Power Plant Emits Political Acrimony During Election Year

Opposition and support for the proposed Burrillville, R.I., power plant doesn't fall along party lines. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Opposition and support for the proposed Burrillville, R.I., power plant doesn't fall along party lines. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The proposed natural-gas power plant continues to generate acrimony between opponents and supporters of the controversial energy project. And as Election Day nears, opinions about the project are mingling party affiliations in town, as well as on the state and even national level.

Locally, the Democratic Town Committee plans to announce three anti-power-plant candidates to run for the three open Town Council seats on the November ballot. Currently, Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the council. Democrats occupy two of the three seats on the ballot, but both Nancy F. Binns and Kimberly Brissette Brown are stepping down this year. Town Council president John Pacheco III, a Republican, is running for re-election as the third seat on the ballot.

“We have three wonderful candidates and they are going to be up there doing everything they can legally, morally and ethically do to stop this power plant,” Stephen Mulcahey, chair of the Democratic Town Committee, said during a June 11 "Rally for Energy Independence" hosted by the Burrillville Land Trust.

Despite the urging of power-plant critics, all seven members of the Town Council have declined to publicly voice their support or opposition for the $700 million Clear River Energy Center. Town Council member David Place, a Republican, told ecoRI News that the council agreed unanimously not to take a public stance on the project until compliance and environmental reports are completed. Speaking out, he reasoned, might sway evaluations of the power plant by the planning and zoning departments. The council also doesn't want to jeopardize property-tax negotiations with the project’s owner and developer, Chicago-based Invenergy LLC.

“We’ve maintained a united front when it comes to this power plant,” Place said.

Outside of the Town Council meetings, Brissette Brown and fellow Council member Michelle Bouchard have been silent on the subject, although both reportedly signed the no-power-plant petition at the June 11 rally.

Many critics of the power plant charge that town manager Michael Wood and town solicitor Oleg Nikolyszyn have strong-armed the council not to take a public stance for fear of jeopardizing a prearranged agreement between the town and Invenergy.

Mulcahey said residents are protesting the proposed 900-plus-megawatt power plant while “the Republicans are negotiating a secret deal that none of us know about.”

He added, “No one wants this power plant except it seems the Republicans on the Town Council and (town manger) Mike Wood.”

Place said party affiliation isn't an issue on the Town Council or among residents. “There is no Republican-Democratic divide in terms of the opposition to the power plant," he said.

Place noted it has been a struggle for the Town Council to maintain its neutrality during contentious public meetings.

“You only can be yelled at so much and still maintain this line because we know (this proposal is) so important to the community," he said. "We are doing are best not to turn this into a political thing and make sure the council does what’s best for the community. The only thing is to make sure we protect the community on all fronts.”

Mulcahey said all Democrats he speaks to in town and across the state are against the project. The state’s top Democrat, Gov. Gina Raimondo, however, supports the power plant, although her reasons are becoming more vague. Raimondo’s office told ecoRI News recently that the fossil-fuel plant is needed “to address our energy costs in the present for all Rhode Island families and businesses.”

The Conservation Law Foundation says Raimondo’s threat to veto legislation that would allow Burrillville residents to vote on the property-tax deal would be “politically very, very damaging to any future political ambitions she might have.”

Raimondo isn’t up for election until 2018, but members of the General Assembly go before voters every two years. Place said he is seriously considering challenging Burrillville Democrat Cale Keable for his House seat in November.

Last week, Keable took umbrage when town solicitor Nikolyszyn suggested at a Town Council meeting that Keable invited Invenergy to build a power plant in Burrillville. Keable denied the charge and accused Wood of bullying the Town Council and employees to support or at least stay silent on the power plant. Nikolyszyn, he said, was stepping outside his role as legal council.

“Mr. Nikolyszyn, who was appointed by the Republican majority on the council, should concentrate on providing legal advice to the town council instead of engaging in petty, partisan finger pointing on behalf of its Republican members and town manager, Mike Wood. Mike Wood and the town council have faced the town's disgust at their actions and now they desperately seek a way to make their problem mine,” Keable wrote in a rebuttal.

Higher up in the political hierarchy is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who believes the state Department of Environmental Management and the Energy Facilities Siting Board should determine the fate of the Clear River Energy Center. While not opposing the myriad of natural-gas projects underway in Rhode Island and across New England, Whitehouse continues to push for restrictions on methane emissions from oil and gas energy operations. His carbon tax legislation is also intended to inhibit expansion of fossil fuel power plants and related infrastructure. 

Burrillville resident and Republican voter Ray Trinque opposes the power plant. The former School Committee member wanted to know why one of the leading environmentalists in Congress isn’t opposing the natural gas facility.

“Where is Sheldon Whitehouse?” Trinque said during a meeting about politics at the recent energy rally. “He’s been telling me global warming is more of a threat than ISIS. Where is Mr. Carbon Tax? Where is he? This is his backyard. He’s a United States senator. Where is he?”

Mulcahey responded by saying that the power plant is a local issue that needs a local solution. He wrapped up his discussion by offering a statement that is likely accurate for some residents, but not all.

“No matter what happened with this plant, this has brought us together as a community. And that’s the beautiful part of this,” he said.