Three days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston and two days before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, Shell Oil Company was forced to consider the disastrous results of a future hurricane on coastal Providence. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) sued Shell, in part for its Providence Terminal’s dangerous vulnerability to extreme weather and the impending risk of toxic chemical releases. The suit spares no subtlety: “The Providence Terminal will be inundated, in whole or in part, by storm surge associated with a Category 1, 2, 3, or 4 storm event.”
The terminal—which stores, processes, and distributes petroleum products received from oil tankers—is located in the Port of Providence, near the neighborhoods of South Providence and Washington Park. This area of Providence, a majority non-white and low income community, suffers from a multitude of environmental injustices. Unlike in predominantly white and affluent parts of Providence—such as the East Side and Blackstone neighborhoods which have beautiful and open waterfront access—the South Providence shoreline is zoned for industrial use. The communities of South Providence have no access to their shoreline, and must live alongside the Shell Terminal as well as facilities such as a large chemical processing plant, ethanol and natural gas storage tanks, and a sewage treatment plant. As a result, a 2016 Environmental Justice League of RI (EJLRI) report described the neighborhood as a “corporate sacrifice zone,” one where these hazardous industries can operate with little regard to how they impact the health of local communities.
Shell’s terminal is no exception to the Port’s general disregard for health and environmental impacts. Even when operating in the absence of extreme weather, CLF’s press secretary Joshua Block told the Independent, the terminal discharges toxic chemicals, including oil, into the harbor in excess of the legal limit. The risks associated with this type of infrastructure are only multiplied by the impacts of climate change, as seen by recent explosions and mass releases of toxic chemicals from industrial plants in Houston hit by Hurricane Harvey. Even a Category 1 hurricane, which is now expected to hit Providence approximately once every 20 years, would inundate parts of the terminal. Additionally, EJLRI reported, because the port hosts so many hazards in such close proximity, an incident at one facility could trigger further hazardous impacts at any of the other sites.
The effects of such inundation would devastate local industry and health in the South Providence community, which has repeatedly suffered from environmental injustices. In fact, the area has some of the highest rates of toxic chemical exposures, asthma hospitalizations, and unemployment in Rhode Island. If the terminal is inundated by a major storm, the release of industrial waste would flood the local communities with dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. And because of the existing inequalities, these neighborhoods would have the fewest resources available to prepare for the floods, evacuate in time, or receive proper medical treatment. As a result, a hurricane would hit the South Side of Providence the hardest, endangering the lives and health of an already vulnerable community.
In a September 15 event attended by Rhode Island’s entire Congressional delegation and numerous environmental activists, Governor Gina Raimondo appointed the state’s first Chief Resilience Officer and tasked him with developing a “comprehensive climate preparedness strategy.”
The announcement—which came only a few weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma ravaged parts of the Southern US and Caribbean—centered around Rhode Island’s high vulnerability to climate change as a coastal state. “Twenty-one of 39 Rhode Island Communities are coastal, so as the Ocean State, with 400 miles of coastline, we are uniquely vulnerable to the challenges of climate change,” Governor Raimondo said at the event.
‘Resilience,’ when used in the the context of climate change, generally refers to the ability of a community to survive, adapt, and grow in the presence of the impacts of a warmer planet, such as floods, major storms, and heat waves. This includes planning and preparation at community and state levels, like educating individuals about storm preparation, revising zoning laws to avoid building on floodplains, and building protective infrastructure projects like Providence’s hurricane barrier at the mouth of the Providence River.
Resilience planning is a developing field. While the concept of resilience is common across many contexts and disciplines, its application to climate change has only become prominent over the past decade or so. This hightened visibility has been spurred on by the increasingly frequent and devastating hurricanes that have battered American cities, such as Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Irene. Climate disasters affect communities in vastly different ways, disrupting local economies, people’s health, and coastal ecosystems according to the particular vulnerabilities of each region. As a result, most resilience planning has taken place on the city level, such as Boston’s “Resilience and Racial Equity Office” or New York City’s “Office of Recovery and Resilience.” Rhode Island appears to be one of the first states to create a statewide officer exclusively dedicated to resilience planning.
Climate resilience planning can take many shapes and many forms. The Boston office, for example, maintains “a unique focus on social and economic resilience in a City affected by historic and persistent divisions of race and class.” Other plans include a focus on coastal ecosystems or environmental awareness. Governor Raimondo’s announcement, however, approached this issue with an emphasis on the resiliency movement’s importance to the Rhode Island economy: climate change was framed as primarily a threat to Rhode Island’s economy and natural resources, leaving vulnerable populations out of the conversation. For example, Raimondo recalled during the speech how she joked with visiting governors who complimented Narragansett Bay during the recent governor’s conference in Rhode Island that she “immediately followed up with ‘Do you want to move here and start a business?’” While light hearted, the comment stresses that Governor Raimondo primarily views the impacts of climate change as a threat to what attracts economic growth to Rhode Island. This strategy falls in line with Governor Raimondo’s background as a venture capitalist and Rhode Island State Treasurer, as well as her generally business-focused governance strategy that has prioritized eliminating the lingering effects of the 2008 economic recession.
With these goals in mind, the Governor selected an infrastructure investment expert, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank’s Director of Stormwater and Resiliency Shaun O’Rourke, as the first resilience officer. In O’Rourke’s acceptance speech for the new position, he listed the resilience plan’s two major goals as “boosting our economy and protecting our environment,” clearly prioritizing economic growth and natural resources over equity and vulnerability. Furthermore, he stressed his experience working at the Infrastructure Bank securing financing for new projects and his goal of “developing a strategy that accelerates investments that will allow us to adapt to climate change.”
State Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s presence also emphasized the fiscal benefits of planning for climate resiliency. In his speech, he emphasized that failing to adapt to our changing climate, with the massive costs of emergency response and repairing infrastructure, is expensive. “Every person here has a selfish financial reason to make sure that we are doing everything we can to be resilient in the face of climate change.” That said, if Rhode Island only focuses on ‘selfish financial reasons’ to build resilience, the most at-risk populations, like those in South Providence who live near Shell’s terminal, will never be protected.
When asked by the Independent after the conference whether she had considered placing race and inequality at the forefront of the state’s planning, similar to Boston’s office, Governor Raimondo seemed surprised and responded that, no, she hadn’t considered that. And yet, to many, the two issues are interconnected and inseparable. “You can’t talk about resilience without talking about environmental justice,” said CLF’s Josh Block.
All of the speakers at the event, including Rhode Island’s four congressmen, Treasurer Magaziner, Governor Raimondo, and O’Rourke, however, did exactly that, failing to even mention any discussion of socioeconomic inequalities, vulnerable populations, or environmental justice communities throughout the hour long event.
Climate resilience and environmental justice are inextricably connected. “Anytime there is a natural disaster it exacerbates existing inequalities,” said Amelia Rose, executive director of Groundwork Rhode Island, a local environmental organization that works to build resiliency in the state’s urban communities. As seen in South Providence, structural inequalities force low-income urban populations to disproportionately bear the impacts of climate disasters. Beyond just being sited in the most at-risk and least politically powerful neighborhoods, toxic and vulnerable infrastructure often drives those with financial ability out of these underserved neighborhoods, leaving only the most vulnerable behind. As a result, climate disasters act as a threat multiplier, compounding the many existing racial, economic, and health inequalities.
Many cities explicitly recognize this connection and shape their resilience plans around them. New Orleans' resiliency plan, for example, includes creating emergency savings account programs, raising the minimum wage, and community health improvement plans—all action items that address not just climate resiliency but existing structural inequalities. Similarly, Boston’s resilience plan includes ensuring “safe, affordable, and stable housing for all” as well as “equitable education opportunities.” Urban resilience is not just building higher walls around our rivers—it’s about strengthening the capacity of each individual and community to bounce back from disasters.
These urban resilience challenges are especially prominent in Rhode Island, where all major urban centers are in flood prone areas, Rose told the Independent. As described in a 2012 report by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, the state’s urban communities have far fewer resources to adapt and protect themselves from heat emergencies and extreme weather. Additionally, flooding and heat waves often have the strongest impact in urban settings, where most of the land is paved over, preventing water from seeping back into the ground during floods and making cities especially hot during heat waves. As a result, the report concludes, explicitly addressing the unique challenges and unequal burden of urban communities is critical to fully engage these communities in the planning process.
It is thus surprising that the Governor’s announcement made no mention of the disproportionate burden climate change will have on the State’s urban communities. When asked by the Independent after the conference what role these considerations will have in the State’s plan, O’Rourke did acknowledge that “equity will be a theme throughout the the entire strategy.” By omitting any discussion of equity from the press conference, however, O’Rourke risks narrowing the scope of the resilience planning process to solely infrastructure and economic considerations before the planning process has even truly begun.
Proper resilience planning, however, must remain broad in scope to be effective, said Pam Rubinoff, organizer of the University of Rhode Island’s resilience education and planning initiative called “PREP-RI.” Rubinoff stressed to the Independent the importance of avoiding “siloed thinking” and instead incorporating a wide range of actors, including state officials working on transportation, housing, and emergency management, as well as local communities and even individuals. This challenge of avoiding ‘siloed thinking’ is one of the key challenges of resilience planning, wrote Curt Spaulding, former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in New England and former director of Save the Bay, in the Providence Journal last week: “It requires resetting how we think in almost everything we do to sustain communities.”
As a result, the Governor’s office risks the success of the program by not explicitly and promptly engaging with, or prioritizing, the environmental justice communities of the State. And by omitting such an obvious element of resilience planning, the event suggested that no substantial discussion or planning has actually begun with regard to the actual goals or needs of Rhode Island’s vulnerable populations. “All resilience planning must recognize the disparate risk of an unequal society,” Spaulding told the Independent. That said, the State’s resilience planning process is still in its early stages, giving O’Rourke and the Governor’s office ample opportunity to correct its path and prioritize the equity and environmental justice considerations at the heart of climate resilience. In fact, O’Rourke said during the announcement that “this strategy and its priorities will be based on a robust, statewide outreach process,” including many community roundtables.
While O’Rourke did not specify the topics of these roundtables during the event, he has announced privately that his three core priorities for the upcoming roundtable discussions would be “Critical Infrastructure and the Environment,” “Health and Equity,” and “Economic Development,” according to Elizabeth Stone, who works at the Department of Environmental Management and helped review the executive order. But by leaving the issue of equity to the community roundtables, as opposed to addressing it explicitly during the press conference, the Governor’s office burdens low income residents and politically marginalized communities with having the task of advocating for themselves. Instead, Raimondo and O’Rourke need to serve as the champion for underserved communities as they struggle to combat the ever-increasing challenges of environmental damage.
HARRY AUGUST B’19 wishes Providence’s resilience planning was more like his hometown, Boston.