Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — After seven months of silence and gritting their teeth, the Town Council finally said what it wanted all along: “No new power plant.”
By unanimous vote on Sept. 22, council members stated what they had been hearing from residents for more than a year: the Clear River Energy Center (CREC) presents untold health and environmental harm to their community.
“It just doesn’t belong. It doesn’t belong at this site,” Town Council member David Place said. “It doesn’t belong because of traffic concerns. You can’t get to it safely. It doesn’t belong because of the destruction of ... the trees, the wetlands, the wildlife. It just doesn’t belong.”
The failure of the developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, to secure a water supply to cool the nearly 1,000-meagwatt fossil-fuel power plant was a major concern noted by council members as they took turns explaining their opposition to the $700 million project. Several noted recent reports from the state Department of Health and Department of Environmental Management that expressed a need for a named water source to fully assess the power plant's impact on air and water.
“My most serious concern is the water issue,” Town Council member Nancy Binns said. “We don’t have enough information to know what kind of water source they are going to end up with, nor do we have time to evaluate their choice.”
After missing a deadline to find a water supply, Chicago-based Invernegy has been granted a 30-day extension by the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB).
Town Council president John Pacheco III explained after the vote that the council agreed to stay quiet for nearly a year, despite intense public pressure to state its stance on the project. He said the board didn't want to be perceived as influencing project assessments from the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Review, tax assessor and building inspector.
“It has been very hard for this council to remain neutral with all the opposition," Pacheco said. "We live here. These are our friends and neighbors all over this town. It’s hard to walk around this town and keep your lips shut. It has been.”
Pacheco said the Town Council initially considered two benefits of the CREC: tax revenue and the clean up of well 3A, a municipal water supply polluted by a gasoline additive from a nearby gas station. Early on, he said, it became clear that the clean up of the well, as promised by Invenergy, posed too many health risks.
“It’s not going to get clean. It’s going to remain shut, thankfully. And so that just leaves tax money,” Pacheco said. “And like my mom always says, ‘If the decision is about the money it’s the wrong decision.'”
The vote by the Town Council is nonbinding. Although CREC project manager John Niland said months ago that Invenergy won’t build in communities where it is not wanted, the fate of the project lies with the state EFSB, a three-member commission established in 1986 to keep large-scale power plant siting decisions out of the hands of local, and likely skeptical, residents and councils.
The 20-minute meeting in the Burrillville High School auditorium kicked off what is expected to be a months-long counter offensive, where the Town Council plans to speak before the EFSB and seek resolutions in opposition to the power plant from neighboring communities Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The next vote isn't expected to be as copacetic as the decision to oppose the power plant. At some point, the Town Council must decide whether to accept a tax agreement with Invenergy. The debate will likely focus on whether to agree or reject the deal and risk losing out on a favorable tax-revenue plan.
Pacheco said he wouldn't tip his hand on how he or the Town Council will vote. He did say the town benefits from a tax agreement with the owners of the town's existing power plant, Ocean State Power.
In response to the council's decision, Niland issued a statement:
“We understand this is a response to a vocal constituency in the community. Nonetheless, we look forward to continuing to work with the town to address their questions and concerns. Over the course of the past year, working together, we forged an agreement that includes $94 million in new revenue, a decommissioning agreement, and property value guarantee. This is a clear illustration of our productive working relationship.”
A Sept. 26 Town Council meeting to vote on the tax treaty has been postponed.
After additional public hearings, the EFSB is expected to rule on the CREC by early 2017.
“Hopefully we can affect the siting board to make the right decision and keep this monstrosity out of one of the most pristine places in the state," Pacheco said.