Biomass Bill that Supports Special Interest Over Science Exposes Statehouse's Long Disregard for Environment

 The Rhode Island developer who wants to build a wood-burning incinerator has donated repeatedly since 2016 to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. (National Institute on Money in State Politics)

The Rhode Island developer who wants to build a wood-burning incinerator has donated repeatedly since 2016 to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. (National Institute on Money in State Politics)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio made a rare appearance at a late-April Committee on the Environment & Agriculture meeting to cast his vote in favor of an incinerator being proposed by a Rhode Island developer who has donated nearly $7,000 to the senator’s campaign during the past few years.

The nearly unanimous vote advanced a bill, introduced March 20 by Sens. Susan Sosnowski, Louis DiPalma and Joshua Miller, to the Senate floor. The bill groups woody biomass with wind and solar power as a renewable energy that qualifies for connection to the electric grid. Rep. Kenneth Marshall introduced the bill in the House.

After the April 25 vote, Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, told ecoRI News, “I don’t think this is an incinerator. It’s a very clean power.”

To think that, one must ignore science and research, or, perhaps, just really appreciate campaign contributions. Since March 2016, people connected to Green Development LLC of North Kingstown — also known as Wind Energy Development LLC — including its founder, Mark DePasquale, have donated $6,900 to Ruggerio. Green Development supporters have contributed another $4,750 to DiPalma and $3,000 to Sosnowski.

In fact, DePasquale, his family and business supporters have spread around $86,900 in campaign contributions (Excel document) since 2011, including $9,000 to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

The net-metering bill was explicitly written to help the sale of electricity from a nearly 9-megawatt power plant DePasquale has proposed for Johnston that would burn wood scrap and junk lumber.

Green Development spokesman Bill Fischer has said the facility wouldn’t be economically feasible without this bill. He has promised that Green Development plans to burn wood that is free of chemicals and toxins such as lead paint.

The bill has already been approved by the Senate and awaits approval from the House. New bills often take years to advance this far, but this piece of legislation has moved through the General Assembly at breakneck speed, just the opposite of how the process is supposed to work, at least according to Mattiello.

Earlier this year the Cranston Democrat told a Brown University student, working on a story about Rhode Island’s sluggish efforts to adopt a carbon tax, that, “The system is designed so that legislation moves slowly.”

Ultimately, the pace is determined by selfishness.

 Green Development supporters have contributed $9,000 to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello since May 2014. (National Institute on Money in State Politics)

Green Development supporters have contributed $9,000 to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello since May 2014. (National Institute on Money in State Politics)

Running to stand still
As a collective, Rhode Island’s elected officials and their appointed bureaucrats, both Democrats and Republicans, have failed, at least when it comes to the environment.

This September will mark the ninth year ecoRI News has been covering environmental issues in southern New England, and most of the staff’s time and resources have focused on the Ocean State.

Little to nothing tangible has emerged from the Statehouse during the past eight-plus years to protect Rhode Island’s increasingly vulnerable environment or address mounting climate-change pressures. For instance, modest steps taken to improve energy efficiency and renewable energy could be erased thanks to the political support provided for the building of a wood-burning incinerator and a fossil-fuel power plant. This disjointed approach illustrates that many of those who sit in the Statehouse have no real plan, or ambition, to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

In fact, most of the state’s environmental successes have been facilitated by unpaid activists, small-budgeted nonprofits, larger institutions like Save The Bay, and departments and programs within the University of Rhode Island and Brown University, to name a few. Many of these grassroots efforts are then undercut by political pushback designed to thwart real progress.

Chamber of Commerce members schmooze with the political class. Environmentalists have to rally outside the Statehouse or the governor’s home only to have their concerns ignored.

In fact, the government’s environmental successes are largely accomplished by taxpayers spurred on by nongovernmental organizations to vote for green bonds. Lawmakers and their appointed bureaucrats then use the passing of these referendums to send out manufactured press releases praising their purported environmental bona fides.

Here is a recent example of a political quote that requires nothing more than writing a paragraph built on a promise. No expectations, no funding, no clear path to success.

“I am proud that Rhode Island is the first state in America to sign the Clean Seas Pledge,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo. “In addition to supporting world-class events like the Volvo Ocean Race, our bays, rivers, and coastal waters support commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism, and recreation. I’m excited that DEM is working with our marinas on a voluntary initiative to ban plastics. Let’s keep our waters clean and free of plastic and other marine debris.”

Unfortunately, the environmental message in the Department of Environmental Management press release is lost among the marketing for an ocean race.

Prepared statements like this check the required boxes of concern but have little impact when it comes to addressing environmental and climate issues in any significant manner.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Actions speak louder than words.” Rhode Island’s legislative actions when it comes to protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate have proven to be, at least since late 2009, largely missing. Unenforced laws. Polluters ignored. Non-binding executive orders. Whimsical reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions. Basically, an Ocean State version of “thoughts and prayers.”

In the past few years lawmakers have, for instance, celebrated the clear-cutting of trees and the filling in of wetlands to make room for an office park in Johnston and a Tiverton casino. The Nature Conservancy funds a full-time position at the Department of Environmental Management to Band-Aid the hemorrhaging of resources at the state agency.

Eventually, despite continued and overwhelming voter support for green bonds, many of the state’s pro-environment efforts and their related concerns are marginalized by Statehouse and congressional hypocrisy or attacked as job-killing-economic-ruining-tree-hugging schemes. The chosen tactic of trashing environmental and climate initiatives is decided by the D or R after a lawmaker’s name.

The most glaring example of environmental marginalization is the controversial fossil-fuel power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville. The governor’s early fawning over the Clear River Energy Center typifies perfectly the lack of regard many of Rhode Island’s politicians have for the environment and climate-change mitigation. They talk a good game, but their eventual play has been bought.

During a press event three years ago with Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky, Raimondo thanked the Chicago-based developer for investing in Rhode Island.

“I know you have choices about where you could be, and I’m pleased you’ve chosen Rhode Island, and you should know we are going to make sure that you are successful here,” she promised.

Seven months earlier Polsky had donated $1,000 to the governor, the maximum annual legal limit from an individual to a political candidate. Two of Invenergy’s lawyers, Richard Beretta and Alan Shoer, also made political contributions to the governor in January 2015.

A few days after her administration's joint announcement with Invenergy, Raimondo met with members of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council in the air-conditioned Providence headquarters of the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce to talk about the 300 building jobs the project promises. Project opponents, concerned about the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, public health and climate impacts, begged for a year before a meeting with the governor was granted.

If built, the Clear River Energy Center would become Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant and the largest emitter of greenhouse-gas emissions in the state.

Since the governor’s very public endorsement of the natural-gas/diesel-powered facility, only a few members of the General Assembly have spoken out against the project. Rhode Island’s D.C. contingent hasn’t traveled to northwest Rhode Island to appeal for the protection of Burrillville’s rural character. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has referred to natural gas as a bridge fuel. Hydraulic fracturing has been linked to the contamination of drinking water, among other health and environmental impacts.

To those in office or running for a higher office, the proposed power plant is nothing more than a political tool being used to get votes or attack an opponent. Cranston Mayor Allen Fung long remained silent on the fossil-fuel project until he decided to announce he was running for governor, again. If Raimondo had been against the project, Fung likely would have been for it.

National Grid's proposal to build another liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on the Providence waterfront has similarly received little concern from top elected officials. More than a dozen General Assembly members have spoken out against the project, but the governor and Rhode Island's congressional delegation have remained silent.

The neighborhoods near where the facility would be built already have some of the highest asthma rates in the state, and the area is already heavily polluted.

Hot topic
Incinerators have been banned in Rhode Island since the 1990s, although there are sludge incinerators in both Cranston and Woonsocket that burn most of the state’s residue from wastewater treatment plants.

To defend the fast-moving idea to build a wood-burning incinerator in Johnston, Sen. Sosnowski has quoted from a letter written by the project’s developer, Green Development.

“This process is more efficient, producing more energy with less emissions, and much cleaner than burning or throwing the wood away,” she said during the May 2 Senate vote that approved the bill.

Research has found, however, that burning wood scrap and junk lumber speeds up the release of carbon dioxide, compared to wood that decomposes naturally. The practice also emits high levels of particulate matter that contribute to air pollution.

“Biomass power plants are also a danger to the climate, emitting nearly 50 percent more CO2 per megawatt generated than the next biggest carbon polluter, coal,” according to a 2014 study. “Emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time, but such offsets typically take decades to fully compensate for the CO2 rapidly injected into the atmosphere during plant operation.”

The study also noted that such facilities take advantage of gaping loopholes in the Clean Air Act and lax regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency — both of which are now under fierce attack at the federal level — and state permitting agencies, allowing these power plants to emit even more pollution.

“Electricity generation that worsens air pollution and climate change is not what the public expects for its scarce renewable energy dollars,” according to the study conducted by the Partnership For Policy Integrity.

A 2017 study titled “Woody Biomass for Power and Heat: Impacts on the Global Climate” noted that, “Although most renewable energy policy frameworks treat biomass as though it is carbon-neutral at the point of combustion, in reality this cannot be assumed, as biomass emits more carbon per unit of energy than most fossil fuels.”

Spokesman Fischer has said the proposed Green Development incinerator would keep hundreds of thousands of tons of wood out of the Central Landfill.

“When you leave wood rotting in a landfill, it produces methane and it goes up into the atmosphere and it’s more toxic than CO2, and so the status quo right now of 200,000 tons of wood rotting in the landfill is not a good public policy for the state of Rhode Island,” Fischer told Rhode Island Public Radio.

In an e-mail to state lawmakers, Al Bucknam, Green Development’s CEO, wrote that “Rhode Island throws away over 200,000 tons of clean wood annually, whether in the landfill, dropping it in the woods, or otherwise.”

Green Development founder DePasquale has said that none of the wood burned by his proposed incinerator would come from fresh-cut trees but mostly from the 250 tons of construction and brush debris that heads to the Central Landfill daily.

Both Sosnowski and Ruggerio have claimed one of the key benefits of the proposed incinerator is diverting wood from being buried in the Central Landfill. Rerouting an estimated 200,000 tons of wasted wood also reduces greenhouse-gas emissions from the landfill, they said.

The state’s primary landfill, however, already collects wood pallets, which it grinds and reuses to soak up moisture on a dirt road. The Central Landfill also composts about 39,000 tons of yard debris annually. Scrap lumber is buried in the landfill, as it’s difficult to discern what types of pollutants wood construction debris may hold.

The Central Landfill curbs its greenhouse-gas emissions by hosting one of the largest landfill-gas power plants east of the Mississippi River. Gas collected through a vast vacuum system buried within the landfill is burned to generate enough electricity to power 28,000 homes. The energy system is the state’s largest producer of renewable energy.

The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) opposes adding woody biomass to the list of eligible net-metering renewable energies. CLF has said that biomass, except from anaerobic digestion, isn’t as clean and isn’t as desirable as other renewable-energy sources. CLF also has noted that woody biomass has been intentionally excluded from Rhode Island’s net-metering legislation because of pollution concerns.

In a May 22 memorandum, Amy Moses, CLF vice president and the organization’s Rhode Island director, questions Green Development’s claims about the amount of wood waste being buried in the Central Landfill.

She wrote that the Central Landfill takes in about 6,000 tons of wood annually and this wood waste is defined as lumber, pallets, crates, plywood, particle board, and saw dust that is substantially free of contaminants. Contaminants can include lead paint, banding, bolts, shingles, pipe, Formica, plastics, and preservatives.

The Central Landfill does bury 200,000 tons of construction and demolition debris each year. This material contains even greater threats of contamination.