Rhode Island’s Environment is Good for Business, so Why Not Protect It

By KEVIN CLEARY

Rhode Islanders love the environment. It’s good for business, it’s good for tourism, and it’s part of an important legacy that we all leave for future generations. We have committed millions of dollars to nurture, rehabilitate, and protect the natural resources that make our state so special.

Last month that commitment was made extraordinarily clear, as a contingent of environmentalists, tourism experts, and outdoor enthusiasts joined with conservationists, land trust officials, and an Eagle Scout for a walk in the woods, to view a forest in jeopardy.

At issue, a highly controversial proposal by Invenergy Thermal Development LLC to claim a swath of irreplaceable forest in Burrillville to build a massive fossil-fuel power plant. The location is part of the only remaining intact contiguous forest along the entire Eastern Seaboard.

The Nature Conservancy says the plant itself would be right on top of a critical pinch point in the habitat corridor. The site for the plant and related stretch of transmission line are home to 47 “species of greatest conservation need” as identified by the Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan, including some that are protected, endangered, or threatened species that would be pushed into further peril.

According to Save The Bay, the natural-gas/diesel-fueled power plant would cause permanent damage to the critical Narragansett Bay watershed.

This is not some abstract concept. The reality of what is at jeopardy should matter to us all.

On the July 10 hike, Save The Bay’s riverkeeper Kate McPherson asked the hikers to pause and listen to the “z-z zoo z-z” call of the black-throated green warbler. This, she told hikers, is the only place in all of Rhode Island where you could hear that call. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island says the proposed Invenergy power plant, with its noise and light, would disrupt the warbler’s critical migratory corridor.

Children, campers, fisherman, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts come to enjoy this forestland. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council says disturbance of this pristine landscape, through Invenergy’s construction and operations, would create permanent disruption, harmful noise, and air emissions to the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor, jeopardizing an emerging eco-tourism trend.

The 26.6-square-mile contiguous forest spans three states with a series of beaver dams and small ponds that connect to streams and rivers forming a watershed that acts as an important filter for Narragansett Bay.

Why are we even considering this proposal? Under what circumstances would Rhode Island be willing to backtrack on the efforts to save the bay, on our millions of dollars spent to preserve irreplaceable green space, or on our desire to build tourism based on our natural environment?

Initially, the argument was that this power plant, first introduced three years ago, was necessary to maintain access to reliable and affordable electricity. Some, when faced with the inflated threat of rolling brownouts, were perhaps willing to jeopardize the chance to hear the “z-z zoo z-z” of the black-throated green warbler, or to gaze through the forest canopy at the unencumbered night sky, or even to risk Narragansett Bay’s upper watershed.

Much has changed since the initial Invenergy proposal in 2015. Today, as ISO New England recent auctions illustrate, instead of saving us money, Invenergy is costing ratepayers millions above market rates. Today, as more renewables come online far ahead of what was anticipated, we have a surplus of capacity, not a shortfall.

There is one last point that must be addressed. These derogatory and disingenuous terms like NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone), or even activist are designed to pit us against each other; to bully and silence those who may be most impacted by the proposed power plant.

In reality this isn’t about one community fighting another. It’s about an ill-conceived initiative that has no winning endgame — economic or otherwise — but which could permanently destroy something we, as Rhode Islanders, have for generations worked hard to preserve and enjoy.

Kevin Cleary is the chairman of the Burrillville Conservation Commission.