanded the program to commercial and industrial sites, but the language as passed places the cap at 275 megawatts, with a 20% reduction in the state incentive for all projects after that.
While the bill itself was a compromise between environmental groups, labor unions, and solar developers, not everyone was universally pleased with the results. Grow Smart Rhode Island told ecoRI News earlier this year the bill as originally proposed would shift development pressures toward the remaining green spaces in the urban core. The organization’s preferred bill, to limit solar developments strictly to already-developed sites, died in committee.
Zero-waste advocates notched a big win during the closing days of the session, when the General Assembly voted to approve bans on polystyrene foam used in takeout containers and beverage stirrers provided by food-service establishments. The material is banned in Rhode Island starting Jan. 1, 2025, applying only to restaurants and food-service establishments, not agricultural fairs, farmers markets, hospitals and nursing homes, and charity organizations such as Meals on Wheels.
If signed into law by the governor, Rhode Island would become the 11th jurisdiction to adopt such a ban nationwide.
Some minor bills aimed at reforming the Coastal Resources Management Council passed. S0203, introduced by Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown, would allow the governor to appoint the executive director of the CRMC. The politically appointed council — also selected by the governor and confirmed by the Senate — would still keep oversight powers over the director.
Electric vehicle infrastructure could also see a mandated expansion. Under the legislation (H5159aa and S0988), new and expanded parking lots would be required to reserve a certain percentage of spots — depending on the size of the lot — for EV charging stations.
Earlier this month, the House passed a resolution (H6342) to create a legislative study commission to evaluate and provide recommendations on forest management. The study commission, sponsored by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, was introduced after an Exeter wildfire burned more than 200 acres of forestland.
Dead and buried
Despite some June 16 victories, environmental groups didn’t get everything they wanted, including some big-ticket legislative items. Here is what died somewhere in the General Assembly this year:
The Legislature once again took a pass on a bottle bill, legislation (H5502 and S0753) that would have create a deposit-and-return program to collect empty beverage containers in exchange for 10 cents. The bill, introduced annually over the past few years, is aimed at reducing the amount of nips and other beverage containers that litter the state.
Last Monday, the legislation was instead replaced with a study commission bill, to investigate, plan, and propose future legislation along those lines, but it likely be two years until such a bill is introduced.
Extended producer responsibility for packaging also failed to get out of the General Assembly. H5091 and S0200 would have required producers of goods sold in the state, such as food, toys, electronics, clothing, and appliances, to pay fees to recycle the waste generated by their product’s packaging. Sponsors said the legislative language was designed to control the amount of waste generated in Rhode Island and being buried in the Central Landfill in Johnston, which is projected to reach total capacity by 2040.
The Legislature took a pass at implementing environmental justice into state policy. Under the bills (H6196 and S0770), state agencies such as DEM and CRMC would be required to implement environmental justice into their permitting proceedings and allow them to consider cumulative impacts of applications and projects being considered for permitting.
In areas such as the Port of Providence, which is adjacent to marginalized communities such as South Providence and Washington Park, polluters are allowed to cluster without state authorities drawing a line prohibiting further polluters from setting up shop.
The bulk of the CRMC reform bills did not pass, including a stipulation in its voting procedures that would have required a higher threshold for the council to override staff recommendations; requirements to appoint a licensed angler, a representative from the Save The Bay, and a representative from a developer organization; and an omnibus bill to overhaul the agency itself and align it to be more like a traditional state agency, such as DEM.
While the bill (H5779) to mandate the hiring of a CRMC hearing officer didn’t pass, the governor, at the 11th hour, appointed Mark Krieger, a Lincoln attorney, to the role. Krieger was confirmed on the last day of the Senate session, June 15.
A number of additional prohibitions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals, also failed. H5673 and S0016 would have banned PFAS in a variety of products sold in the state, including carpets, rugs, cookware, and cosmetics.
Lawmakers also took a pass on a number of items related to energy costs. H5490 would have mandated public hearings on rate changes in the electric and gas utility be held after-work hours, 5:30 p.m. or later. A bill (H5411) to extend the utility shutoff moratorium by an additional month died in committee.
H5346 would have expanded the state low-income heating and energy assistance program operated by the state. H5847 would have recreated the state’s Percentage Income Payment Plan for gas and electric utility bills. Instead of paying a flat rate, low-income customers instead would have been able to pay a fixed percentage of their income for their utility bills.
On the land conservation side, the General Assembly took a pass on the Old Growth Forest Protection Act, again. H5344 would have defined old-growth forest and prohibited logging and other forestry activities on such forests on state land.
The Renewable Ready Program (S0504) would have inventoried a list of developed or otherwise contaminated sites that were ready or could be prepared for solar. The bill was referred to the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee in April, where it never received a hearing.
Electric bike regulations also did not pass despite heavy support from bicycling advocates. The bills would allowed e-bikes to travel on bike paths and other public byways, regulating them as bicycles and not cars. The legislation would have put the state on par with about 40 other states.
As it stands now, e-bikes are technically illegal to ride on bike paths, but enforcement is rare.