Preliminary Hearing Begins New Power-Plant Debate

A room in the Public Utilities Commission office building in Warwick, R.I., was packed for the Jan. 12 hearing regarding the power plant proposed for Burrillville. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

A room in the Public Utilities Commission office building in Warwick, R.I., was packed for the Jan. 12 hearing regarding the power plant proposed for Burrillville. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WARWICK, R.I. — A much-hyped preliminary hearing for a proposed $700 million power plant did little to settle the project’s fate. The mostly procedural assembly, held before a capacity crowd, was dominated by project opponents and set the stage for a likely contentious public meetings later this month.

Open comment during the daylong Jan. 12 hearing wasn’t permitted. Although several residents and groups resisting what would be Rhode Island’s largest power plant, were able to make themselves heard, particularly those that filed as official “intervenors” to the Burrillville project.

The building of this power plant is in clear conflict of what is in the Resilient Rhode Island Act, said Peter Nightingale, of Fossil Free Rhode Island.

Opponents, such as Nightingale, maintain that emissions from the plant will hamper greenhouse gas-reduction mandates and emit other harmful pollutants. Several Burrillville residents expressed worry that building the power plant next to an already-noisy compressor station will worsen noise and increase traffic.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) was afforded the lengthiest time to present before the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), arguing for a motion to deny Invenergy’s application. CLF attorney Jerry Elmer said the 400-plus pages of paperwork lacked information regarding critical equipment and environmental monitoring.

“These are not small matters. These are material matters,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, the EFSB denied CLF’s request, noting that Invenergy has imposed deadlines and intends to provide the missing data.

In future public testimony, CLF plans to oppose the power plant based on its carbon emissions relative to the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act, as well as air pollution and wastewater emissions. CLF also made a data request for Invenergy’s economic projections, such as ratepayer and other savings promised by the fossil fuel-based project.

“CLF will be presenting an expert witness to refute those figures because we believe they are wrong,” Elmer told ecoRI News.

Invenergy delivered a PowerPoint presentation of the Clear River Energy Center that answered some questions about the project. One of the biggest is the plan for two 500-megawatt General Electric turbines to power the plant. Diesel oil will provide reserve fuel in two million-gallon oil tanks. The tanks will contain a three-day supply of diesel oil for the power plant, and they will be refilled by tanker trucks.

Sister Mary Pendergast, a Cumberland resident, testified that she was qualified as an intervenor on behalf of Earth. Pendergast is the ecology director with a local branch of the Sisters of Mercy. She was one of eight arrested during a Dec. 5 protest at the proposed site of the power plant.

Only two of the three EFSB members were present: Margaret Curran, chair of the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The third seat is vacant.

By the end of the month, Curran and Coit plan to announce which groups and residents qualify as intervenors. Coit explained the points the EFSB will consider. Many will be based on input and advisory opinions from state agencies. The PUC will determine the need for the power plant. Curran noted that environmental concerns will likely be addressed by DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council, both are considering permits for the project.

Coit promised multiple opportunities for public input. She called public input “one of the most serious aspects of the process,” and said there will be at least three public hearings.

Overall, the EFSB will consider the need, cost justifications, alternatives, socio-economic impacts “and the standard whether to consider the proposal will not cause unacceptable harm to the environment,” Coit said.

Kathryn Sherman, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from the site of the proposed natural-gas plant, also requested intervenor status. “We would be deprived the enjoyment of our property,” she said.

Fight Against Natural Gas, Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion, Fossil Free Rhode Island, Occupy Providence, Burrillville Land Trust, Rhode Island Progressive Democrats, and residents Paul and Mary Buldoc also filed as objecting intervenors.

Other intervenors include National Grid, the state Office of Energy Resources, and the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council. The EFSB has granted intervenor status to CLF, National Grid and the Building Council.

Alan Shoer, an attorney for Inevenergy, argued that many of the environmental advocacy groups and residents weren’t directly affected by the power project and therefore should be disqualified to serve as intervenors. It was “unusual and unprecedented,” he said, to have so many potential intervenors.

Curran, however, began the recent meeting stating that a power-plant application is rare in Rhode Island. The most recent, she said, was in 1999. “We’re new to this so we are learning as we go,” she noted.

Shoer also argued the benefits of a highly efficient electric plant, one that will supplant older, higher polluting facility. “This project will lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions ... mitigating the effects of climate change.”

All permits, he said, are expected by the end 2016. If plans are approved, the power plant would be operational by June 1, 2019, he added.

The next public hearing is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 29.