Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WOONSOCKET, R.I. — The city has yet to hold a public hearing, much less a vote, on a proposal to sell its water to a controversial fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville, but it did get an earful from opponents of the project at its Dec. 19 meeting.
City Council president Daniel Gendron had few answers, except to say the seven-member board was carefully vetting the proposal by Invenergy Thermal Development LLC to build a 14-mile pipeline that would deliver water to Burrillville. Gendron promised to answer everyone’s questions and concerns at a Jan. 6 hearing.
All of the speakers opposed the project, claiming the pipeline offered meager financial gain while risking the harm to the city’s water supply. Some described how the natural-gas/diesel power plant would be the sixth within a 9-mile radius of the city and how its emissions posed health risks to local residents already dealing with a high rate of asthma.
Meanwhile, members of the Burrillville Town Council have been visiting city and town councils across Rhode Island seeking support for their opposition to the project. On the same night as the most recent Woonsocket council meeting, the Cranston City Council voted to oppose the energy facility. In all, 14 municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the Clear River Energy Center. Several others are expected to vote in January.
At the Dec. 19 meeting in Woonsocket City Council meeting, several residents raised concerns about media reports that the cost for a new water treatment plant had jumped from $40 million to $80 million. Gendron, again, said it was too early to talk about the project as closed-door negotiations were ongoing.
This prompted some residents to say both projects are being deliberated without public input and little time for a thorough study.
“You’ve got to understand, we don’t know what you know because it’s all behind closed doors,” Woonsocket resident Carold Pichette said.
“I’ve done my due diligence on this. I just want to let you know that I am working real hard with regards to this issue and this project and so has the rest of the council," said new City Council member Richard Fagnant, who ran for office as a skeptic of the project.
Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, offered to help the council in learning about the harmful impacts of the power plant.
“This issue threatens the very fabric of our community,” he said. “We are a rural community and we'd like to stay that way.”
Chicago-based Invenergy has until Jan. 11 to reach an agreement with the city. On Oct. 13, the state Energy Facilities Siting Board gave the company a 90-day extension to name its water supplier.
A dozen union members and representatives were also present at the Dec. 19 City Council meeting. Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, told ecoRI News that the union supports the project but didn't speak at the meeting, to respect Gendron’s request that the public save their comments until the Jan. 6 hearing.
Sabitoni described the opposition as an emotional response to a big project, but he said a practical solution is needed to fill the void in power that will be created when four power plants in New England go off-line in the near future. Various reports out of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, however, claim otherwise. Sabitoni said he supports renewable energy but argued that it wouldn't be enough to meet demand for electricity.
“Energy has to come from somewhere,” he said.