Clear River Energy Center Site Analysis One Big Con Job

 Rhode Island’s northwest corner is one of the largest undisturbed forested areas in the state. (ecoRI News)

Rhode Island’s northwest corner is one of the largest undisturbed forested areas in the state. (ecoRI News)

By RICK ENSER

Recent articles in ecoRI News have addressed the siting of power plants in Rhode Island by outlining the normal procedure for siting a major power-generating facility through the preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS). The question has been raised: Why hasn’t an EIS been prepared for Invenergy’s proposed Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville?

This piece takes a closer look at the EIS process and helps shed some light on why this process has been usurped in the case of the Clear River Energy Center (CREC).

The function of an EIS is to analyze the environmental consequences of a proposed project to ensure minimal harm to the environment. What has been described as the “heart” of an EIS is a study of alternatives to the proposed project. In the case of a power plant, once the need for a new facility has been analyzed, alternative issues would include the form of energy production — i.e., fossil fuels or renewables — and the location of the plant.

For example, the 1988 EIS for Ocean State Power, also in Burrillville, initially examined more than 80 sites in Massachusetts and Rhode Island before selecting 12 for more in-depth analysis. All pertinent federal and state agencies reviewed the potential impacts at each location and provided recommendations concerning the best alternative, or the one that presented the least harm to the environment. In the case of Ocean State Power, the original preferred location of the applicant was determined to be the best alternative.

The EIS site selection process is a critical first step that must be conducted at the time a project application is submitted to a permitting agency, and it’s why the Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) requested an EIS for Ocean State Power in 1988. At that time, the EFSB understood that its purpose was to permit a power plant at one location once it had been fully vetted of all environmental risks and found to be the best alternative.

In this manner, an EIS makes the job of the EFSB much easier, because any environmental concerns about the location are already determined before EFSB deliberations begin.

Fast forward to 2015 and consider the actions of the current EFSB as it struggles to permit the CREC. As the final hearings plod ahead, there are still outstanding questions regarding the source of cooling water, and whether the proposed site overlies an aquifer. Moreover, there are wide gaps in the opinions of Invenergy and other experts about the impacts to forests, biodiversity, recreation, and the rural nature of Burrillville.

All of these issues would have been addressed in an EIS, for Invenergy’s preferred site and all the other possible locations identified in the EIS. Again, an EIS for the CREC would have made the EFSB’s job of permitting it far easier and less time-consuming. So why didn’t the sitting EFSB follow the wisdom of its 1988 counterpart and request an EIS for the CREC?

The answer is quite simple. It’s widely understood that an EIS for the CREC would result in rejection of Invenergy’s preferred location, because the site had been rejected in 1988 as an alternate location for Ocean State Power, which is a much smaller facility than the CREC. At the time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) agreed that the location was “a most inappropriate site for a power plant.”

Moreover, in 1996 the northwest part of Rhode Island had received greater recognition as one of the state’s most ecologically significant areas, when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) identified the region as one of the organization’s five focus areas for protecting the state’s biodiversity. The conservation plan for northwest Rhode Island prepared by TNC mapped the most critical lands to be conserved within a 24-square-mile area that includes the CREC site.

Because an EIS would have killed consideration of the Burrillville site, Invenergy attempted to circumvent the normal process by conducting its own alternatives analysis. Invenergy discusses alternative forms of energy production in the original application, and details of a “Site Selection/Alternatives Analysis” are given in the Chicago-based company’s applications to alter freshwater wetlands that are currently before two agencies, DEM and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The site selection analysis appears in the wetlands applications to show that Invenergy applied due diligence by selecting the site where there would be the least amount of wetland impact. Invenergy describes its “Site Selection/Alternatives Analysis” as “… a detailed evaluation of the New England market to identify specific areas that may be in need for new generation, have available infrastructure that could support a new combined cycle plant and have sufficient land and proper zoning that would allow a combined cycle plant to be built.”

Invenergy derived a list of possible sites by looking at two essential needs for operating a natural gas-fired power plant: source of natural gas via a pipeline of sufficient capacity; and availability of high-voltage transmission lines to take the power generated by the plant. According to Invenergy, only six locations in the southeastern Massachusetts/Rhode Island capacity area satisfied these two basic infrastructure needs.

Next, Invenergy picked two natural resource elements to analyze — wetlands and natural heritage areas — and summarized everything in a simple table. Using only the information shown in this table, Invenergy concluded that “… the five alternatives failed on at least one count” and the preferred site (Burrillville) was the only one deemed “practicable.”

Invenergy’s site selection analysis is less than four pages. In comparison, more than 200 pages are devoted to the same process in the Ocean State Power EIS, so it’s clear that Invenergy didn’t conduct a very comprehensive analysis of all the environmental risks associated with the facility they intend to build. A particularly noteworthy omission is a source of cooling water, an important concern for operating a power plant, but apparently not important enough to be considered in Invenergy’s site selection process.

Worse than not analyzing a risk is minimizing potential impacts by misrepresenting data, which is most egregiously accomplished in Invenergy’s assessment of potential wetland impacts. As stated on page 44 of the addendum to the wetlands applications:

“According to National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) mapping, the proposed site could accommodate the CREC outside of mapped wetlands. Even if one of the alternative sites were practicable, none appeared to reduce wetland impacts compared to the selected site.”

The problem with this statement, and with all of Invenergy’s conclusions, is that its site selection analysis only looked at the footprint of a power-generating structure, and didn’t include the associated impacts of creating new pipelines, transmission corridors, and access roads. There are few wetland impacts in the footprint of the CREC, but when the new infrastructure elements are added the severity of the impact is considerable. The degree of wetland loss is evidenced by Invenergy’s own proposal to buy a minimum of 150 acres for conservation purposes elsewhere in Burrillville, to compensate for the wetland impact of the entire CREC project.

Invenergy goes on to say that the Burrillville site was selected because of “far fewer wetland impacts and represents the least damaging practicable alternative.” But, as shown in the table, Invenergy considers Burrillville to be the only practicable alternative. Further review of the other five alternate sites clearly shows that Burrillville actually poses the greatest loss of wetlands than any of the six alternatives.

The deception continues as Invenergy includes a “yes” or “no” designation for “located in a natural heritage area.” No explanation is provided, but it’s evident that the determination was made by referencing a map of Natural Heritage Areas found on the DEM website, a generalized graphic representation of rare species habitats in Rhode Island that isn’t designed for official purposes. Using this map to determine the presence of a rare species on a particular property should be done with the understanding that a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean there are none there; it can often mean the property hasn’t been surveyed.

The 700-plus-acre Algonquin Gas property in Burrillville, where Invenergy proposes to build the CREC, had never been surveyed for rare species until Invenergy’s environmental consultants did so in 2017. This inventory uncovered 17 state-listed rare species, confirming what everyone had expected since publication of the TNC Northwest Rhode Island Conservation Plan, that the Algonquin land is critical to the preservation of the state’s natural heritage. This concept has been widely understood since 1996, and for Invenergy to assign a “no” to the Burrillville site is done with the clear intent to falsify data in its site selection analysis.

Only two natural resource elements, wetlands and rare species, were hand-picked by Invenergy because they could spin the data and create the illusion that the impact of the CREC at Burrillville would be insignificant compared to any other place. The Invenergy site selection study is fabricated dribble, a highly unprofessional and biased “study” that never approaches the quality of an EIS, which is what Invenergy intended it to be.

Section 42-98-8 (7) of the Energy Facility Siting Act stipulates that an applicant must submit “a study of alternatives to the proposed facility, including alternatives as to energy sources, methods of energy production, and sites for the facility, together with reasons for the applicant’s rejection of these alternatives.”

Apparently, the EFSB is satisfied that invenergy’s study of alternative sites meets the requirement of the act, because it hasn’t requested any advisory opinions or outside testimony about an extremely important topic: How was the Burrillville site selected? The EFSB has no interest in this topic. If it had, the time to act would have been when the application was submitted in October 2015, and the proper action would have been to request an EIS.

Most disturbing is the EFSB’s tacit acceptance of the Invenergy study, which begs the question: Have the board members actually read it? Did they seek guidance from their staff, especially DEM, to clarify Invenergy’s conclusions about wetlands and rare species? Did they understand that Invenergy purposely used only the footprint of the plant in their analysis? Do they know that one of the alternate sites identified by Invenergy was in Massachusetts, which means seeking opinions from that state? Do they not understand the ecological significance and importance of the Burrillville site, enough to immediately see through Invenergy’s subterfuge?

In 2012, 189 acres of land owned by the Boy Scouts in western Burrillville was preserved at a cost of $900,000, with combined funding from state open space bonds, TNC, Champlin Foundations, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

In announcing this acquisition, DEM director Janet Coit said, “Because this parcel sits within one of the largest undisturbed areas in all of Rhode Island, it is particularly valuable for wildlife. The amount of rare and uncommon species on this property is amazing!”

It’s difficult to believe that the DEM director, a former director of TNC’s Rhode Island office, wouldn’t understand the significance of the proposed CREC location, 1.7 miles from the Boy Scout property and part of “one of the largest undisturbed areas in all of Rhode Island.” Unless we are to believe that the governor didn’t consult her cabinet before announcing the CREC project in 2015, there is much to be concerned about the mindset of the EFSB.

The actions of the EFSB have been suspect throughout this three-year permitting process, the same process that the state administration and congressional delegation have urged everyone to trust. But the process they speak about is broken, corrupted, and isn’t the actual process they should be speaking about. Instead, they should be demanding an EIS to, in simple terms, fix the problem.

But, this will not happen. When Invenergy came calling to the state sometime prior to 2015 it was to make clear that the Burrillville location on the Algonquin land would be the only site where its new power plant would go. There would be no alternative, even though the Algonquin site had been rejected by a prior EIS, and even though the land was recognized as having considerable ecological importance.

With this knowledge, how should we have expected the state administration to respond? The governor’s response was, “We will do everything we can to make sure you are successful here.”

Despite having little influence over the EFSB, the public still has a role in fixing the problem. The Invenergy applications to alter freshwater wetlands to DEM and the Army Corps have yet to be opened for public review and comment. When opened, there will be a 30-day period for the public to submit information about why these permits should be denied, and why an EIS should be ordered for the project.

There are several reasons to deny the permits. For one, the falsification of data in an application should mean instant denial, and the only way to rectify it is to conduct an EIS. Second, the degree of wetland impact is unacceptable, once again requiring Invenergy to buy 150 acres of land as compensation. In this regard, the argument should be made that buying land elsewhere does nothing to prevent the impact that will happen at the CREC site. Another reason is because there are alternative locations already identified to site a power plant where there would be significantly less wetland impact. An EIS is necessary because alternate sites exist in more than one state.

Rhode Island resident Rick Enser worked for the state Department of Environmental Management for 28 years, 1979 to 2007, as the coordinator of the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program.