Save The Bay

Tim Faulkner: R.I. considers statewide plastic-bag ban

— Photo by eco RI News

— Photo by eco RI News

From ecoRI News (

A bill proposing a statewide ban on plastic bags is the likely outcome of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plastic-waste commission, but it isn’t necessarily the result preferred by environmentalists and even some businesses.

Aside from opponents of the ban — a bag distributor and an American Chemistry Council representative spoke against it — there were calls for substantive reform to waste and pollution in the state at the Dec. 14 meeting of Task Force to Tackle Plastics.

Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, called it “a gross omission" if the commission’s final report doesn’t address stormwater.

He said any solution to reduce plastic waste should include incentives coupled with increased enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act to address stormwater runoff, preferably through regional entities to manage and finance stormwater projects, known as a stormwater utility.

“Stormwater delivers everything — waste of any kind, including toxins — into the bay and rivers and streams,” Stone said.

Curt Spalding, former director of the New England office for the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn’t want the report to just be a single “transaction” and instead prefers a long-term strategy that includes working with neighboring states.

“I don’t get any sense from this that people are interested in a strategy,” Spalding said, referring to the governor’s appointees who are facilitating the task force.

Spalding noted that the United States is way behind other countries that address the life cycle of plastic packaging through incentives and regulations.

Other members of the task force remarked that there is no data or study of the economic costs and other impacts of plastic pollution in Rhode Island.

“We can ban plastic bags, and it’s not going to solve the plastics problem in the ocean,” Spalding said.

“No, but it’s what’s doable today,” said Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, a task force member and sponsor of many of the failed statewide bag ban bills.

Miller noted that legislation is a starting point that should lead to other initiatives.

There was other pushback against criticism of a statewide bag ban. Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environment Management, and Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, Rosemary Powers, reminded the 22-member commission that they only have until Feb. 18 to offer legislation that reflects the consensus of the group.

“There are all sorts of ideas, but focusing on a statewide plastic bag ban is something we might be able to bring in with support from people who have technically testified against it,” Coit said. “Because we have a bill that takes business interests into account. If we could get that done, it would really be something to be proud of.”

Powers said she is expecting two or more bills from the task force, while noting that other initiatives will also be moving forward. She didn’t say if those initiatives would be done through the task force or independently.

Raimondo has plenty of political cover for a statewide bag ban. Although legislation has been defeated in the General Assembly every year for nearly a decade, municipal bag bans are sweeping the state. Since Barrington enacted a ban in 2013, 10 Rhode Island communities have passed similar bans on retail plastic bags. Boston started a high-profile ban on Dec. 14.

The launch of Boston’s bag ban prompted the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) to advocate for a ban on plastic bags across New England.

At the recent task force meeting, Kirstie Pecci, director of the zero waste program at CLF, said Raimondo called for innovate solutions when she announced the task force in July and therefor the legislation should include a ban on polystyrene, as well as a provision that restaurants only provide plastic straws upon request.

Pecci advocated for a bottle-deposit law and other consumer incentives that encourage manufactures to use sustainable packaging and take back products that no longer work, a concept known as producer responsibility.

“We need to make sure we take care of (pollution) at the source or we are never going to solve this problem,” she said.

CLF has three goals relating to plastic waste: ban items that aren’t recyclable; increase recycling to 100 percent; and shift the costs and clean up from cities, towns, and states to manufacturers.

Amy Moses, director of CLF in Rhode Island, said taking care of the environment is paramount.

“I think it’s important that we take a step back and realize that plastic comes from fossil fuels. And while they may be cheap — you can buy a case of water bottles for a few bucks — we’re not paying for the true cost of that plastic,” Moses said. “We’re not paying for that pollution when we buy the little bit of plastic in the water bottle. And this plastic is everywhere degrading all of our environment. And the fossils fuels these products are derived from are literally destroying our planet. So I don't think we can focus on the narrow little dollars and cents because there are so many externalities and problems with plastics that are not captured in the prices that you’re paying.”

Business representatives at the meeting, such as Chris Nothnagle, senior director of marketing for Toray Plastics, were inclined to support improving current recycling programs and expanding public education. Toray makes plastic bags and containers at its plant in North Kingstown.

Nothnagle said businesses need incentives to use sustainable packaging, otherwise they will buy the least expensive product, which is usually made of plastic.

“There’s an enormous opportunity to knock this problem way, way, way down with existing infrastructure,” he said.

Recycling is the law

Senator Miller, a restaurant owner, wasn’t sure if businesses are aware of the state’s recycling laws. Every business in Rhode Island, including food establishments, are required to recycle, but there is no enforcement. As of 2014, Rhode Island had only one employee dedicated to commercial recycling.

Unlike Massachusetts, Rhode Island doesn’t inspect waste at landfills to find and fine businesses and municipalities that are throwing away recyclables.

Subcommittee reports

The commission’s final report will reflect the top ideas from four subcommittees. It will also include any dissenting views and recommendations for near- and long-term goals. Each group will meet two or three times before the Feb. 14 deadline.

At the full task force meeting on Dec. 14 each group presented its findings to date.

The Lead By Example subcommittee is considering energizing and expanding DEM’s idle Rhode Island Hospitality Green Certification for the Hospitality & Tourism Industry. The group will also send out a survey to the public to gather best practices.

Save The Bay’s Stone urged boosting local stewardship groups, such as neighborhood associations, to work with businesses to monitor waste and implement new clean-up programs.

The Legislative Solutions subcommittee is focused on passing a bag ban bill and whether a fee on alternative bags would be assessed. The group meets Jan. 7.

The Education subcommittee, led by Dave McLaughlin of Clean Ocean Access, is considering a campaign to reduce plastics at restaurants, an educational program for grades K-12, and re-starting the famed Woodsy Owl campaign from the 1970s and ’80s, with its slogan “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute!”

Dale Venturi, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, didn’t like the idea of focusing on the restaurant industry.

“I don’t want it to just be one industry, because that makes me a little uncomfortable, sitting here as the chair (of the Hospitality Association),” Venturi said. “We’re not coming out of this just being focused on our industry.”

The Innovation Committee suggested reconsidering a statewide bottle-deposit law, as Rhode Island is the only state in New England without one. Dennis Nixon suggested mimicking other bag bans, such as the Boston ban. He suggested organizing a local design competition for sustainable packaging. The group also wants support for a fiberglass boat recycling program.

The Task Force to Tackle Plastic is scheduled to meet next on Jan. 9 at DEM headquarters, 235 Promenade St., Room 300, from 11 a.m - 12:30 p.m.

Tim Faulkner is a journalist with ecoRI News.

Tim Faulkner: Projected sea-level rise looks scarier

Via ecoRI News (

A stitch in time saves nine. A cat has nine lives. Baseball legend Ted Williams wore No. 9. Unfortunately for Rhode Island, nine is also the new number for the feet of projected sea-level rise.

Just a few years ago, the upper estimate for sea-level rise was 3 feet. More recently, it was 6.6 feet. But a recent assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects sea-level rise to increase in Rhode Island by 9 feet, 10 inches by 2100.

“To put in perspective we’ve had 10 inches (of sea-level rise) during the last 90 years. We’re about to have 10 feet in the next 80 years,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Fugate made the remarks during a recent environmental business roundtable featuring the state’s top energy and environment officials: Fugate; Janet Coit, executive director of the Department of Environmental Management; and Carol Grant, commissioner of the Office of Energy Resources.

Coit and Grant highlighted the positive trends in Rhode Island's “green economy,” such as growth in renewable energy and the fishing industry. Fugate spoke last and, referring to himself as the “Debbie Downer” of the meeting, straightaway delivered the bad news facing the state from climate change.

“I’ve been director here for 31 years and the numbers we are seeing are staggering to me,” Fugate said of the NOAA report. “The changes we are going to see to our shoreline are profound, dramatic, and there is going to be a lot of economic adjustment going forward."

The major upward revision in sea level-rise projections, he said, will be transformative to life in Rhode Island, particularly along the coastal region of Washington County and much of Bristol County and Warwick.

To drive the point home, Fugate showed photographs of severe beach erosion along Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown. The shoreline there has been eroding at a clip of 4 feet annually since the 1990s. Recently, the rate climbed to 8 feet a year. That level was calculated before NOAA released the latest projected increase in sea-level rise.

Higher seas, Fugate said, create a multiplier effect that intensifies coastal erosion and flooding. Tides and storm surges reach further inland. Climate change also produces stronger wind and rain events. Thus, a storm classified as a 50-year event can cause the same damage as a 100-year event, according to Fugate.

The recent NOAA report says the principal cause for higher seas is the melting of land-based ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Since 2009, the region from Virginia north to the Canadian Maritime Provinces has experienced accelerated sea-level rise due to changing ocean currents in the Gulf Stream. NOAA expects that trend to continue.

According to the report, the impact of prolonged sea-level rise will be loss of life, damage to infrastructure and the built environment, permanent loss of land, ecological transformation of coastal wetlands and estuaries, and water-quality impairment.

Those impacts, Fugate said, are already here and being felt. He showed slides of storm drains flowing backwards and flooding parking lots during regular high tides, and buildings that are becoming islands. Coit noted that wetlands and marshes are essentially drowning in this higher water.

“The future is here now,” Fugate said. “It’s here and we are seeing profound changes.”

To combat climate change, coastal buildings are being elevated thanks to federal incentives. The CRMC also has permissive policies that allow for the rebuilding of sea walls damaged by these more forceful storms and accelerated erosion.

Several environmental engineers and municipal planners at the recent meeting raised questions about the need for policies and regulations to address threatened infrastructure, such as septic systems, utilities, and spoke about the risk of inland river flooding. Their queries suggested that the state is taking a piecemeal approach to a vast problem.

The environmental group Save The Bay has criticized an Army Corps of Engineers plan to provide funding to elevate homes along the Rhode Island coast from Westerly to Narragansett, R.I. Fugate said that plan has flaws, but endorses the concept as the best solution for protecting property owners.

Save The Bay, however, wants greater consideration given to migration away from the coast. Retreat from a receding shoreline, it argues, protects people, as well as the ecological health and resilience of the natural resource that defines the Ocean State.

“Are we going to elevate homes that can’t be reached because the roads are under water?” asked Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s policy director. “I think the state needs a long-term strategy about moving back from the coast.”

Hamblett portended that coastal retreat would greatly impact the real-estate market and present enormous challenges for policymakers and elected officials.

“But this is so big on so many levels that unless and until we start really seriously planning to move back out of harms way, we are going to inflict a lot of otherwise avoidable damage on ourselves,” Hamblett said.

Fugate and Coit said elevating buildings may not be the best option, but it's the only one currently with funding. If approved, it would provide about $60 million of federal relief money apportioned after Hurricane Sandy.

“Yes, the money would be better spent in another way,” Coit said. “Could we protect more land on the shore and in the flood plains? Could we help people move out all together through a buy-out program? Could we look at infrastructure that helps the whole public instead of the individual homeowner?”

Fugate said the problem is compounded by federal flood-insurance maps that created immense controversy in 2013, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency released inaccurate flood-zone maps. Those maps led to astronomically high insurance premiums for some and rampant confusion among others living on or near the water.

Fortunately, Fugate said, the CRMC and the University of Rhode Island have designed interactive maps forecasting the impacts of sea-level rise, coastal flooding and storm surge. The modeling behind those maps is helping remedy the flood-map problem. Nevertheless, Fugate encouraged anyone with property in a flood zone to buy flood insurance.

Coit said the state is in a good position to address sea-level rise and climate change by following the same model that led to the development of the Block Island Wind Farm. The Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) brought together federal, local and private stakeholders to craft a plan for mapping out public and private uses for offshore regions. CRMC is working on a similar Shoreline SAMP to address long-term coastal planning.

Coit said the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) is already addressing comprehensive climate-change planning for the state. The EC4 recently released an assessment of Rhode Island's greenhouse gas-emissions reduction plan. It’s now scrutinizing flooding at wastewater treatment facilities, among other threats from climate change.

“I think we are in a good place for Rhode Island to really look holistically at a resiliency and adaptation plan that takes into account all of the issues,” Coit said.

Most of the EC4’s funding comes from the Environmental Protection Agency. CRMC gets half of its budget from the Department of Commerce. But Coit, Grant and Fugate say President Trump’s hostility toward climate change won’t curtail state planning efforts, much less the realities of sea-level rise and global warming.

While the NOAA report doesn’t offer its own solutions, it concludes that sea-level rise is unrelenting.

“Even if society sharply reduces emissions in the coming decades, sea level will most likely continue to rise for centuries,” according to NOAA.

Tim Faulkner writes for ecoRI News.

Imperiled little bay with big impact


ABOARD THE ELIZABETH MORRIS — Little Narragansett Bay is quietly tucked away between its noisier neighbors — Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound. But this watershed on the Rhode Island-Connecticut border plays a vital role in southern New England’s economy. Boats of all sizes, from yachts to canoes, dot the water, especially on summer weekends. Tourist visit the area to swim, fish, observe wildlife, dine and shop.

That that the 317-mile Little Narragansett Bay/Pawcatuck River watershed is stressed and impaired is cause for concern, both economically and environmentally.

“This is our economy,” David Prescott, Save The Bay’s South Country coastkeeper, said shortly into a July 16 tour of the watershed. “We have to make sure we protect it.”

Before the Elizabeth Morris departed Viking Marina in Westerly, R.I., Save The Bay’s executive director, Jonathan Stone, told the 20 or so journalists, elected officials and scientists on board that the watershed needs protection from development, population growth and climate change.

“This is an incredibly beautiful space,” Stone said. “Its habitat and aquatic life is very valuable. The watershed is economically important to the region. It’s one of the gems in this part of the world.”

Little Narragansett Bay doesn’t garner the same attention that Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound do, but this important economic, environmental and recreational resource is threatened by many of the same concerns —  development pressures, human impacts and a changing climate. Because of its topography and shallow depths, it also faces different challenges.

The Pawcatuck River estuary has been studied for decades by state agencies, universities and environmental groups. While much has been done to clean up the pollution caused by industrial and manufacturing businesses, contaminated runoff from roads, roofs, lawns and farms remains a problem.

Prescott has been monitoring the watershed’s water quality and ecological health for the past seven years. He said Little Narragansett Bay is stressed by elevated bacteria levels, high nutrient loads, large, thick mats of macro-algae, poor flushing in shallow coves, and decreased dissolved oxygen levels. These stressors are threatening water quality, marine and coastal ecosystem health, and the region's recreational value, he noted.

Elevated bacteria readings have been documented in both wet and dry weather conditions in the upper estuary. Near the downtowns of Westerly and Pawcatuck, Conn., a number of outfall pipes directly discharge into the Pawcatuck River.

Save The Bay touted the recent invitation-only outing as a call to action, to urge local communities — and not just Westerly and Stonington, Conn. — and their residents to help mitigate pollution impacts. The Providence-based nonprofit also would like agencies and officials in both states to better enforce the environmental regulations that protect this shared natural resource.

The environmental group is pushing watershed municipalities along the coast and upstream to develop plans to better manage stormwater runoff, ensure septic systems are working properly and to closely monitor the watershed.

Much like the problems facing areas of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound, contaminated stormwater and combined sewer overflow washing into Little Narragansett Bay are causing parts of the bay to degrade. This runoff and overflow carries oil, gasoline and grease, lawn fertilizer, pet waste and bacteria. This pollution has closed part of Little Narragansett Bay to shellfishing since 1991.

Since 2007, when Save The Bay opened its South Coast Center in Westerly, it has been testing, in cooperation with the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program, in six locations in Little Narragansett Bay/Pawcatuck River, documenting water temperature, clarity, salinity, and nutrient, dissolved oxygen and pH levels.

While continued monitoring shows water quality is impaired and problems persist, scientists need more data to fully understand the bay and its watershed, Stone said.

Something stinks Much of the area in the watershed is built up and covered with impervious surfaces, which rushes stormwater pollution into Little Narragansett Bay. In fact, a third of Rhode Island’s runoff drains into the Pawcatuck River watershed, according to Prescott.

Thanks to large amounts of nitrogen, much of it from lawn fertilizers, contained in this runoff, thick mats of macroalgae — called “black ooze” or “black mayonnaise,” depending on whom you are speaking with — cover much of the bottom of Little Narragansett Bay between Watch Hill and Sandy Point.

This patchwork blanket of algae, which gives off a rotten-egg smell when a piece is pulled into a boat or some of it washes into shore, creates low-oxygen zones that suffocate eelgrass and iconic New England marine life such as oysters and scallops. In some places, this decaying organic matter is several feet thick and spreading, according to Prescott.

The University of Connecticut and the University of Rhode Island are both studying this algae formation, which shows no signs of disappearing.

“It’s not quite a dead zone, but it isn’t really what it should be,” Prescott said. “We don’t want to see Little Narragansett Bay any more impaired than it is now.”

Pollution from outfall pipes is helping to create conditions that allow a growing mat of bottom-dwelling macroalgae to snuff out other aquatic life in the watershed.

Royal flush This algae has always been at the bottom, but the amount of it is growing and impacting the natural flushing of the bay.

Exacerbating the bay’s flushing problem is the fact Sandy Point, a narrow island that was cut off from mainland Connecticut by the 1938 hurricane, is slowly moving to the north, creating a barrier that is impairing the bay’s ability to flush excess nutrients.

Erosion and more frequent and severe rains also are changing the currents, leading to poor flushing of the bay’s many shallow coves and the buildup of macroalgae.

A growing amount of the black mayo is washing up on the Borough of Stonington’s shore and having a huge impact on the oldest borough in Connecticut.

“This organic matter is decaying and smells awful,” Prescott said. “Residents have to keep their windows closed.”

Don’t feed the birds Prescott noted, on more than one occasion during the two-hour cruise, the water-quality problems created by the feeding waterfowl such as Canada geese and swans, whose waste contributes to increased bacteria/nutrient levels.

Up until about four years ago, hundreds of swans and Canada geese often congregated at the mouth of the Pawcatuck River, because an elderly Stonington resident was routinely feeding them. After local officials explained the negative impact all these birds were having on the river’s ecosystem, the woman stopped and most of the birds left.

Many of the swans and geese that remain are found on private lawns that stretch to the riverbank. Long, native grasses and other shoreline vegetation would help keep waterfowl from congregating and would better filter runoff pollutants.

In fact, according to Save The Bay, there are a number of individual actions that, combined with state and local programs, would help minimize watershed impacts. Land conservation, salt-marsh protection and pump-out programs are among the measures state agencies and local groups have taken to protect the watershed.

Among some of the environmentally friendly actions individuals can take include: replacing your cesspool, installing a rain garden, using a rain barrel, properly maintaining your septic system and/or fertilizing and mowing your lawn less.

“Having a lush, green lawn is part of our culture and it’s hard to make changes,” said Cindy Sabato, Save The Bay’s director of communications. “If you can’t or don’t want to replace your lawn with a rain garden or native bushes and shrubs, apply less fertilizer and don’t fertilize before it is expected to rain.”