Poor Will Suffer Most: Draft Air Permit for Burrillville Power Plant is Flawed

By PETER NIGHTINGALE

A word check of the analysis submitted by Invenergy in its application for a Clear River Energy Center Major Source Air Permit reveals that it doesn’t contain a word about climate change. Nor, for that matter, do the documents posted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) on its website soliciting public input.

This omission, at a time when the climate crisis is widely perceived as an existential threat, is shocking to the conscience. Moreover, it completely ignores laws that have been put in place in Rhode Island over the past decade. A cramped construction of the air-permit requirements is no longer acceptable.

Rhode Island law specifies that it is the duty of the director of environmental management to put in place “minimum standards for the establishment and maintenance of salutary environmental conditions, including standards and methods for the assessment and the consideration of the cumulative effects on the environment of regulatory actions and decisions …”

In addition, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 specifies explicitly that consideration of the impacts of climate change is a duty of all state departments. There is no exclusion in these requirements for major source air permits.

As is invariably the case, matters of environmental justice are completely missing in the “scientific,” pseudo-objective considerations that are the apparent basis for approving the air permit. For instance, people suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease are susceptible to suffering acute exacerbation of these conditions during periods of poor air-flow that lead to the buildup of pollution. It’s expected that such episodes of air stagnation will increase in frequency as the climate crisis develops.

Invenergy's dispersion modeling analysis on which DEM bases its draft permit uses historical data and therefore can’t but ignore these effects of the developing climate crisis. This all by itself raises serious questions about the permitting process.

The same applies to the 650-megawatt Killingly power plant approved by the Connecticut Siting Council at the beginning of June, a month after Invenergy submitted its permit application to DEM. Although DEM requested that the analysis include nearby Massachusetts power plants, this doesn’t apply to the impact of the Connecticut power plant.

Moreover, as has been documented by the Rhode Island Department of Health, incidence of asthma varies greatly over the communities in the state and is strongly correlated with racial-ethnic disparities. How the proposed power plant will impact pollution inequity remains completely hidden in the Invenergy analysis on which DEM bases its draft permit.

Our unfolding climate crisis is of urgent public concern. Rather than reflecting this, DEM’s draft permit flies in the face of the observations made June 14 by Pope Francis as he addressed participants at a Vatican meeting called “The Energy Transition & Care of Our Common Home.”

The pope noted that a significant development in this past year was the release of the “Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels,” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That report clearly warns that effects on the climate will be catastrophic if we cross the threshold of 1.5° C outlined in the Paris Agreement. The report warns, moreover, that only one decade or so remains in order to achieve this confinement of global warming. Faced with a climate emergency, we must take action accordingly, in order to avoid perpetrating a brutal act of injustice towards the poor and future generations.

In effect, it’s the poor who suffer the worst impacts of the climate crisis. As current situations demonstrate, the poor are those most vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, and other extreme climatic events.

University of Rhode Island physics professor Peter Nightingale is the president of Nature’s Trust RI, which is suing the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.