Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The first of three Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board public hearings, held March 31 at the high school, for a proposed natural-gas power plant lived up to expectations, as the contentious meeting lasted nearly four hours.
Many opponents of the Clear River Energy Center expressed dismay about the attack on their solitude in the heavily wooded community.
“This will degrade the rural character of our town that so many people pride themselves on,” said Betty Mencucci, who lives on a 14-acre bee farm in the village of Glendale.
Others did extensive research on the perceived threats from the $700 million project, as they voiced alarm over pollution, noise, water use, traffic and 200-foot-tall smokestacks.
“I’m a health professional and MTBE (banned gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether) means cancer,” said Irene Watson, a nurse living less than a mile from the 62-acre site designated for the proposed natural-gas plant.
Watson and other residents gathered in the school's auditorium scrutinized a proposal to cool the nearly 1-gigawatt power plant with water from a polluted well. They're concerned that steam emissions and water and sewer discharge will spread contaminants through the air, underground and into nearby wetlands. The controversial well in the village of Pascoag was polluted in 2001 when the fuel additive MTBE leaked from a gas tank buried at a nearby gas station.
Chicago-based Invenergy has promised to clean the well as it pipes some 78 million gallons of the water to its power plant annually.
Pascoag resident Mike Scurka referred to a 2006 University of Rhode Island study showing that the filtering process can be distorted if the water is pumped from the well at a certain speed and volume. Thus, allowing the polluted water to appear safe.
“You might be cleaning up the well but you are not cleaning up the water,” Scurka said. “This is not right.”
Kevin Cleary, chair of the Conservation Commission, noted that Invenergy's proposal doesn't comply with the federal Clear Air Act or with town and federal regulations for wetlands, stormwater, air pollution, traffic and hazardous waste. He described the proposal for a 6-mile-long high-voltage power line as “grossly inaccurate,” and called for a thorough environmental impact assessment.
Other opponents said the contaminated well serves as another example of big companies moving to town and leaving without restoring the environmental damage. ExxonMobil, for example, hasn't paid to clean up the spill from its gas station in Pascoag.
“We don’t want to invite another Superfund site to our town,” Mencucci said.
Other residents questioned why the rural town was being asked to host another gas-fired power plant. Burriville is home to Ocean State Power — the largest power plant in Rhode Island — as well as a massive compressor station along the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline owned by Spectra Energy.
Betty Mencucci’s husband, Carlo, wondered why the power plant wasn’t being built on a brownfield site in Providence that has an ample water supply from Narragansett Bay. He and other opponents have suggested that Gov. Gina Raimondo and state leaders have promised to approve the project as a political favor.
Resident Donna Woods received loud applause when she said, “My big fear is that the decision has already been made.”
North Providence resident Sally Mendzela noted that Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs is the biggest investor in the project. The bank also just donated $10 million to the state for small-business support.
“Doesn’t that sound like quid pro quo?” Mendzela said.
Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, delivered a slide presentation showing that past industrial projects have drained away promised tax benefits because of the need for additional police and fire services, and special tax breaks.
“No one ever saw a reduction in their tax bill due to all this industrial growth. Does that sound familiar?” Roselli said.
Building and construction trade unions were a major presence inside and outside the high school — some 600 union members and supporters, with about a third wearing T-shirts or holding signs stating support for construction jobs.
In all, 39 people testified against the project, and six spoke in support. Judging by applause, most attendees opposed the power plant proposal.
The event veered into shades of a Donald Trump rally, as union members and opponents of the project engaged in direct debate.
Local resident John Phillips of the Labors International Union of North America pointed and yelled directly at a group of opponents, saying they were concerned about a drop in property values, instead of doing what's best for the town.
“Every one of you will settle for dollars,” Phillips yelled. “OK. So where are your morals?”
The volume of testimony elevated considerably after Phillips' remarks, hitting a peak with a passionate speech from Providence-based environmentalist Greg Gerritt. Gerritt berated representatives from Invenergy for ignoring climate change, especially since the company is the largest private owner of wind and solar projects in the country.
“Why did they come to us with (natural) gas when they should have been coming to us with wind power. What the hell is wrong with them,” Gerritt said.
He turned to the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), the state committee determining the fate of the project, and promised that opposition won’t relent.
“All of this (project) will be stopped because you ain’t got enough jails to fit us,” Gerritt said.
Invenergy representatives and EFSB members Janet Coit and chairwoman Margaret Curran didn't respond to public comments as the hearing was deemed a listen-only session. The hearing began at 6 p.m. and was cutoff at 10, even as several speakers were waiting to testify. Curran promised that they would be allowed to speak at the May 23 hearing. A third hearing is expected this summer. The EFSB will be weighing the testimony and advisory statements from various state agencies before making a decision, which is expected this fall.
The public hearing began with a 30-minute presentation of the natural-gas power plant by John Niland, project manager for the Clear River Energy Center. Niland said the power plant is needed to meet the switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy.
“You still have to have something to back up the wind and solar projects when the sun isn’t out and the wind isn’t blowing,” he said.
There were moments of humor at the meeting, as several speakers made light of Rhode Island's controversial new marketing slogan: “Cooler & Warmer.”
Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building Trades Union, said without the new power plant there might not enough electricity to meet energy needs. “If we don’t invest in projects like this it will be cooler and warmer: cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer,” he said.