Monday, May 22, 2017

Environmental Enforcement - The Dire Need for Funding and Political Will


Enforcement of environmental law is critical to our natural resources, public health and safety. However, an effective enforcement program depends on funding and the political will of the enforcement agency itself, from the top down, as well as the Governor and the General Assembly.

Protecting Narragansett Bay and its spectacular 384-mile coastline from environmental damage is a core function of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). Timely and consistent enforcement action stops the degradation of the environment and protects public health and first responders. Conducting and following up on inspections, and keeping the public informed of enforcement actions, serves as a deterrent to environmental violations.

Save The Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone 

presents an open letter and petition encouraging 
Governor Gina Raimondo to increase environmental 
enforcement at a press conference at the Statehouse. 
However, the drastic decrease in the number of violations issued is evidence of a marked erosion of environmental enforcement and actions over the past decade. That, combined with the delay in resolving violations, allows ongoing pollution, negative health impacts and other environmental harm to continue. Further, DEM has failed to recover penalties sufficient to discourage others from violating the law. Those who violate should be economically penalized. As it currently stands, violators often enjoy an economic advantage over those who comply with the law.

As the citizens’ voice for Narragansett Bay, Save The Bay has been working to fully understand how the taxpayer-funded DEM is performing its core function. DEM has not updated the Compliance and Inspection Annual Report since 2013, so the number of cases waiting for enforcement in court is not available to the public. In 2016, Save The Bay filed a public records request with DEM, seeking the list of cases waiting for enforcement in court, so that we can evaluate the current ongoing harm to the environment by delay. DEM denied the request, claiming the information was protected by attorney-client privilege, among other reasons, and was backed by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

Without this information, understanding the current risks to our health and the environment is difficult. However, our research of DEM’s online enforcement reports from past years reveals glaring examples of delayed enforcement impacting our environment, including failing septic systems discharging sewage that continue for years without repair, direct discharges of wastewater into rivers, ongoing discharges of pollutants to the Bay from stormwater and various other sources, and wetland violations that go on for decades, making it difficult to restore damaged wetlands systems.

In December 2015, Save The Bay called on R.I. Governor Gina Raimondo and the General Assembly to reverse a decade of decline in resources for environmental enforcement. We placed an ad in the Providence Journal, publishing our letter requesting enforcement funding. At a Statehouse press conference, the Rhode Island Builders Association joined us in amplifying our call for stronger enforcement. We submitted a petition with nearly 2,000 signatures, urging the R.I. General Assembly and Governor Raimondo to increase staff for enforcement at DEM and CRMC. The governor responded by adding two DEM enforcement positions to her budget proposal, but these positions were removed without comment by the General Assembly at the end of its 2016 session. Curiously, no additional enforcement positions were included in Governor Raimondo’s FY2018 budget this year.

Lack of political will—and the resources needed to enforce the law—puts our environment and health at risk. Some of our leaders cling to an age-old mindset that enforcement is anti-business. But when you think about it, the reverse is true: timely, consistent and strong enforcement (with timely inspections and penalties) benefits those that comply with the law and penalizes those that violate the law. That is good for the State’s economic health because it promotes a level playing field for all businesses. This is no small matter in a state that touts its natural resources and aspires to be more business-friendly.

Recent appointments and pronouncements from the new administration in Washington, D.C. only increase the urgency for Rhode Island leaders to demonstrate that the Ocean State means business when it comes to protecting our Bay and our natural resources. We urge you to contact Governor Raimondo, and your state senator and representative today. Let them know that our environment is important, and that we expect DEM and CRMC to be sufficiently funded so they can detect and deter violations and protect our health, safety and Narragansett Bay.

This article was originally printed in the Spring 2017 issue of 'Tides Magazine.' 

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