Protesters supporting the No LNG in PVD coalition poured into the State House rotunda Wednesday afternoon three hours before the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture moved to reappoint three members of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).
Much of the committee’s proceedings were predicated on the premise that its appointments required consideration separate from demonstrators’ concerns regarding the potential environmental damage to low-income communities of color threatened by the proposed construction of the National Grid natural gas liquefaction facility in South Providence. Yet for many activists in attendance, the lack of representation of South Providence members and people of color on the council, and the potential for its allowance of the LNG plant, are inextricably linked.
The proposed facility, planned for a site at Fields Point in South Providence, notably falls in a region which already is home to a greater number of polluting facilities than any other in Providence, according to a 32-page white paper previously published on this site by the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. The area has also been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an “environmental justice community,” or a region of particular importance for protection of vulnerable low-income and minority individuals, with a more than 75 percent minority population and a 56 percent low-income population within a 1-mile radius of the proposed site.
No LNG in PVD coordinator Monica Huertas began the demonstration by building a model of the current natural gas storage tank at the site, affixing flames to dramatize the volatility of the project’s development’s impact on the surrounding community. “You see these flames?” Huertas announced. “There’s no evacuation plan! You know why? Because we would all die if something were to happen.” She cited two incidents in March of last year on Allens Avenue, in which a gas pipeline ruptured only three weeks after an ethanol train carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol derailed in the area. For Huertas and other NoPVDinLNG members, the risk of such catastrophes will only multiply in the case of the construction of a new facility.
“It’s environmental racism,” Huertas said. “You would never see this facility built anywhere else than the neighborhood of poor, Black, and brown people.”
Democratic candidate for governor and Raimondo challenger Matt Brown also spoke in the rotunda as House and Senate members filed into their 4pm sessions.
“It is urgent—we should be building no new fossil fuel construction in this state,” Brown said. “It is wrong not just because of climate change, not just because of the well-being of the planet, not just because the well-being of our children and grandchildren, but because we’ll be polluting, today, right here, a neighborhood and across the state. It makes no sense. And it is wrong because of where they want to put it. They want to put it in a neighborhood where they think people don’t have enough money, don’t have enough contacts to make a difference. But do you know what? We’re proving them wrong today.”
In a interview with RI Future after his speech, Brown said, “This is a movement that has been led by the people of South Providence, but it needs to include all of the people of the state—I wish they we were seeing that here today—to make sure that this LNG facility is not expanded, and that there’s no more new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state.”
Following the action in the rotunda, demonstrators lay down a paper trail “pipeline” to the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture meeting, which was forced to be relocated to the Senate Lounge due to the sheer number of protestors at the event.
The action followed legislation introduced in the Senate on Tuesday to amend the makeup of the council and its ramifications for membership.
The proposal is as a response to a Superior Court complaint filed on April 20 by Save the Bay, which requested that the court clarify “the number of Council members that the Governor is allowed to appoint to the council and the qualifications of those members.” The statute originally stipulates that the CRMC consist of 16 members, half appointed by the legislature and half by the governor but under a 2004 separation of powers decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that legislature can appoint no members to the CRMC. The new bill, which will be under consideration by the committee on Thursday, CRMC membership would consist of nine appointees by the governor and one member serving ex officio.
A letter from the executive counsel to the governor Claire Richards, read at the beginning of the session, clarified the governor’s position that the reappointments were in compliance with the existing statute regarding appointment to the CRMC, including the stipulation that, given the committee’s reappointment, there be four elected or appointed officials on the council.
Neither the existing statute regarding CRMC membership nor the proposed amendment backed by Raimondo makes any explicit stipulation regarding the representation of “environmental justice” communities as identified by the EPA, nor does it explicitly stipulate any inclusion of members of color. “No LNG makes a number of other comments about the characteristics of members, regardless of their statutory eligibility,” says Richards’ letter. “This letter does not address those concerns, since they are the province of the Senate in its advice and consent capacity.”
The session which followed, however, demonstrated a marked reticence on the part of the committee to similarly address concerns regarding the CRMC’s ability to represent people of color or low-income residents in South Providence. Witnesses to the committee were restricted to giving commentary only on the three CRMC members for reappointment (Michael Hudner of Little Compton, Donald Gomez of Little Compton, and Patricia Reynolds of Warwick). Many were frustrated at their inability to directly voice their concerns regarding both the amendment to the CRMC’s membership stipulations and their potential oversight of the proposed LNG facility.
Demonstrator Andrew Poyant asked of the committee, “On the council right now, including the three appointed, is there anyone who resides in an environmental justice community? Is there anyone who has a background in human health—as an expert, a risk assessor, a doctor or nurse? Is there anyone familiar with ecological work—an ecologist, a biologist?”
Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment Chair Susan Sosnowski, who represents Block Island and South Kingstown, directed him to the CRMC’s existing regulations for membership eligibility, which includes provisions for none of these qualifications. Poyant responded:
“I’m just asking in order to avoid what has happened within the South Side community with the LNG, which was ignoring the entirety of CRMC regulations with the exception of visual impacts,” Poyant said. “I’m requesting, I’m hoping, for the consideration that we need representation of environmental justice communities… I’m against the reappointment of all three. They didn’t treat the community fairly when we provided over 8 hours of testimony. They disregarded all of it.”
When asked by Senator Jeanine Calkin of District 30 if any CRMC members reside in environmental justice communities, CRMC legal counsel Anthony DeSisto asked for an explanation of where those communities are. During the moments which followed, not one member of the committee could define what an environmental justice community was. Senator Sosnowski read from a letter delivered by No LNG in PVD, reporting that EPA New England lists South Providence, Washington Park, neighborhoods in Central Falls, southern Narragansett, northern Newport, Warwick, East Providence, and North Kingstown as environmental justice communities. DeSisto then granted that one CRMC member resides in East Providence.
Many in attendance expressed dismay over the ability for the appointees to act in the best interest of those seeking environmental justice. Senator Calkin cited that Michael Hudner, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of the B+H Shipping Group, an international ship-owning group, has been responsible for the acquisition and financing of over 100 bulk carriers and crude oil tankers.
In response to demonstrators’ concerns, Senator Joshua Miller, District 28, Cranston/Warwick, said, “I really think there should be changes in board positions going forward, with new board positions. I am not sure it should be done with a vote for reappointments. I’m concerned that we’re throwing the word ‘racism’ around when there has been no formal or credible complaint specifically that any one of these people is a racist. We are in a very charged atmosphere, not only locally but nationally, and this word needs to be used appropriately, and I’m not sure it’s being used appropriately for these specific appointments.”
When asked about Gov. Raimondo’s proposed legislation amending CRMC membership, gubernatorial candidate Brown said, “It needs reform. There needs to be a voice for the people. That’s what you’re seeing here today—the people are demanding a voice. The people most affected by this decision are demanding a voice in the process, and they should have it.”
“It’s environmental racism; we don’t need that in our community,” Rep. Ranglin-Vassell of District 5 in Providence told RI Future.
The committee moved to reappoint all three CRMC members with an overwhelming majority; Senator Calkin stood as the sole dissenting vote for each.
In a comment to RI Future following the close of the committee session, Monica Huertas was optimistic about the effects of No LNG in PVD’s action that afternoon. “I was just here to do our action, have Gina come out, she didn’t come out… She was here! Her car was idling in the front. But she wouldn’t come out. But [constructing the tank in the rotunda] was our goal today. We accomplished our goal.”
Inside the State House, the cardboard storage tank still stood in the middle of the empty rotunda, draped in caution tape.
The proposed legislation regarding the amendment of CRMC membership will be under consideration by the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture on Thursday at the rise.