Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Rhode Island Deserves a Level Playing Field in Environmental Enforcement

How a delay in enforcement costs Rhode Islanders

by Kendra Beaver, staff attorney, and Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy


A healthy Narragansett Bay and fair business climate require timely and consistent enforcement of regulations that protect, restore and improve our coastal resources. Rhode Island’s failure to provide its Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) with robust enforcement capacity is economically short-sighted and irresponsible. Enforcing environmental laws is critical if Rhode Island truly wants to encourage investment and create a level playing field in which clear and predictable regulations are consistently applied to all individuals and businesses.

The case of RI Recycled Metals (RIRM), which was allowed to operate its Allens Avenue scrapyard in blatant violation of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws for more than four years, is a wake-up call on the consequences of lax or delayed enforcement. Consider this: 
  • Pollution from crushed automobiles, appliances and other sources was allowed to be dumped directly into the Providence River, a place cherished for recreational fishing and community boating programs. Despite inspections and many confirmed violations, RIRM continued to operate in violation of the law. The company ignored many warnings and letters ordering immediate action, as well as a Consent Agreement to take immediate steps to achieve compliance with the law. The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) failed to enforce the “Maintenance Certification” it issued.
  • RIRM gained a competitive advantage over other scrap processers who played by the rules by investing in stormwater pollution controls and abiding by their permits. Years of failure by the state to hold RIRM accountable contributes to the image of Rhode Island as a place where it “pays to pollute.” 
  • Taxpayers may wind up footing the bill for cleaning up this mess. The approximate cost to clean up and recap the site is $200,000 to $300,000, and to remove submerged and floating vessels at the site, another $2 million to $6 million. It is unclear whether or not RIRM has the assets to pay these costs. If not, the cost will likely fall to taxpayers. It would have been more cost-efficient to pay for staff at RIDEM to enforce the law in the first place. 

Rhode Island should never be known as a state where it pays to pollute. RIDEM’s enforcement capacity, which has been drastically cut over the past decade, must be restored. When RIDEM is sufficiently resourced, consistent enforcement of environmental laws creates a business-friendly culture, improves our environment and removes the competitive advantage of violation. 

The good news is that action has finally been taken to stop RIRM’s ongoing pollution of the Providence River. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin stepped in to assist a short-staffed RIDEM and commenced legal action against the company in the fall of 2014. At last, the case is proceeding as it should have many years ago. 

A Superior Court injunction prohibits scrap from being processed on site, vessels dismantled without permission and additional vessels and junk vehicles brought to the site. The order also requires the installation and maintenance of hay bales and silt fence along the shoreline, prohibits further disturbance to the shoreline and requires that all waste be disposed of by early May 2015. The Superior Court has prohibited RIRM from removing any assets from both locations on Allens Avenue to ensure there are some funds available for cleanup. RIRM has stated that it will prepare a plan to properly close the site and faces another court hearing in May. 

The bad news is that the Providence River and its shoreline have been contaminated. The site is a mess, with at least four corroding vessels in or under water, a damaged shoreline, and a disturbed “cap” that had been established to contain contaminated soils.