R.I. Senate approves Environmental Justice Act

Passage comes after renewed attention on pollution in South Providence 

By: - May 8, 2023 5:00 am

A view of the Rhode Island Recycled Metal scrapyard from across Route 95, which cuts through the Washington Park neighborhood of Providence where the Port of Providence is located. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

After recent backlash to the expansion of an Allens Avenue scrap yard, Rhode Island senators are backing a measure to give low-income and minority communities more say over projects that pollute their neighborhoods.

The legislation passed by the Rhode Island Senate in a 31-4 vote Thursday, May 4, allows the state to designate “environmental justice areas” based on income, minority population, and/or percentage of households that lack “English language proficiency.” As written, the bill would give more scrutiny and community input in permitting for projects that contribute to pollution: sewage treatment plants, landfills, incinerators and recycling centers, among others. The legislation also allows state agencies that oversee these permit applications (the Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council) to consider the pollution not just from individual projects, but cumulatively for the neighborhood.

South Providence residents want voices heard on neighborhood issues

“This is an important benchmark to give communities unfairly burdened by air, water and soil pollution additional tools to determine the future of their neighborhood,” said Sen. Dawn Euer, a Democrat from Newport and the bill sponsor.

Identical legislation was introduced and passed in the Senate last year but failed to advance in the House. 

The bill’s passage comes less than a month after residents and community activists organized a rally in South Providence driven in part by the expansion of a controversial Allens Avenue scrap yard in the Washington Park neighborhood. Continued industrial development in the predominantly lower-income, minority neighborhood has become a focal point of the environmental justice debate, with residents and activists decrying the fumes, dust and other pollutants harming the health and safety of area residents. 

This is an important benchmark to give communities unfairly burdened by air, water and soil pollution additional tools to determine the future of their neighborhood.

– Sen. Dawn Euer, a Democrat from Newport

Senators Tiara Mack and Joshua Miller, both Democrats who represent parts of the South Providence neighborhood, in comments on the Senate floor Thursday emphasized the importance of the legislation in protecting and giving a voice to their constituents.

A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Pawtucket Democrat Karen Alzate, remains in committee as of Friday.

Also on May 4, the Senate approved two other environmental-related bills. One piece of legislation, by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, further distinguishes between what the state’s gas operator spends on infrastructure from what it charges to ratepayers. The amendment specifically removes language from the existing state revenue decoupling law that determines the gas distribution charge based on the costs to maintain the system on a by-customer basis. 

Sosnowski said the change will offer state utility regulators more flexibility and authority to discourage utility companies from overinvesting in natural gas infrastructure – and in turn, charging more to their customers to pay for it. The same legislation passed the Senate, but not the House last year. Companion legislation in the House sponsored by Rep. Joseph Solomon, a Warwick Democrat, remained in committee as of Friday, May 5.

A third piece of legislation approved May 4 extends state labor standards to smaller-scale renewable energy projects: those with up to 1 megawatt of “nameplate” capacity versus the prior 3-megawatt minimum. Sen. Robert Britto, an East Providence Democrat and bill sponsor, said the change aligns Rhode Island with federal standards, allowing the state to access federal funding for more renewable energy projects. 

A House companion bill sponsored by Rep. Brandon Potter, a Cranston Democrat, remains in committee. 


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is a reporter covering State House politics along with energy and environmental issues for Rhode Island Current.