Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The Town Council was mum as opponents of the proposed Invenergy power plant sought answers as to how and why the project is moving forward seemingly without input from residents.
The muted response from council members at the April 13 meeting confirmed the fears of many opponents: the $700 million natural-gas facility is a forgone conclusion with much of the negotiating being done behind closed doors.
“Please stand up for us,” pleaded resident Erin Olkowski.
Several of the 25 opponents who spoke during public testimony claimed that council members were told to say nothing about the project until Gov. Gina Raimondo announced the plan in August 2015.
“You guys for some reason kept a secret from us for a while because the governor asked you to,” resident Janet Luby said. “You don’t work for the governor. You’re our public servants.”
Town manager Michael Wood and Town Council president John Pacheco III didn’t respond to a request for comment about withholding knowledge of the project. Town attorney Oleg Nikolyszyn told ecoRI News that he wasn't aware of the proposal until the governor’s press conference last August. He suspected that the council also was unaware of the Invenergy project until it was announced publicly last summer.
The day after the Town Council meeting, a response was posted on the town website admitting that discussions of a tax deal “began many months ago and while the negotiations aren’t secret, they are, as would be expected, being conducted in private.”
“We need to set up something, maybe not right now, to deal with the new power plant,” Wood said at the March 18 meeting. He suggested that the Town Council work with the “administration” to negotiate a deal with the developers. He then mentioned Invenergy by name.
During the Feb. 23 meeting, which featured local representatives from the General Assembly, Wood said, “There’s potential for a new power plant to come to Burrillville and we want to make sure the existing legislation we have would allow for the siting and the construction of the new power plant in town. Now, we have looked at the legislation. We just would appreciate it here if you could take a look. It’s 44-3-30. Making sure the legislation as written will allow the town to potentially entertain the possibility of a new power plant.”
Other opponents at the recent meeting questioned why the council hasn’t taken a stance on the project.
Again, Wood and Pacheco didn’t respond to a request for comment. Nikolyszyn told ecoRI News that any stance taken by the council or a member on their own would be “marching orders” for the planning and zoning boards, whose members are appointed by the council.
Thus, any position, he said, would be seen as influencing efforts by both boards as they write advisory opinions for the state Energy Facilities Siting Board, the entity deciding the fate of Invenergy's application.
A position by the Town Council, he explained, might also influence an environmental review being done for the town by ESS Group of East Providence.
“It would be totally improper,” Nikolyszyn said.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), said he is unaware of a precedent that prevents a town council from taking a stance on an issue, especially when the council isn't voting on the application. CLF is a designated intervenor in Invenergy’s application and opposes the proposed natural-gas power plant.
According to Nikolyszyn, Invenergy complied with a request from the town to pay for the consultants for the environmental review. State law says cities and towns may make such a request for up to $100,000. The law, he said, is intended to help municipalities afford the high costs for third-party studies. Burrillville sought and received the full $100,000, he said.
Several residents said the town can stop or impede the power plant by not offering a tax break. Elmer said a negotiated tax break or treaty is done for all new power plants being built nationwide. Thus, refusing to offer one could delay or derail the proposal.
“You can still come out against it if you feel that it’s not in our best interest," resident Irene Watson said at the April 13 meeting. "You do have the power to negotiate the tax structure and that tax structure if it’s not made to be a sweetheart deal may be enough to have Invenergy go somewhere else."
The town’s online response stated that it must explore the most beneficial tax deal, as well as buyouts for abutters, in an effort to consider all of the potential outcomes. “We have a responsibility to the entire community to make sure we get compensated,” according to the town website.
The Town Council promised to elaborate later, while insisting that it's not signing off on the proposed power plant.
Tax deal or not, several residents at the recent hearing expressed concern about the health effects of using polluted well water to cool the plant. They warned of a 30-mile toxic plume that could sicken the public, waterways and wildlife.
Raymond Trinque described how his wife and neighbor fought cancer, presumable caused by methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), the fuel additive that leaked into the well from a gas station in the village of Pascoag.
“I think a lot of this ‘done deal stuff' is what they did in Flint, Michigan,” Trinque said. “And I don’t think you have to image what happened there.”