Rare Victory for Opponents of Burrillville Power Plant

All 34 speakers at an Aug. 9 public hearing spoke against the proposed fossil-fuel power plant. The public signed up outside the Burrillville High School auditorium to make statements. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

All 34 speakers at an Aug. 9 public hearing spoke against the proposed fossil-fuel power plant. The public signed up outside the Burrillville High School auditorium to make statements. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Text and videos by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Opponents of the proposed 1,000-megawatt power plant earned a rare victory during one of two recent public meetings.

The Harrisville Fire District water board voted to deny Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, the developer of the natural-gas/diesel power plant, access to the municipal water supply. Despite a promise of a $10 million infusion into the public water system, the chairman of the water board, Ronald Slocum, declared that offering local water to a business outside of the district was beyond the mission of the municipal organization.

Attendees at the Aug. 9 meeting cheered the 4-2 vote that rejected construction of a new well and related infrastructure. The action was one of the first rulings by a government entity to go against the proposed energy project. The Burrillville Town Council isn't taking a stance on the project because of fears it will influence the application process. State agencies are holding judgment until they finish reports, called advisory opinions, which are due by mid-September to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), the entity deciding the fate of the project. Gov. Gina Raimondo supports the power plant.

Invenergy doesn’t see the decision by the water board as a setback. The Chicago-based developer of fossil-fuel power plants and renewable-energy systems intends to find water for cooling the power plant from other water sources, which could include nearby reservoirs and wells in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“We continue to explore water solutions for the Clear River Energy Center,” Invenergy spokesman Chris Raia wrote in an e-mail.

Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, praised the Harrisville Fire District for sticking to its mission. After extensive review of the supply and demand of Burrillville’s water, Roselli concluded that the proposed Clear River Energy Center would harm an already overtaxed water system. The town is in the midst of a three-year regional drought and the new power plant could draw up to a million gallons of water daily. Current water needs, including the existing Ocean State Power facility, would push water use to 5 million gallons a day during peak demand.

“There is no aquifer or waterbody that can support 5 million gallons a day,” Roselli said.

Roselli and about 20 opponents of the power plant drove back and forth between the water board meeting and a listening session sponsored by the Department of Health (DOH) at Burrillville High School. There was a low outburst of elation when several residents returned from the water board hearing with news of the vote.

During the 3.5-hours of public testimony at the DOH hearing, several residents noted that Invenergy’s application failed to mention threats to the town’s drinking water. Lynn Clark of Pascoag said a shrinking water supply does more than depress construction of new homes and business.

“Our entire town depends on groundwater in that aquifer,” Clark said. “This power plant will destroy this environment forever and cost the region a great deal more than the loss of outdoor recreation. In essence, it will destroy the nature of the rural northwest corner of Rhode Island. How can you live with that?”

The four members of the DOH in attendance didn't respond to Clark’s or other direct questions, making clear from the outset that they were taking comments to include in their advisory opinion.

Many power-plant opponents criticized a draft of DOH’s advisory opinion for not investigating health and pollution issues, and offering short, seemingly cursory answers to concerns such as a plan to draw cooling water from a polluted well.

Several residents said they were shocked that a well polluted by the gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) in the late 1990s and early 2000s might be reopened and possibly threaten the public again. Many gave accounts of their experience with tumors and other illnesses they claim were caused by exposure to the toxin that leaked from a gas station in Pascoag.

Mary Ryan delivered compelling testimony of her experiences with customers at her Pascoag coffee shop, which she closed because of the MTBE contamination in 2002. Many residents described suffering from the poisoning. Ryan's customers complained of bleeding and bronchitis. She choked backed tears as she described the skin falling off the legs of a 6-year-old girl.

Ryan led the effort to close the drinking-water well and the court fight for restitution. Ryan and other speakers at the recent DOH hearing described the agency's slow response with help. And they seemed perplexed at how the wording has changed in documents from 2002 that now create a loophole for a power plant to use the water.  

“(Invenergy) never should have been allowed to walk into the EFSB because it was based on a false pretense,” Ryan said.

She and others want the DOH to take firm stance on the project, not just offer comments.

“It’s ridiculous,” Ryan said of the DOH’s failure follow its mission statement. “I remind you that you have an obligation to protect the residents of Rhode Island and Burrillville. You must be firm in your advisory opinion.”

Jason Olkowski accused the DOH of “checking the box” on some statements in the draft advisory opinion. The DOH is the last line of defense for the public and the final report should use direct language that takes a stance on health risks, he said. “If not you, then who?”

The DOH hearing began with a presentation and by Renee King, a physical therapist from Webster, Mass., who explained that Burrillville sits in the middle of a 31-mile stretch of 10 power plants, two sludge incinerators and two compressor stations. The facilities emit unhealthy emissions across northeast Rhode Island and the surrounding tri-state area, she said.

The power plants are in Blackstone, Mass., Bellingham, Mass., Milford, Mass., Medway, Mass., Dayville, Conn., and Burrillville. Sludge incinerators are in Woonsocket and Milbury, Mass., and new power plants are proposed for Burrillville and Dayville. The 10 power plants generate 4,675 megawatts of power or enough electricity for 4.25 million homes, according to King.

“I believe this is clustering and I believe it has gone unnoticed because it includes three states,” she said.

King noted that no other area of southern New England has the same density of facilities that generate electricity. “I’m sure on some level this impacts our air, our water and our land,” she said.

Public comment on the DOH report is open until Aug. 16.