New Bill Lets Burrillville Residents Vote on Power Plant

Burrillville Town Council president John F. Pacheco III says he wants Gov. Gina Raimondo to make good on her promise to meet with local residents. Pacheco made the comment during a May 18 town meeting. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Burrillville Town Council president John F. Pacheco III says he wants Gov. Gina Raimondo to make good on her promise to meet with local residents. Pacheco made the comment during a May 18 town meeting. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Opponents are looking at every angle to stop the proposed natural-gas power plant. The latest are bills filed by local lawmakers Rep. Cale Keable and Sen. Paul Fogarty that would require residents to vote on any tax deal that the Town Council approves with Chicago-based Invenergy, the developer of the proposed facility.

A tax agreement is a significant issue because it's one of the few facets of the approval process that the town has sole control of. The state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) holds the most influence, and two state agencies will issue permits for the proposed 900-plus-megawatt Clear River Energy Center.

Opponents are fighting the project over the environmental disruption the $700 million project would bring to the rural town in northeast Rhode Island. Impacts of concern include noise, harmful emissions, traffic, disruption to wildlife and the use of polluted water to cool the power plant.

“We’re fighting for our survival here,” resident Donna Woods said during a May 18 meeting with residents and the Town Council.

Woods and others expressed frustration with the lack of time to stop the project. Most impact reports are due to the EFSB by Sept. 10. A decision by the EFSB is expected by the end of the year, with construction expected to start in early 2017.

“We have a huge uphill battle at the state level to stop this,” said Robin Muskian, a local resident who moderated the May 18 meeting because of her experience with state negotiations. “Realistically, we’re in a very, very bad spot to stop this.”

The 100-plus residents at the recent meeting urged the Town Council to fight the power plant instead of negotiating a tax deal with Invenergy. Some also accused town manager Michael Wood of forging a behind-the-scenes agreement with the developer to approve the project.

“Limit his role (in the project). He answers to you,” resident Jeremy Bailey told the Town Council members.

For the first time, several Town Council members expressed empathy with opposition efforts. Council president John Pacheco III said Gov. Gina Raimondo should follow through on her promise to meet with residents over the issue.

“We should hold her to it,” he said.

Raimondo's office told ecoRI News that the governor is "planning a conversation in Burrillville this summer to hear directly from the local community." The governor is still focused on energy costs and new sources of energy such as wind and solar, the spokeswoman said.

The May 18 town meeting took an interesting turn when resident Barry Craig, a retired attorney from Washington, D.C., presented several suggestions for impeding the project.

The affable Craig, wearing a T-shirt that read, “If You Met My Family You’d Understand,” recently moved to Burrillville, where he grew up, to run the Echo Lake Campground.

“Size (of the opposition) matters, e-mails matter, telephone calls matter to the appropriate public officials. They do ultimately listen to those things,” he said.

Resident Barry Craig says the Town Council can oppose the power plant.

Resident Barry Craig says the Town Council can oppose the power plant.

“Anything that delays this project makes it less likely,” Craig added. “Companies like (Invenergy) work on a time schedule. If they can’t get a project done within a particular time frame, they move on to the next project. They don’t waste a lot of time.”

The town can also seek to have the EFSB dismiss the application, because of the lack of time various boards have to review the project and issue an advisory opinion, Craig said. He also challenged the notion that the Town Council can't take a stand on the project, noting that the council can oppose the power plant as an intervener in the project.

The bills from Keable and Fogarty are expected to be introduced at the Statehouse during the week of May 23, with public hearings to follow. The legislative actions seek to amend a law enacted in 1987 that allowed the town to negotiate a tax deal for the construction of the 560-megawatt Ocean State Power plant. The change would simply require a vote for future tax agreements. If the vote can't be held on Election Day, the power-plant company must pay for the special election. The bills also seek to expand the EFSB from three to nine members. The change to the size of the EFSB, however, isn't expected to impact Invenergy's application.

Keable and Fogarty met with Raimondo on May 19 to urge her to reverse her support for the project. The governor's office didn't respond to an ecoRI News request for a statement following that meeting, but she was reportedly given a “No New Power Plant” T-shirt and sticker by the legislators.

A public hearing with Invenergy and the EFSB is scheduled for May 23 from 6-10 p.m. in the Burrillville High School auditorium.