Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Gov. Gina Raimondo walked a fine line between saying she cared about the health and well-being of local residents and her support for natural-gas infrastructure and a new power plant.
During the more than two-hour hearing July 18 in front of a packed and mostly well-mannered crowd in the Burrillville High School auditorium, Raimondo steered clear of her previously stated hardline support for the nearly 1,000-megawatt Clear River Energy Center, saying only that she recognizes the need for natural-gas power and that the fossil fuel is a “piece of the puzzle” needed to meet energy demand.
The governor also stated her support for moving “as fast as possible” to renewable energy, but that she lacked authority to approve or deny what would be the state’s largest power plant and the second in Burrillville. The application should follow the yearlong process established by the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), she said.
“I don’t have a vote on that board. However, I am serious about giving you the opportunity tonight to air your concerns and I’m very serious about listening to those concerns,” Raimondo said, adding that she urged residents to speak out at upcoming public hearings.
Despite scant evidence that the power plant would lower energy costs for Rhode Island businesses and residents, Raimondo repeated that point in justifying the project.
“I need in my job to look out for all the people of Rhode Island and all the businesses of Rhode Island and make sure that energy is kept as relatively low as we can have it be," she said.
Raimondo was greeted with loud applause and thanked repeatedly by speakers for taking the time to meet publicly with residents, several of whom presented her with gifts.
Some, however, sharply criticized the governor for not being more forthcoming about her involvement in bringing the project to the state and for not putting health and environmental concerns ahead of the fossil-fuel industry.
Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, asked Raimondo to explain an apparent conflict of interest with investment bank Goldman Sachs, which has given money to state economic initiatives and, Roselli claimed, is a likely investor in the proposed power plant. He also accused the governor of issuing a gag order for state employees, including scientists, on speaking publicly about the proposed power plant.
“Let me be very clear with you," Raimondo replied. "I have no affiliation with the company you referenced. And this has nothing to do with that. And, by the way, that company has nothing to do with this project."
She then again stated that the project is about affordable energy for the people and businesses of Rhode Island, renewable energy, and the health and safety of residents. “And who do I answer to? You, the people in this room and the people of Rhode Island.”
Local resident Erin Olkowski reminded the governor of the state’s commitment to cut its carbon emissions. “If we site this one plant in Rhode Island it’s going to make it impossible to meet the Resilient Rhode Island Act,” she said. “Once that plant is sited we are locked into that fossil-fuel infrastructure for 40 years.”
Other opponents offered personal accounts about the noise and pollution from the existing natural-gas pipeline compressor station on Wallum Lake Road. Others mentioned relatives and friends who suffered from the polluted well that the power plant plans to use as cooling water. Well 3A in the village of Pascoag has been linked to a cluster of cancer cases in the late 1990s.
“You don’t know what we went through in the town when that (contaminated well) happened,” Terry Lacey said.
Raimondo said those stories are why she agreed to the public forum. “When you see the faces of people who live across the street and how it’s impacting their family, that’s a whole different way to look at the issue,” she said.
The controversial proposal to use the well, she said, would get a proper vetting from the EFSB. She added later that the project is “not a done deal and there’s months in front of us around the process. But the reality is there is a process and we have to respect the process.”
Only two of the nearly 50 speakers spoke in favor of the project. Both were leaders of local building and trade unions. About 50 members of the audience appeared to be union employees.
“Let the process play out,” said Roy Coulumbe, business manager for the International Association of Iron Workers Local 37. “This is just another company coming to Rhode Island, looking to do business here.”
After the forum, local resident Tracey Keegan said Raimondo “seemed genuinely concerned and genuinely engaged.” But Keegan is still against the project.
“It doesn’t have to be here,” she said.