January 29, 20200

The current environmental laws in Rhode Island cover a host of topics that affect individuals and businesses every day. While the laws demonstrate a commitment to environmental protection ideals, the current environmental laws and regulations are only as good as their enforcement. Environmental enforcement is regulated by, among others, the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM), at the state level.


In looking ahead at the start of a new year, I can’t help but think “well, what about the priorities for enforcement of current environmental laws in 2020?” It just so happens that a recent Environmental Business Council of New England presentation discussed this exact question. For 2020, the environmental protection priorities for DEM will be focused on current environmental laws related to stormwater construction general permits, phasing out cesspools, meeting the underground storage tank single wall deadline, and analyzing dam spillway capacity. These initiatives run the gamut, and include issues which would affect both individuals and businesses.

DEM’s Office of Compliance and Inspection (OC&I) works within the Bureau of Environmental Protection and investigates complaints from RI citizens to enforce regulatory violations. OC&I conducts enforcement through a variety of means. The costs of noncompliance continue to grow; even an Expedited Citation Notice can carry up to $5,000 in penalties. Also,  a DEM Notice of Violation can be even more costly.

Project-Based Initiatives

At the state level, current environmental laws require permits for various construction projects that will affect water resources. These stormwater construction general permits are also known as RIPDES general permits, and include projects near freshwater wetlands, applications that require CRMC permits, construction that will discharge stormwater, and creation of wells, to name a few.

The current environmental laws also include the Rhode Island Cesspool Act of 2007, which mandates removal of cesspools from service, by upgrading to a new system (such as a septic system) or connecting to the sewer system. Replacement is even mandated for transfers of property, and must be completed within one year of the date of sale/transfer; this is why some sellers agree to replace the system themselves when they place their home on the market.


Removal of single-walled underground storage tanks, or replacement with double-walled tanks, is another focus. These tanks are federally regulated as well, generally hold petroleum or hazardous materials, and were required to be removed before December 22, 2017 because they do not actually contain those materials.

Finally, DEM will focus on dam safety by analyzing dam spillway capacity; the dam safety office is responsible for listing hazardous dams, including those with inadequate spillway capacity. DEM has authority over 669 dams in the state, and 178 are listed as “high” or “significant” hazard, meaning they pose risks to life or major property damage. DEM will likely work to determine who owns each of these hazardous dams, and whether there are additional dams which have inadequate spillover capacity, in order to bring them into compliance.

The attorneys at Desautel Browning Law are well-versed with the state’s environmental programs and laws. If you have questions about what how they may impact you, call us today at 401.477.0023.

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