Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Members of the state builders union made their presence felt May 26 as they disrupted a Statehouse rally organized by opponents of the Burrillville power plant. The clash lasted for about 5 minutes and continued as both groups shouted down one another in the cavernous Statehouse rotunda.
After making little noise at a May 23 public hearing in Burrillville for the Clear River Energy Center, labor groups with the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council showed up in large numbers at the Statehouse to neutralize a rally organized by residents to support a bill that could derail the natural-gas project. Unions, however, want the $700 million project and the 300 construction jobs it will create.
Cheering and chanting from residents who both support the bill and oppose the power plant were quickly drowned out by yelling from the upper floor of the atrium by union members, several of whom moved to the floor to confront the speakers.
Police escorted at least two of the union protestors from the rotunda for disrupting the proceedings. There were no reports of arrests.
Opponents of the project, however, repeatedly lobbied for the unions to support their efforts, saying that the plant could be built elsewhere or that the proposal could be replaced with renewable-energy projects.
“This is your fight, too,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, who urged the unions to call for the building of more renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects.
But the 100-plus unions members weren't there to collaborate, instead chanting, “We need jobs,” and “Build the plant.”
Several union members crowded the lectern, halting the rally briefly. The chaos prompted Burrillville resident and power plant opponent Roberta Lacey to say, “This is clearly bullying. If this is what you do, go home."
Scott Duhamel of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades said he's worried that the project might move to Connecticut or Massachusetts if it’s rejected in Burrillville.
“We’re surprised by the NIMBYism,” he told ecoRI News.
Fossil-fuel projects have to be built, he said, until renewable energy can deliver more electric output. “We haven’t got there yet,” Duhamel said. When it does, “we’ll be the first ones to jump in."
Opposition to the opposition also came on other fronts. House bill H8240 was opposed by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce and National Grid. The legislation sponsored by Rep. Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, would allow Burrillville residents to vote on a tax deal created with Invenergy, the Chicago-based company that has proposed the power plant.
Lenette Boisselle, a lobbyist for the chamber, argued during a House hearing that referendums are bad governance.
“As a fundamental principal, the Chamber of Commerce thinks that these types of issues are extremely complicated," she said. "That’s why we elect people to be in a position to take the time to study and determine whether it’s in the best interest of the town or here in the state.
“Usually the side who wins is the one that spends the most money, and we feel that’s not the best way to make public policy here in our state.”
Her comment prompted Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, to ask, “Money plays a big role in every election, do you think we shouldn’t have any elections?”
“I think that ‘s what people elect you to do,” Boisselle said, noting that due to the large number of people slated to speak she didn't want to take up time to elaborate.
Michael Ryan of National Grid said the state’s main supplier of electricity isn’t opposed to a town referendum, but argued against a provision in the bill that expands the size of the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) from 3 to 9 members. He feared that a larger board would delay approval of many transmission projects and system upgrades.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, suggested amending the bill.
“Giving the people the right to vote on a tax treaty is so important, so extremely important, that if the main pushback that this legislature gets is ... expanding the board than strip that portion out and pass the rest of the bill. It’s that important."
The bill was held for further study. Another hearing may be held prior to the end of the legislative session next month. The EFSB is scheduled to hold a public meeting in Warwick on June 2.