Location of Clear River Energy Center a Big Concern

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Rick Enser doesn’t mince words.

“What’s the impact of this beast?” Enser asked in his critique of the siting review procedures undertaken for the Clear River Energy Center proposed for the woods of Burrillville.

Speaking to a dozen people May 3 at the Bell Street Chapel Unitarian Universalist Church, Enser explained the source of his concerns about the nearly 1,000-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant.

Former DEM staffer Rick Enser recently gave a presentation highlighting concerns about the fossil-fuel project’s environmental impacts. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News)

Former DEM staffer Rick Enser recently gave a presentation highlighting concerns about the fossil-fuel project’s environmental impacts. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News)

“A small group of us,” he said, “have been concerned about this plant from the beginning, because of what’s called the ‘location argument.’ This would be the biggest power plant ever built in this state, in the most significant forest ecosystem in the state. It’s just in the wrong place.”

The fossil-fuel power plant has been proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy and has been under review by Rhode Island’s Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) since 2016.

The EFSB process has completed the public-hearing phase. Next comes a topic-by-topic review and discussion of the documents and arguments presented by Invenergy and its opponents, including Keep Rhode Island Beautiful, a co-sponsor of Enser’s recent presentation.

Enser, who spent 28 years as coordinator of the now-defunct Natural Heritage Program for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), noted that ongoing concerns about the impact of the fossil-fuel facility on climate change, the actual need for the plant and a number of other issues — all of which, he said, were reasonable and disturbing concerns — continue to overshadow the location issue.

“This is a biodiversity issue,” Enser said. “And this is a forest issue.” He added that both are as important as the other issues.

The Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a small nonprofit housed at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm, now manages the biodiversity data Enser and his colleagues collected for nearly three decades.

Enser raised several specific problems, often comparing the Clear River Energy Center (CREC) review process with that undertaken for the siting of the smaller Ocean State Power fossil-fuel facility that was sited not far to the north of the proposed Invenergy site.

“Go back to 1988,” said Enser, showing slides of analyses of that process. “For Ocean State Power, 82 sites were looked at originally. They were put through a basic review, whittled down to 32 which underwent an analysis by wetlands, transmission lines, surface water and other things. Then, 14, which underwent a more strenuous review.”

CREC, he noted, when asked by the EFSB for possible sites, listed six. Enser argued that the primary advantage among the criteria studied by Invenergy was that a power plant is permitted in Burrillville.

“Burrillville is zoned for farming,” he said. “A power plant can be permitted if it’s voted on by the zoning board or Town Council. It’s not true it is permitted. Nor is it true that the others weren’t permitted. Could they get permitted there? Is there any place in the state zoned for a power plant? No.”

This, however, isn’t the only problem.

Enser’s experience with DEM’s Natural Heritage Program alerted him to the plant’s potential impact on plants and wildlife.

Reviewing the Natural Heritage Database map, he said, “When Invenergy says, ‘There’s no natural heritage area,’ they’re being disingenuous.”

The proposed site is adjacent to several natural heritage areas, which host 17 threatened or rare species of plants and animals, ranging from the cerulean warbler to the wood turtle to the small whorled pogonia orchid, according to Enser.

“It’s the same ecosystem,” he said, “the northern hardwood forest — this is the Natural Heritage Area.”

Then there’s the question of forest fragmentation.

“This is when you take a great big forest and make it into a bunch of smaller pieces,” Emser said. “If you put whatever it is in the middle of the forest, you really make a difference. You pretty much don’t have anything left.

“Plants and animals need thousands of acres, and the smallest bit you take away can have huge consequences.”

Noise, for example, can have an extensive impact, especially when it comes to breeding species. Enser cited research done on a natural-gas compressor station in Alberta, Canada, which affected nesting birds within a 2,300-foot radius within the surrounding forest.

“The zone of the impact of this plant would find its way into the [nearby] George Washington Management Area,” he said.

The biggest problem, Enser said, is with the term “mitigation.” If the permit is granted, Invenergy has promised to “mitigate” the impacts to the environment and natural habitat.

“Mitigation is a legal term,” he said, “not an ecological one. It’s saying, ‘We know we’re going to wreak havoc on the property so we’re going to buy a bunch of other land to make up for it.’ But the impact doesn’t go away.”

Enser and other project opponents are putting their hopes on the possibility of a request for an environmental impact statement, citing lapses in the thoroughness of DEM’s investigation.

Enser said, for example, that information wasn’t requested from the Division of Forest Management to determine the impact of the project on state priorities and plans. He also doesn’t believe DEM’s commitment to protect the state’s forest, in which “care must be taken that they aren’t diminished by threats of overuse,” was honored.

He’s also concerned that the advisory opinion issued by the Department of Administration’s Division of Statewide Planning that states the project isn’t inconsistent with the Ocean State Outdoor Plan or the Forest Resources Management Plan didn’t take into account natural heritage and forest concerns.

He’s equally concerned about DEM’s conclusion that giving Invenergy permits to build and operate the plant would cause “acceptable harm to the environment.”

An environmental impact statement (EIS) would, Enser said, address such issues more thoroughly than has been done up to this point.

An EIS, however, seems unlikely.

Michael Healey, DEM’s chief public affairs officer, told ecoRI News that, “DEM is not aware of any requirement for Invenergy/Clean River Energy to submit an EIS. More to the point, we’re not aware of any statute or regulation giving DEM the legal standing to require an EIS where no federal jurisdiction exists.

“As the relevant regulatory body in this matter, the Energy Facility Siting Board has broader authority to require an applicant to submit documents for EFSB’s consideration.”

A November 2017 application by the town of Burrillville to set an EIS in motion was denied. Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Jerry Elmer said, “Nobody was under the impression that the EFSB would issue this.”

Enser hopes the Army Corps of Engineers, which will be involved in this final round of reviews, might call for an EIS.

“It would surprise me if they did this,” Elmer said. “Thousands of documents have been filed and have to be reviewed.”

New England Army Corps of Engineers official Timothy Dugan said the corps is in the pre-application stage of its work and that once it has Invenergy’s completed permit application, it will open a 30-day public comment period.

“At this time, the project manager does not anticipate that the project will be reviewed as an EIS,” Dugan said. “However, the corps will follow its permit review process as appropriate (which includes conducting an environmental assessment).”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant who lives in Providence.