By FRANK CARINI
“The office of Governor Raimondo did not respond to several requests for comment.” That sentence — a variation of it has been written many times by reporters during the past five years — appeared 12 paragraphs into a disturbing March 11 report by DeSmog.
DeSmog, launched in 2006 to track “global warming misinformation campaigns,” obtained documents that show that last summer Gov. Gina Raimondo nixed a letter by the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) critical of National Grid’s Fields Point Liquefaction Project right before it was to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The agency approved the project three months later.
According to the internal documents, obtained by DeSmog through an open records request, in June 2018 several DOH staffers began writing a letter in response to the project’s environmental assessment. The assessment, which was done by a contractor paid by National Grid, concluded that the LNG project will “not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”
A final draft of the DOH letter was ready for submission to FERC in late July. The letter detailed various critiques of FERC’s assessment, including the ignoring of vulnerable neighborhoods and public-safety concerns. Earlier drafts discussed issues relating to climate change and environmental justice, but those concerns didn’t make it into the final DOH letter. It made no difference, however, since the letter was never sent.
On July 25, 2018, the last day of the FERC comment period for the controversial Providence project, DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott e-mailed staffers to inform them she had been instructed “on behalf” of Raimondo not to send it.
The DeSmog report is alarming, but the governor’s response, or lack of it, isn’t surprising. Raimondo has surrounded herself with well-paid public-relations professionals — several hired away from a hemorrhaging newspaper industry — whose job is to craft her image for the national stage, not address Rhode Island issues. Her constituency isn’t Rhode Island residents, it’s Wall Street, K Street, and special interests.
This fact hardly makes her an exception in politics. But she has taken the practice of building a brand, not governing, to a new, obnoxious level.
Since she was first elected in 2014, Raimondo typically only makes herself available to the media when it suits her image and when ground rules have been established. She’ll speak at length to The New York Times for fluff pieces that advance her career ambitions, but most local reporters have to chase her down at ribbon cuttings and staged executive order signings or corner her in a Statehouse hallway to ask questions about, say, an LNG project that could further stress the low-income neighborhoods of South Providence and Washington Park. (ecoRI News has never been granted an interview, despite numerous requests.)
Media members, however, aren’t the only ones who have to beg for answers.
In 2015, in what can only be called a blatant disregard for Rhode Island’s climate-emissions goals, Raimondo said to Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky that, “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.”
The governor’s fossil-fuel fawning happened during a staged press event that summer, at which Polsky and Raimondo jointly announced the project. The governor thanked the Chicago-based developer for investing in Rhode Island. (If built, the Clear River Energy Center would become Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant and the largest emitter of climate emissions in the state.)
Raimondo made no mention about the impact the power plant could have on the forest where it is proposed to be built or what effect it could have on the residents of Burrillville, which has been home to another fossil-fuel power plant since 1990. The venture capitalist didn’t mention either of those issues because she didn’t and doesn’t care.
The squashed DOH letter shows her allegiance lies with those who can further her political career — the rich and powerful sitting atop Chicago-based Invenergy and National Grid, a multinational power broker, for example — not residents in two Providence neighborhoods who have suffered from long-ignored pollution problems and who have some of the highest asthma rates in the state, and certainly not upset Burriville residents, whom she ignored for a year after her dance with Polsky, even though the power plant she supports is planned for their collective backyard.
Burrillville residents spent a year begging for her to meet with them. She finally relented and spoke, in July 2016, to a packed crowd in the Burrillville High School auditorium, saying that “the reality is there is a process and we have to respect the process.”
The process, however, was choreographed from the beginning by the governor and her growing PR staff.
The letter Alexander-Scott signed but wasn’t allowed to send suggested that FERC conduct a full health impact assessment.
“The Port of Providence has a long history of environmental problems that concentrate many of Rhode Island’s most concerning pollution and safety issues in neighborhoods that are economically and racially disadvantaged. Because of that history, the residents of the area feel disenfranchised and believe that their voices and health do not matter to government,” according to the three-page DOH letter. “Although the current project does not appear to make those pollution and safety problems substantially worse, it continues that historical pattern of discounting the voices of the people that live in the region and sets a precedent that may lead to additional, more concerning, projects in the future.”
“Their voices and health” certainly don’t matter to Raimondo. Perhaps she’ll tell The New York Times someday why the residents of South Providence and Washington Park didn’t deserve her attention.
Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.