STATE HOUSE – The Senate on Thursday passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer to create environmental justice zones throughout the state. Such zones would have an additional layer of protection from new, polluting developments.
“Far too often, polluting industries choose to set up shop in neighborhoods that are already home to other sources of air, water and ground contamination,” said Senator Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown), who chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary. “The concentration of health and environmental risks in these communities is an environmental injustice, sacrificing their well-being in service to wealthier and more powerful interests. These communities need more tools to be able to assert their right to clean air and water and self-determine their future.”
A growing body of evidence has found low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with more people of color have borne greater environmental and health risks than the society at large in their homes, workplace, and playgrounds. Often, that is because polluting industries are concentrated in these neighborhoods and residents are less empowered to push back against new development.
Under the bill (2023-S 0770), the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) would use census data to designate and periodically update environmental justice focus areas based on the neighborhood’s income levels, minority population or number of households without English proficiency.
Once a neighborhood is designated an environmental justice focus area, those proposing to build new hazardous facilities, or renew permits for existing polluting industries, such as asphalt plants, scrap metal facilities and gas and oil storage tanks would be required to conduct an analysis of the cumulative environmental impact of the project.
The bill would allow DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to deny any permit applications if they determine that, together with the cumulative impacts created by already permitted activities, it would constitute an unreasonable risk to the health of the residents or the environment in the environmental justice focus area.
“Under current law, DEM and CRMC can only look at the environmental impact of the proposal before them,” said Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director of Clean Water Action. “But pollution is cumulative. It’s entirely unfair and immoral that we continue to site our most polluting industries in our poorest neighborhoods without regard to the health and safety of its residents. This bill is a necessary step to rectify the situation.”
The bill would also require permit applicants to follow specific rules for community engagement and education and conduct public hearings to receive community input. DEM and CRMC would also be required to consider that community input in their decision whether to approve the project, and to specifically respond to any community claims that the permit is inconsistent with state or local law, rules or regulations.
The bill previously passed the Senate in 2021 and 2022. The legislation now goes to the House of Representatives, where Rep. Karen Alzate (D-Dist. 60, Pawtucket, Central Falls) has similar legislation (2023-H 6196).
“Low-income communities and communities of color like mine have been dealing with disproportionate impacts from polluting industries for too long,” said Representative Alzate. “The cumulative effects of this pollution is making our children sick with asthma, cancer and lead-poisoning. Our neighbors are dying from environmental racism. This is inexcusable, it’s time to act.”
“No one deserves to have their neighborhood serve as a dumping ground for multiple pollution-producing facilities,” said Chairwoman Euer. “We need to get this done this year.”