This article is the second installment of a month-long series, “Through the Muck,” tackling climate change in Rhode Island.
Last December, the frustrations of Rhode Island environmental activists boiled over. In one of the final public hearings on National Grid’s proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) facility, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) voted 8-0 in favor of the plant, despite significant community opposition expressed at an earlier public hearing. In a video taken by a local environmental news site, ecoRI, attendees can be seen chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as the eight members of the CRMC silently file out—escorted by state police—leaving onlookers furious and in tears.
A similar, if less fiery, scene took place in January at another hearing held by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium: Numerous members of the public in attendance pointedly denounced the venue’s drastic security measures and scorned the silence of the RIDEM staff. At both hearings, the disconnect between regulators and activists was obvious: Concerns about community health, climate change, and environmental racism went largely unaddressed by State employees tasked with scrutinizing individual parts of the project.
The liquefaction facility—a proposed addition to National Grid’s existing LNG storage tank in the Port of Providence—received final approval from federal authorities this October. Though public debate over the LNG facility has now drawn to a close, the project’s contentious path through State and federal agencies over the past few years reveals how Rhode Island’s current bureaucratic structure is fundamentally ill-equipped to forcefully combat climate change. The State government’s rigid division of authority, Rhode Island’s minimal national leverage, and federal ineptitude have created a regulatory environment that neglects disparate and discriminatory impacts of climate change, excludes activists and concerned residents, and embitters like-minded state employees.
Some of this inaction can be attributed simply to Rhode Island’s inability, as a small state, to dictate federal policy. But even on the local level, where agencies like the CRMC do have authority, the failure of the State’s attempts to adequately respond to citizens’ concerns highlights ways in which a fundamental lack of flexibility and empathy often defines bureaucracy. Climate change, by nature a cross-cutting, non-discrete, and uncertain problem, is the ultimate riddle for a segregated and impersonal State bureaucracy.
The partitioned structure of State agencies—and the broader division of responsibility among local, state, and federal authorities—impedes and demoralizes activists and regulators alike. Monica Huertas, coordinator of the No LNG in PVD campaign, explained to the College Hill Independent how this bureaucratic labyrinth further exacerbates the environmental injustices of climate change. Huertas joined the No LNG campaign on a neighbor’s invitation and immediately had difficulty discerning who was responsible for regulating the proposed LNG facility. Daunted by the tangle of red tape, No LNG hoped to coordinate with experienced allies. “I thought more established environmental organizations would help explain things, but there was no equity lens,” Huertas told the Indy, leaving her unsure of where to bring her concerns about the industrial port near her community. Deciphering regulatory language, attending public meetings, and constantly feeling ignored was, to Huertas, directly related to the “historical ties between environmentalism and racism,” citing the ignorance of many influential conservationists towards issues of environmental injustice. The uphill battle to be heard left Huertas feeling abandoned by her elected officials.
While employees of State agencies may not face the same acute risks of asthma, chemical exposure, and flooding as Huertas, they are also frustrated by the limits of their authority. Janet Coit, Director of RIDEM, and Laura Bozzi, the climate change program manager at RIDOH, entered government service from environmental non-profit positions at the Nature Conservancy and Southside Community Land Trust, respectively. Coit told the Indy that she draws on her own experience as an activist when listening to public criticism, and acknowledged the value of residents who push their government to adequately address their needs. (Disclosure: I was an intern in Director Coit’s office in Spring 2018.)
Both Bozzi and Coit described the overall regulatory structure—and Rhode Island’s size—as a long-term hindrance, rather than an advantage. For Coit, the most effective responses to climate change must come from a regional or federal level. While RIDEM has “nibbled around the edge of its authority” on many topics, almost 60 percent of the State’s energy use comes from transportation and residential sectors, rather than industrial or commercial, Coit told the Indy. The EPA and the California Air Resources Board set automobile pollution guidelines for other states to follow, and RIDEM has no authority over a single home’s energy efficiency.
Vehicle emission standards and a carbon tax, which Coit identified as the two most impactful solutions, would be largely symbolic in Rhode Island due to the state’s insignificant market share. While symbolic action could make Rhode Island a national model, “we’re not going to change the automobile industry,” she told the Indy, “My neighbors would just drive to Massachusetts for gas.” Bozzi, at the RIDOH, said Rhode Island was lucky that, as a small state, it could respond quickly and nimbly to emerging issues, “but it also means there’s one person per office” working on climate change. These issues combine to limit what even the most adamant proponents of environmental action would be able to achieve in a state like Rhode Island that has little sway in decisions made on the federal level.
The problems Huertas and environmental regulators face begin with the structure and authority of Rhode Island’s state agencies. While RIDEM is the most obvious home for the State’s response to climate change, the department’s sequestered internal organization limits its effectiveness. Within RIDEM’s environmental protection bureau, for example, different rules and regulations govern the air, water, and waste divisions. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes standards for myriad individual chemicals and compounds, which RIDEM then evaluates and enforces throughout Rhode Island. Each division reviews a narrow set of environmental impacts when regulating a proposed or existing development, and RIDEM works best when faced with discrete instances of pollution (imagine a single plant dumping industrial waste or emitting toxic gasses) that its air, water, and waste divisions were designed to handle.
The National Grid LNG facility challenges this structure: though the project will generate few changes to the air, water, and waste pollution levels at the site, its contributions to climate change are clear when accounting for the consequences of pipelines, fracked gas, and continued commitment to fossil fuel infrastructure more broadly. Local resistance to the project has centered around this more inclusive analysis, as well as claims that siting another industrial facility near low-income communities of color in South Providence is an act of discrimination. “It is not only morally wrong, it is cruel," State Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell said at a hearing last year. "By wanting to build in this neighborhood it sends a clear message that National Grid does not care about our infants, children, seniors, aging population, our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are already suffering from compromised immune systems.”
The grassroots No LNG in PVD campaign has raised those concerns at every available opportunity. Still, RIDEM’s narrow, scientific authorities rarely force the agency to account for disparate impacts or community concerns.
The agency best disposed to examine the interconnected social impacts of climate change, on the other hand, is the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). Though Director Nicole Alexander-Scott issued an official comment raising various health concerns with the LNG facility, RIDOH has no authority over the project. Again, the division of authority prevents comprehensive and equitable analysis: RIDOH predicts that climate change will exacerbate myriad public health crises, but is limited to commenting on the fossil fuel projects at fault.
While the LNG facility pinballs between State agencies, neither RIDEM, nor RIDOH, nor the CRMC can dictate what can or can’t be built in the first place. That falls to local zoning and siting institutions and federal commissions like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC—which oversees the country’s interstate energy commerce and oil and gas infrastructure—is the single regulatory body tasked with a holistic review of natural gas projects like the National Grid LNG facility. Though FERC is required to provide opportunities for public feedback and has broad discretion in siting energy infrastructure nationwide, it is “basically a rubber stamp” for fossil fuel projects, according to Monica Huertas, coordinator of the No LNG in PVD campaign. FERC approved the Providence LNG facility in October 2018, dismissing opposition from No LNG in PVD, the Environmental Justice League of RI, and other detractors in its decision.
Coit, Bozzi, Huertas, and their respective organizations are all committed to confronting climate change despite these barriers. Coit told the Indy that Rhode Island is an environmental leader “where we’ve had the opportunity to do so.” Coit pointed to RIDEM’s ongoing system-level infrastructure vulnerability assessments, above-ground storage tank reviews, and investment in clean vehicles and electric charging stations as impactful initiatives. Bozzi told the Indy that RIDOH’s emphasis on local buy-in and collaboration with other agencies has allowed her to promote climate change and community resilience in a variety of projects—such as RIDOH’s Health Equity Zones and its mini grants that fund “on-the-ground work to build resiliency” in ten municipalities.
More ambitious solutions have come from higher levels of Rhode Island government. Recognizing the siloed nature of State agencies, legislators created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) as part of the Resilient Rhode Island Act passed in 2014. Governor Raimondo also appointed a Chief Resiliency Officer in 2017 to help coordinate the State’s response to climate change. The 12-member EC4, chaired by Director Coit, brings together administrators from different agencies to discuss how State government can study, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. Terry Gray, the associate director for environmental protection at RIDEM, told the Indy that EC4 has been an effective, if slow, strategy to generate interagency dialogue and reach the State’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at least 80 percent by 2050. In the past year, the EC4 has only met 5 times, less than once every two months.
When asked about EC4’s tangible achievements, Gray described the institutional change that has occurred within state agencies. “Three to four years ago, 75 percent of people would’ve said climate change was a problem for Air Resources at RIDEM,” Gray told the Indy. “Now, people are responding on every level of our Department.” Gray attributed that shift, in part, to the interdisciplinary work of EC4. But because EC4 is not a regulatory body, its influence is limited: while the Council can publish reports and emphasize resilience, voluntary implementation falls to its individual member departments. Add in EC4’s rare meetings, and climate change is left to slowly and circuitously trickle through the bureaucratic maze of each agency.
The EC4, reflecting the flaws of its member agencies, also fails to systematically incorporate the holistic concerns expressed by Huertas and the No LNG in PVD campaign. The EPA has long recognized this failure of traditional environmental protection agencies. So far, the solution of choice has been writing formal rules for environmental justice (EJ). While activists like Huertas interpret environmental justice as a comprehensive reorientation of environmentalism around social equity, attempts to to include EJ in regulations have produced more paltry results. EJ rules typically mandate more public meetings in the neighborhoods actually affected by proposed projects, or in locations easily accessible by bus, with live translation services.
While Rhode Island may be a leader in energy efficiency (third best in the nation), it lags behind in formalizing EJ. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut have employees assigned to EJ and statutes requiring public involvement plans, but Rhode Island has neither. Though the RIDEM Site Remediation staff are required to hold accessible public meetings, air and water personnel do not. Even if they did, the LNG project hasn’t failed any of RIDEM’s siloed and scientific standards—more public meetings would only have meant additional time before approval. Equity concerns are similarly suppressed at the federal level: the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State of Alabama in Alexander v. Sandoval in a 2001 discrimination case, neutering the section of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that had previously permitted legal action against policies with unjust disparate impacts. These shortcomings of the formal EJ framework leave EC4 and other Rhode Island agencies no mandate to address environmental equity and no way to enforce it.
There are other strategies available to Rhode Island in its fight against climate change, despite daunting structural barriers. RIDEM could, like other states, employ a staff member responsible for guiding public meetings and communicating with activists and concerned residents. The department could pass additional EJ regulations for air and water, but these are band-aids that largely fail to address the bureaucratic web hindering motivated regulators and residents.
A more promising strategy already exists on the local scale: The new City of Providence Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC), has begun to advise the Mayor on local EJ issues and has “been very effective on the local level,” according to Huertas. Huertas, a member of the REJC, cited the Committee’s influence on the City’s plastic bag ban (vetoed by Mayor Elorza out of concern for low-income families) as a recent success. The REJC could become the City-level resource that Huertas herself once needed as a new activist: a formal institution for equitable environmental protection.
Even a state-level REJC would fail to correctly counterbalance climate change. Like Rhode Island’s EC4, the Providence REJC is a not an official agency with its own staff and statutory power. While market share and federal disinterest create a ceiling for Rhode Island’s response to climate change, a formal process or department that centers those working on environmental justice issues, one with regulatory authority, would have more influence than the current working groups and committees. And while constructing fossil fuel infrastructure like the LNG facility is just one piece of the puzzle, the State’s inability to apprehend the most obvious culprits is a testament to the profound limitations on Rhode Island’s response to climate change.
Stripped of any real power by the Supreme Court, FERC, RIDEM, the CRMC, et al., Huertas has been forced to disrupt the project on technicalities that Rhode Island agencies actually govern (the CRMC ruled the LNG project’s “scenic and visual impact” was insignificant). This prohibition of legal challenges to structural racism harms low-income communities of color, first and foremost. To State employees like Coit and Bozzi, who have long histories of fighting for environmental protection before joining the government, this structure leaves them with little recourse to drive comprehensive climate action. Attempts to foster productive dialogue between regulators and residents, address inequity in environmentalism, and bypass the rigid agency structure have often resulted, instead, in tense public meetings and a growing perception of bureaucracy as another contributor to structural discrimination and violence. New strategies to combat climate change in Rhode Island will continue to neglect the fundamentally divided and impersonal structure of environmental regulatory authority until they enshrine human and holistic concerns with real authority.
COLIN KENT-DAGGETT B’ 19.5 is waiting for the RIDEM to update its environmental justice homepage.