Senate Hears Bill to Derail Burrillville Power Plant

Chris Boyle of Invenergy, left, Elizabeth Suever, center, of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and John Simmons of the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council oppose bills that change how power plants are approved in Rhode Island. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Chris Boyle of Invenergy, left, Elizabeth Suever, center, of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, and John Simmons of the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council oppose bills that change how power plants are approved in Rhode Island. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill that could halt the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for Burrillville was met with skepticism at a recent Senate hearing.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were puzzled that the Burrillville Town Council, despite its opposition to the natural-gas/diesel power plant, approved a tax agreement with the developers of the proposed $1 billion Clear River Energy Center. The Town Council was also asked why the developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, agreed to pay $1.15 million to essentially fight its own project.

“I’d be pretty damn confident if I’m going to give you a million dollars of my money so that you can fight me over something,” Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston, said at the June 14 hearing.

Burrillville’s attorney, Michael McElroy, who brokered the tax agreement with Invenergy, said the Chicago-based company knew how the money would be spent when it gave it to the town.

“They are very confident. Frankly, they are a bully," McElroy said. "They are a multibillion-dollar international organization that thought they could roll over the town of Burrillville. It turns out that, so far, they have been wrong."

Senators Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield, and committee chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata, D-Warwick, questioned why the Town Council entered into a tax deal if they didn't want the power plant.

“You accepted the money from Invenergy so you could fight Invenergy?” Lynch Prada asked.

Burrillville Town Council president John F. Pacheco III explained that the tax deal was insurance in case the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) approves the project.

“It’s very beneficial to the town,” Pacheco said. But, “I hope we never have to use it.”

He admitted that Invenergy might regret its decision, since the Town Council voted soon after the tax deal to oppose the power plant.

“Today, for us to get the tax treaty might be difficult,” Pacheco said.

Senate bill S756 halts the application process until Invenergy supplies all of the information requested for reports, called advisory opinions, to state agencies and town departments.

In recent weeks, Invenergy has been in a dispute with the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) over requests for information relating to disruption of habitat. So far, six of 12 state agencies and town departments have said they want more data from Invenergy.

The Conservation Law Foundation wrote the bill with the town of Burrillville. It's supported by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Paul Roselli, of the Burrillville Land Trust and the Rhode Island Conservation Commission, said Invenergy is preventing agencies and the public from making an informed decision about the fossil-fuel power plant.

Burrillville resident Lynn Clark supports the bill because Invenergy has failed to release a full site plan and details of a traffic study. "It's like environmental suicide," she said. "I really feel like we are being steamrolled."

Chris Boyle, an attorney for Invenergy, said allowing agencies to halt projects by asking for information would give them veto power over energy projects. The EFSB already has the power to deny an application for inadequate information, Boyle said.

“We think you are changing the rules midstream,” said John Simmons, executive director of the business-advocacy group Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council.

Elizabeth Sauver of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce said changes to the approval process may make it difficult for the state to meet its energy needs.

The bill was held for further study. A House version of the bill was heard by the House Finance Committee on May 17.

The EFSB is scheduled to host a final round of hearings for the power plant in October.