Why Coastal Resource reforms must focus on environmental racism

During the hearings held by the special Commission, environmental justice and the overt racism of the CRMC and the Raimondo Administration were never brought up, until UpriseRI brought it to the attention of the Commission on Wednesday…

January 20, 2022, 11:34 am

By Steve Ahlquist

For the first time on Wednesday the special House commission to study the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) allowed for public comment on the proceedings. And, for the first time in over six meetings, the commission heard about the important topic of environmental racism and the recent racist actions of the CRMC.

It is unfortunate that public comment was not allowed earlier in the special House commission’s meeting schedule, because this important topic deserves much more discussion than the brief, less than five minutes afforded to the subject on Wednesday.

For those interested, here’s a short history of the CRMC’s actions in approving a controversial Fields Point liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence over the objections of the local community and in service to National Grid and their backroom alliance with former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo.

In early 2017, National Grid submitted their application to the CRMC to convert an LNG storage tank into a liquefaction facility. Essentially, the liquefaction process allows National Grid to store around 18 times as much LNG in a storage tank by super-cooling LNG, a greenhouse gas, reducing the amount of space the gas takes up. The communities surrounding the Port of Providence and many environmental groups objected to the plan because this was a massive expansion of fossil fuels at a time when reductions in fossil fuel use is the only way to save the planet. They also objected on environmental racism grounds because the neighborhoods around the Port are already burdened with the negative impacts of the polluting industries within the Port.

The neighborhoods around the Port are mostly low-income, mostly people of color, and suffer from some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country, as a direct result of the industrial activity in the Port.

On the CRMC in 2017 was Tony Affigne, considered to be the strongest advocate on the council at the time when it came to climate change and environmental racism. Over the course of the next few hearings Affigne made several attempts to raise environmental issues and neighborhood impacts concerning the proposed liquefaction facility. As summer approached in 2017, the CRMC pulled back from discussions of the proposed facility. During this time, Affigne and two other members of the CRMC were suddenly replaced by Governor Gina Raimondo with members more inclined to favor National Grid.

After Governor Raimondo installed Jennifer Cervenka as the Chair of the CRMC, National Grid’s liquefaction facility proposal was fast-tracked. The communities surrounding the Port struggled to afford legal representation, and struggled to be heard by a CRMC unconcerned with the opinions of those living in the neighborhoods surrounding the Port. Not one member of the CRMC lived anywhere near the proposed facility. Not one member of the CRMC expressed any interest in the opinions of the people testifying before them.

In a series of public meetings, no members of the general public spoke in favor of National Grid’s liquefaction facility. Countless members of neighborhood and environmental groups spoke in opposition. The public spoke openly about the racism and white supremacy at play and in response, at a meeting in November 2017, CRMC Chair Cervenka cut the mic of a woman of color testifying against the project and summoned the police to have her removed.

Chair Cervenka and the former director of the CRMC, Grover Fugate, constantly told those opposed to the proposal that the CRMC’s hands were tied and that they had no ability to deny the proposal, which was mostly in the hands of federal regulators. This was a lie. Almost a year after the CRMC approved the liquefaction facility, the Rhode Island Attorney General determined that Fugate, Cervenka and the CRMC had illegally withheld documents requested by attorney Seth Handy concerning discussions between the CRMC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about the project.

Had these documents been released in a timely fashion, the public would have learned that the CRMC had much more power over National Grid’s application than they were willing to admit. But the political nature of the CRMC and its wholesale cooption by National Grid and Governor Raimondo meant that this information never reached the public.

The truth is that Governor Raimondo had placed people on the CRMC to fast track National Grid’s project. Cervenka was willing to do whatever she had to to force this unwanted project onto the communities surrounding the Port of Providence, disregarding their health, safety and wishes.

It was the epitome of environmental racism, and it barely caused a stir in Rhode Island.

Ultimately Cervenka would be brought down by another controversy, this one concerning mostly white people on Block Island that drew the attention of Attorney General Peter Neronha. This controversy lead to the formation of the special House commission tasked with reforming the CRMC.

During the hearings held by the special Commission, environmental justice and the overt racism of the CRMC and the Raimondo Administration were never brought up, until Uprise RI brought it to the attention of the Commission on Wednesday:

“I appreciate that.,” said Representative Deborah Ruggiero (Democrat, District 74, Jamestown) who chairs the commission. “Environmental racism and environmental justice. Two very good points.”

“Those were interesting remarks,” said commission member Representative Lauren Carson (Democrat, District 75, Newport). “Because so many times when we think about the CRMC we think about South County and Newport and I think that we have to remember that the coast goes all the way around and does touch upon a very wide variety of neighborhoods.”

Save the Bay has made four recommendations for reforming the CRMC. Note that Save the Bay, with headquarters in the Port of Providence, not only did not object to National Grid’s massive expansion of fossil fuels, they supported it. Still, Save the Bay’s suggestions concerning the reorganization of the CRMC are good ones. They are:

  • Abolish the Council: CRMC’s decisions can shape Rhode Island’s coast for decades to come. But some of those with the power to make these decisions (like the politically-appointed members of the Council) are not required to have any expertise or background on coastal issues. Abolishing the current council structure is the biggest step we can take toward reducing political influence within the agency, strengthening accountability and building public trust.
  • Hire a Dedicated Staff Attorney: CRMC, like other state agencies, should have its own in-house, full-time attorney with environmental expertise to represent staff at hearings. Currently, the staff does not have an attorney at hearings and the Council hires private attorneys who have other clients and potential conflicts of interest.
  • Appoint Hearing Officers: Rhode Island law says that the Governor is responsible for appointing qualified hearing officers to determine contested cases before CRMC-but these roles are currently vacant, leaving the politically- appointed council with the power to rule on controversial and contested cases.
  • Increase Staff and Funding: CRMC is responsible for managing new challenges like offshore wind and climate
    change, ensuring access to the shore for all, and enforcing the laws and rules that protect Rhode Island’s coast-but they only have 30 staff members. The agency needs more resources and staff now.

To this list Uprise RI adds one more:

  • Encode into the DNA of the CRMC, through carefully written legislation, a thoughtful and protective sense of the importance, centrality and primacy of environmental justice. Make sure that community impacts – and more importantly cumulative community impacts in the sense of health and environmental concerns – are important considerations in any decision the CRMC makes and that no decision is made that does not address potential impacts to environmental and racial justice.

See: No LNG in PVD! demands representation for Environmental Justice communities on the CRMC

In this way we can have a CRMC that protects ALL Rhode Islanders, not just some.