Government

This Year’s Environmental Hits and Misses in Legislature

PFAS ban, climate council funding bills pass; CRMC reform, environmental justice bills fail

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PROVIDENCE — It’s over. While Rhode Islanders slept June 13, the General Assembly was working overtime to pass its last slate of legislation before adjourning for the year.

Lawmakers and their respective committees had been meeting daily starting last week, while the chambers wrangled over what non-budgetary bills to pass in the closing days of the session.

Environmental groups aren’t walking away from the Legislature’s session with everything on their wish list, but they aren’t walking away with nothing either. The Environmental Council of Rhode Island, a coalition of some 40 environmentally minded organizations and nonprofits, got around half of the three big named priorities passed before the end of the session.

Some high-profile misses: environmental advocates failed to secure support for reforming the Coastal Resources Management Council; a bottle deposit bill; or more stringent environmental justice requirements for the permitting industry. But environmental agencies are walking away with funding and staff increases, and the state passed a ban on forever chemicals intentionally introduced into consumer products.

A total of 34 environmental bills were considered or passed over the last week and a half of the session. Here’s the highlights of which measures made it:

Consumer PFAS Ban Act (H7356/S2152): Two years after introducing limits for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water, lawmakers returned this year to pass a thinner version of regulations barring the chemicals from consumer products. The ban, expected to go into enforcement in 2027, applies to most consumer products into which PFAS is intentionally introduced for its water-resistance, grease-resistance, or other notable properties. It includes certain articles of clothing, cookware, and other items. It does not include certain industrial applications, such as some consumer electronics and photography equipment.

Act on Coasts: Lawmakers mandated, in response to a series of winter storms that seriously eroded the coastlines in coastal communities, that state officials create and maintain a statewide coastal resiliency plan. Under the act (H7022/S2298), the state’s chief resilience officer would be charged with writing a plan that specifically focuses on coastal resiliency in the face of climate change. The plan will be reviewed and updated every two years.

Human composting: In what was probably the longest floor debate for an environmental bill this session, lawmakers passed legislation enabling natural organic reduction of human remains, more commonly known as human composting. The bill allows the Rhode Island Department of Health to regulate any future facilities in Rhode Island that wish to offer death care services in the state. It was the second year in a row the bill was introduced.

Swan Point Cemetery already offers green burials, and only a select few companies nationwide offer services for human composting. Rhode Island now joins nine other states that have legalized the practice.

Sapowet Marsh Management Area: In a last-minute passage by the House and Senate this year, lawmakers officially designated the 296-acre Sapowet Marsh Management Area, located in Tiverton, to be utilized for passive recreation only. Advocates say it’s meant to protect a state-managed area from development, but the law also prohibits aquaculture projects from being developed offshore.

Aquaculture has become a controversial subject in recent years. Last year, the Coastal Resources Management Council voted to move into adjudication an application for an aquaculture farm located just off the management area owned by John and Patrick Bowen, brothers who reside in Little Compton. It’s unclear how the new law will impact the application.

Freshwater Lake Management Program: In another late-session passage, lawmakers approved a Freshwater Lake Management Program (H8093/S2153) within DEM to get a handle on the invasive freshwater aquatic species found within almost every lake and pond within the state. The bill does not specify a dedicated form of funding, however.

Invasive species have been a long-standing, long-gestating problem in freshwater lakes, ponds, and rivers across the state. DEM keeps a running tab of which invasive species is in what waterbody, and the cruel reality is once an invasive is a waterbody, it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate it. Lake and pond associations have long advocated to the General Assembly that their usually volunteer efforts lack the resources to control the problem.

And here’s a list of what didn’t make it:

Bottle deposit bill: Lawmakers failed to get the bottle bill out of committee again this year, in what’s almost an annual, if ironic, tradition by this point. A bottle deposit program charges a small fee, anywhere from 5 to 15 cents, on top of bottles sold. Residents can later turn in the bottles to receive the fee back, providing a financial incentive to take a lot of common litter off the streets, as litter, especially nips, continues to be a growing problem in Rhode Island.

But the bottle industry, including convenience stores and gas stations, have long opposed the bill. This year’s study commission seemed hopeful it would pass this year, but any movement toward a bottle deposit system was strongly opposed by the representatives from the beer and spirit industries, convenience stores, and gas station owners. The study commission is expected to continue discussing the bill this summer, and lawmakers have already pledged to re-introduce the same legislation if no compromise is reached.

CRMC reform: Despite having the backing of a large swath of environmental groups, good government organizations, and Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha, advocates failed to pass legislation to abolish the politically appointed, part-time council that governs the state coastal regulating agency. Advocates accused the state budget office of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the language of the bill when they estimated a higher price tag in the legislation’s fiscal note.

The bill would transfer the powers of the 10-member council to the agency’s executive director, similar to the way every other state agency is operated. But the budget office crunched the numbers on how much it would cost to hire staff to replace them (between $2 and $3 million, depending on how you slice it).

Environmental Justice: For the second year, lawmakers did nothing to consider the environmental justice bills introduced in the House and Senate. Under the legislation introduced this year, permitters, like DEM, CRMC and others, would have been required to calculate the cumulative impacts of projects within a certain area. It’s a key tool in the toolbox for regulators to be able to refuse industrial proposals and projects, like the Port of Providence, which directly abuts Washington Park and lower South Providence residential neighborhoods. Regulators, like the Public Utilities Commission, have stressed to advocates they don’t have the power to consider cumulative impacts to communities when approving projects. Any decision made on those grounds would be overturned by a lawsuit. The bill was a tentpole priority for the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, and the only one of its three priorities that was not achieved in some capacity.

Building Decarbonization Act (H7617/S2952): Lawmakers waffled in passing the state’s first energy bench-marking bill for buildings. Original legislation would have required large building owners to track the emissions generated by their buildings with one eye on future carbon emission reductions.

The state Senate passed that legislation. The House didn’t, choosing instead to swap out a substitute version of the legislation asking the EC4 to prepare a report on the issue by Feb. 15, 2025. The Senate added this version of the bill to theirs, and passed it.

Building emissions account for just under a third of all carbon emissions emitted in Rhode Island, and as the state inches closer to the emission reduction deadlines of the Act on Climate, time is running out for policymakers to come up with a solution. The electricity sector will be offset by the Renewable Energy Standard within a decade, and DEM adopted the Advanced Clean Cars last year, which will mandate over the next decade that vehicle manufacturers send greater numbers of zero-emission vehicles over the next decade.

But Rhode Island is still missing a policy to tackle building emissions.

Percentage Income Payment Plan: Lawmakers also failed to pass a utility percentage income payment plan, a longstanding demand of utility justice advocates like Pawtucket’s George Wiley Center. It’s a policy that was once offered by Narragansett Electric back in the 1980s and ‘90s, when low-income residents would pay a percentage of their income as their utility bill, instead of the state per kilowatt hour amount listed on utility bills today. Advocates have long warned inaction on the issues, especially in a time of volatile natural gas and electricity prices, would lead to further poverty among the state’s marginalized communities.

Housing and Conservation Trust Fund: A unique idea this session was legislation offered by environmental advocates to revitalize the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. It was originally created in 1990, modeled on a similar bill in Vermont, that allowed the state to bring housing developers and open space advocates in to identify developments that would satisfy both parties. It’s the first time the General Assembly has aimed to do something with the old, defunct law. Grow Smart Rhode Island lobbied hard in the mid-2000s for a study commission, but their solution for funding the board — an increase in the real estate transfer tax — was strongly opposed by the Rhode Island Realtor Association. This year’s legislation made no recommendation on funding the program, merely reforming its board.

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 18 at 11 a.m. It was updated again July 16 to correct a reporting error.

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  1. To be accurate, and to correct you with the facts, with regards to the recent House and Senate passage of an Act to protect the Sapowet Marsh Area for passive outdoor recreation, the CRMC did NOT approve the Bowen application. Last year the CRMC voted to send the application to the CRMC Hearing Officer because the Executive Director determined that there was/were substantive objection(s) to the application, and therefore, the application was deemed a contested matter.

  2. seems to me a highlight was restoring funds for natural area and farmland protection to the Green Bond, needed to keep those programs going, of much importance considering all the sprawl pressures (generated in part by our transportation policy prioritzing highway expansions, and the frequent resistance to density in metro areas)
    On the other hand, still no protection for old growth forests despite efforts to craft amendments to satisfy stakeholders.
    On transportation, again blls to promote bicycing failed and bike infrastructure yet again was left out of the Green Bond, and while RIPTA got enough new funding to limp along for another year without new servce cuts that had been threatened, the opprtunity to improve the system to better help address climate, safety, congestion and housing issues seem to have been missed as transportation priority remains cars, cars. cars

  3. Not at all in favor of the Percentage Income Payment Plan. Sounds a lot like the California plan to add an extra fee to your utility bill based on income. If you have a problem with your electric or gas bill than conserve and use less. If this passes than someone will have to pick up the tab. I do everything I can to conserve and avoid waste and this plan does nothing to encourage that. With this plan a user will pay a percentage based upon income with no regard for actual use. There needs to be a limit based upon average use by a household in a geographical area. Any use above the average should be paid for at face value.

  4. The human composting bill passed the House but did not pass the Senate. I hope it passes and is enacted next year.

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