Overview of RI environment article


Overview of RI environment article

America Goes Green:   Rhode Island

The Industrial Revolution in North America began in Rhode Island with the construction of Slater Mill, the first mechanized spinning mill in North America, in Pawtucket in 1793.  To power the mill Samuel Slater and John Brown built a dam across the first falls of the Blackstone River.  Fishermen rioted when the dam blocked the fish runs up the river by salmon and shad and destroyed their livelihood.  The federal courts ruled for the mill owners, here and in every contested case of damming rivers for the next 40 years (Jones 1992). Rhode Island became one of the industrial powerhouses of the world.  By 1900 every creek had a dam and a mill at every place you could get 6 foot of head of falling water to power machinery.  The Blackstone River and its valley, soon to be a National Park celebrating the mills, their communities, and the rebirth of the living river, had more than 1000 mills along its 45 miles, and other rivers in Rhode Island were nearly as densely industrialized.  The textile industry gave rise to metal fabrication industries and the jewelry industry with their attendant pollution. The dyeing industry had the rivers running whatever color was hot in New York that year.  Sediments in Rhode Island rivers carry a toxic legacy.  The receding industrial tide left Rhode Island with many abandoned mills and an abundance of superfund sites.

The flip side is that Rhode Islanders love Narragansett Bay.  It is the heart of the state, a water body surrounded by the state.   It supports a huge tourism economy of swimming, surfing, fishing, sailing, dining, and has been at the heart of the development of tourism as an industry since Newport became home to the Mansions of New York Society in the later years of the 19th Century.  The maritime industries have also been a powerful force in Rhode Island, with trade helping create many of the early fortunes, and commercial waterfronts and the fishing industry continuing to be a source of community prosperity.

Rhode Island has always had birders, beach lovers, preservers of open space and builders of parks.  But like most of the country, environmental activism and efforts to “green” the community sprouted around 1970.  Republican Governor John Chafee instituted the first public bonds for open space with the support of The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society of RI. Struggles over the development on Narragansett Bay lead directly to the founding of Save The Bay, which has developed into the largest environmental advocacy and education organization in the state. A cast of hundreds “Zapped the Blackstone” in 1972, and in conjunction with the demise of the textile industry and the passage of the Clean Water Act the restoration of the Blackstone River had begun. Fast forward 39 years, and now, beyond the Blackstone, the watershed councils, federal, state, and local governments, and Narragansett Bay Estuaries Program are celebrating dam removals and the restoration of fish passages closed since the 18th century on the Pawtuxet, Pawcatuck, Woonasquatucket, and Ten Mile Rivers.

Rhode Island waters

Rhode Island has embraced the watershed approach.  State agencies, municipalities, and the non-profit community increasingly see Rhode island as a series of watersheds and plan accordingly.  With large point source polluters like factories cleaned up, the attention is now on controlling road run off,  creating public access,  and restoring habitat.

The Narragansett Bay Commission recently completed phase one of the Combined Sewer Overflow project and already swimming beaches are open more and shellfish beds can be harvested sooner after it rains because so much polluted runoff has been captured for treatment.  When phases two and three are finished 98 percent of the overflows will be captured and treated before going into the rivers and bay.  Eel grass, salt marsh, and shellfish restoration is going on throughout the bay.   Inland, dam removals, the building of fish ladders, and other work, is restoring riverine habitat and it is estimated that several hundred thousand shad and herring will return to RI rivers for spawning in the next few years.  Every river and pond now has a friends group working for its restoration.

While Rhode Island is making progress restoring water quality and habitat, there are issues with quantity.  Watering lawns is such a large drain on aquifers that some of the smaller rivers are going dry for parts of the summer in drier years. Efforts to reduce lawn watering through better horticultural practices including planting for hardiness is catching on, but mandatory restrictions on watering are occasionally used to keep rivers from drying up.

Environmental Justice

Rhode Island once had some of the highest lead poisoning rates in the country, though concerted efforts and lawsuits have dramatically reduced the rate. Several years ago the City of Providence built a school on the former city landfill and another on a superfund site that had once been a silver manufacturing company, the Gorham site.  Jointly these struggles spurred the development of the environmental justice movement in Rhode Island. Work on school siting, brownfield restoration, community gardens, food deserts and security, lead, and bad air quality all continue to move forward.  Progress at the legislature is slow. A bill introduced in 2011 to prevent schools from being built on sites polluted with Volatile Organic Compounds did not pass.   Progress has also been slow on rules for making sure low income and minority communities are notified and protected in the permitting of redevelopment on brownfields.  Regulations have been written and debated publicly, but not finalized.

The changing demographics of Rhode Island and especially urban Rhode Island mean that justice and community development have become the heart of environmental action.  In recent polls Hispanic voters were much more likely to favor strong environmental policies than other voters (Sahagun 2010), and the green movement is changing to better serve the only growing populations in the state. The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council has been a positive force for change in the poorest neighborhood in the state and the Urban Pond Procession marches fish parades through the streets to focus attention on the rejuvenation of ponds in Providence. Rhode Island voters continue to overwhelmingly support bonds for preserving land and cleaning up our waters, and new outreach into low income and minority communities will continue that track record.

Green Jobs and Green Energy, Mass Transit

Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and the government and corporate sectors are unable to develop a workable strategy for economic revitalization. As a result a new paradigm is evolving of economic development being dependent upon ecological healing.   An awareness is building that the way forward economically in Rhode Island is to heal our ecosystems, clean our energy systems, and grow our own food.    Job training programs in green technologies and techniques have sprouted, but the new jobs are few and far between.   It will take a more radical greening, a real healing of ecosystems; depaving streets, growing food and forests, taking down dams, and putting solar panels in the neighborhoods to break Rhode Island out of the doldrums.

The legislature did a pretty good job the last few years of passing legislation to mandate green energy in our electricity mix, and support off shore wind, energy efficiency, and green buildings.   though the policies have yet to bear fruit, especially when compared to what is going on in neighboring states.   Rhode island has become a leader in feed in tariffs for small scale generators of clean electricity. (Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources 2011)

Where Rhode Island  has really fallen down is with mass transit.  The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority  (RIPTA) is primarily funded by the gasoline tax.  This means that when gas prices go up and people drive less or drive more efficient vehicles, the amount of money available for subsidizing mass transit shrinks.  At exactly the time when there are more riders and more need for the service the shrinking revenues force RIPTA to cut service and hours.  In recent years the protests over transit cuts due to greater demand have become larger and more vocal.  RIPTA and the legislature are well aware of the conundrum, but the legislature seems to be unwilling to actually fix the problem given all the budgetary constraints.  (Environment Council of Rhode Island 2011) Air travel on the other hand  seems to be on the favored list, for despite the objections of neighbors, in 2011 the Rhode Island Airport Corporation finalized plans to expand T.F. Green airport despite falling passenger numbers and amidst the growing realization that flying is returning to the status of a luxury due to high fuel costs fuel and climate change issues.

Offshore Wind

Rhode Island is a place of natural beauty, but few natural resources.  But Rhode Island does have wind, and the effort to tap into the wind is moving forward.  The state has a contract with Deepwater Wind to build an offshore wind farm, and the process is slowly grinding on.  To facilitate  the development of offshore wind the state’s Coastal Management Resource Council wrote the Strategic Area Management Plan (SAMP) for potential wind farm regions that is one of the finest examples in the country of coastal marine spatial planning.  (Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council  2010) The document gives Rhode Island a reasonable start on finding the best sites to develop that would do the least harm to the environment and the people who make a living fishing.     The state has also convened the Renewable Energy Siting Partnership a  stakeholders group similar to that which created the SAMP to look at on shore wind, solar, and hydro power opportunities and -provide technical guidance to evaluate siting in municipalities.

This type of  planning is critical.  Already communities are passing laws to outlaw the building of wind turbines, so siting with great care must be done or else the whole state will be off limits to wind power.   In the ocean it turns out that the continental shelf off of Rhode Island is among the most productive and biodiverse areas along the east coast and a hot spot for plankton, which attracts the sea turtles, whales, tuna, and other large sea creatures that are becoming progressively rarer.   Knowing the hottest spots and planning to keep them healthy, will make this a much better process for all concerned.

Solid Waste

Rhode Island has a Central Landfill run by the quasi governmental agency the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation that serves 38 of the 39 communities in the state.  It is closing in on its capacity, and in a small densely populated state, there are very places that one could fit a new landfill.  It is also unlikely that any community would agree to become a sacrifice zone.   It is generally agreed that the real solution is to produce much less trash. While Rhode Island was a recycling leader in the 1980’s recently the state has lagged behind.  More and more communities are therefore implementing mandatory recycling, and the Central Landfill  will soon be implementing single stream recycling.   The legislature has passed a producer responsibility bill for certain kinds of electronic waste and some other products and Rhode Island is now in the process of implementing it.   Rhode Island, unlike many of its neighbors, does not have a returnable bottle law.  It shows up in the excessive litter through out the state, exacerbated by the near elimination of the state budget for litter control.

Rhode Island banned incinerators many years ago, though every year the incinerator industry tries to repeal the law.  A better alternative is evolving in the movement to take all of the food scrap out of the waste stream so that it can be composted and returned to the land for growing more food.  An anaerobic digester to capture methane and generate carbon neutral electricity from food scrap is set to open in 2013 and will go a long ways towards helping keep food scrap out of the landfill and returning fertility to the soil.

Agriculture and Land Use.

For 150 years Rhode Island was a place of mill villages fed by farms in the surrounding hinterlands.  As the mills and farms disappeared the folks streamed out of the cities and created suburbs.  Since World War Two the amount of land being used for housing increased nine times faster than the population grew.  Pushed by Grow Smart Rhode Island the current thinking is to encourage redevelopment of the mill villages, town centers, and cities, taking advantage of existing infrastructure, while preserving the hinterlands for agriculture, forests, and other productive uses.  Real estate development still drives politics, so it is difficult to make this cultural and economic shift, but some progress has been made.  A housing driven recession has also slowed the suburbanization of rural Rhode Island.  Land trusts and agricultural preservation programs are now found in nearly every town and have preserved for conservation and agriculture thousands of acres.

The one sector of the Rhode Island economy that is doing well is agriculture.  The number of farms in the state has increased 42% in the last 10 years (USDA 2009), the number of farmers markets has quadrupled with nearly every town having at least one each week in the growing season, and the number of community gardens and gardeners has soared.   Providence included in its comprehensive plan the right to grow vegetables in every type of zone in the city and has started developing community gardens in public parks.

Climate and Clean Air

What goes up in the air in the Midwest comes down in Rhode Island.  Rhode Island is down wind of major cities and the electric power plants in coal mining states.  It is an air pollution  non attainment zone for Ozone.  Asthma rates in the inner city are high.  The compactness of Rhode Island means that drivers drive less than most Americans on, but Rhode Islanders make up for that by heating drafty old houses.   Rhode Island is doing some of what it can, including helping people weatherize old houses, but clean air and the reduction of fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will take national and global solutions beyond what can be done locally.

Clean air and climate are inextricably linked as it is the combustion of fossil fuels that creates the air pollution, and the global weirding that we all see.  Rhode Island has pretty good renewable energy standards in place, is taking action on energy efficiency, and approved using California CAFÉ standards. Maybe it is because Rhode Islanders know they are vulnerable to climate change and bad air quality.  Rhode Island history includes some devastating hurricanes, but the floods of 2010 set records that underscored how older post industrial communities are increasingly vulnerable.  In response the Rhode Island legislature created a Commission on Climate Adaptation. Rhode Island can do  its share to reduce pollution by promoting green energy, and it is taking responsibility for reducing vulnerability to the changes that are already in motion.  It is hoped that as the commission does its work it will explore actions that can simultaneously reduce Rhode Island’s carbon footprint, increase our community resilience, and help the state move forward economically.

Rhode Island is well positioned to contemplate global climate change.  The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and other programs at local schools contain leading climate scientists who are engaged in the public debate  The Coastal Resources Management Council has maps available that show what some of our communities would look like after sea level rises of three and five feet.  (Coastal Resources Management Council 2008)

Rhode Islanders have a very strong environmental ethic.  Translating that ethic into workable solutions to community problems in the 21st century will define how well Rhode Island weathers the storm.

Greg Gerritt  Environment Council of Rhode Island


Environment Council of Rhode Island.    “2011 Legislative Priorities in the RI General Assembly”.    http://www.environmentcouncilri.org/news.html

Jones, Daniel P.  The Economic and Social Transformation of Rural Rhode Island  1780-1850.    Boston:  Northeastern University Press,  1992.

Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.    “Ocean Strategic Area Management Plan”.   2010.  http://www.crmc.ri.gov/samp_ocean.html

Rhode    Island    Office    of    Energy    Resources.     “Distributed    Generation—Standard    Contracts      Classes    and    Ceiling    Prices    for    2011”.                                                                    http://www.ripuc.org/eventsactions/docket/4288-OER-CP%289-28-11%29.pdf

Sahagun, Louis.   “Latinos, Asians more worried about environment than whites, poll finds”    Los Angeles Times  November 10, 2010.

United States Department of Agriculture.  “Results of the 2007 Census of Agriculture”  2009.   http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/

Sidebar on the Compost Initiative
With the rapid growth of urban agriculture in Rhode Island the community gardens are worried about the supply of affordable compost to feed the soil.  A consortium made up of the Greater Providence Urban Agriculture Task Force, Southside Community Land Trust, and the Environment Council of Rhode Island formed the Compost Initiative to change the landscape.  This project has helped attract the  anaerobic digester slated to open in 2013, developed several conferences that have changed the perceptions of Rhode Islanders about the possibilities, spurred the development of small compost businesses, and opened up the discussion on key policy areas such as tip fees at the landfill that are slowing down the development of the industry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.