"This area of Providence faces significant environmental challenges due to its industrial heritage and history," said Senator Pichardo at Monday's event. "Through this bill I wanted to provide a tool for a better way forward - to involve community members from the beginning in understanding the risks and benefits of constructing schools on brownfield sites. We don't want more situations in the future where we have to monitor schools indefinitely, or force school districts to face both that pressure and its associated costs."
Representative Slater echoed his colleague's sentiments, adding, "I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to sponsor this legislation with my colleague Senator Pichardo, and to work with community leaders and the Environmental Justice League to address a long standing environmental justice concern in my neighborhood."
In order to protect students and staff at schools built on vapor intrusion sites from possible exposure to airborne chemicals, expensive equipment and ongoing monitoring of both the equipment and indoor air in the school itself are needed. There is also the risk that this type of equipment can break down, creating health risks to students and workers at the school. The costs to prevent exposure to these toxics fall onto the shoulders of taxpayers. An active subslab depressurization system, which makes buildings on vapor intrusion sites safe, requires at least a $75,000-$100,000 initial investment and an average of $20,000 each subsequent year for ongoing indoor air testing, depending on the number of testing sites within the building.
For these reasons, the bill found broad support among community advocates, environmental and health organizations, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM). No one wants to add more cases to the list of schools built on vapor intrusion sites that taxpayers have to pay for and that RIDEM would need to monitor indefinitely, especially at a time when school districts and state agencies are strapped for resources and facing major budget cuts.
"This law successfully differentiates between those sites that can be safely and effectively remediated, and those sites that pose more significant management and monitoring challenges," stated Director Coit. "While schools are, and can, be safely built on many brownfield sites, schools placed on sites with ongoing vapor intrusion issues create monetary, labor, and maintenance burdens for school districts and municipalities. This law takes those sites off the table."
The current version of the bill was written through an Environmental Justice Stakeholder Group that RIDEM has been required to convene based on a 2005 court order regarding the siting of two schools on a former unregulated municipal landfill in Providence. RIDEM and environmental justice advocates worked together for over three years to craft final bill language. It is a prime example of the state agency and community advocates working together in partnership to address environmental justice concerns and proactively protect public health.
"We see the passage of this bill as a huge environmental justice victory for our state," said Amelia Rose, Director of the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, a community-based organization that has been advocating for the school siting bill since 2009. "Rhode Island can now be seen as a national leader on this issue, paving the way for other states to consider enacting similar prohibitions on school construction, and creating clear public processes to give regular people the ability to understand and weigh in on decisions that affect their kids' lives."
Environmental Justice is a movement to address the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards as well as environmental benefits among communities along lines of race and income level. Communities of color and low-income communities face a disproportionate environmental and health burden based on historic discrimination in land use decisions, housing, and other systemic issues that have paved the way for more toxic threats in these communities compared to higher-income white communities.
"As participants in the three year stakeholder process, it is great to see our collective work have such an impact," said Jamie Rhodes, Director for Clean Water Action. "This is a great step forward for the environmental justice movement. The entire Rhode Island environmental community has been in support of this effort, with the Environment Council of Rhode Island making it a legislative priority for the past two years. We will all celebrate this clear win for children's health."
S2277/H7412 is also consistent with the Rhode Island Department of Education's (RIDE) School Construction Regulations, which specify that sites where schools are built shall be "free of contamination". However, they do not specify that schools shall be prohibited from being built on contaminated sites that have undergone a cleanup process (remediation). This bill, therefore, builds on RIDE's regulations by creating a new public involvement process for schools being considered for any contaminated site, while prohibiting schools from certain sites that require overly expensive equipment, monitoring, and maintenance for the full lifetime of the school.
To read the full text of the bill, visit: this link.