By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — A highly critical advisory opinion from the Planning Board is the latest setback for the proposed fossil-fuel power plant. But it may not mean the end of the project.
On Aug. 31, the Planning Board issued an advisory report stating that the nearly 1,000-megawatt Clear River Energy Center (CREC) fails to meet local and state planning goals.
As one of 12 state agencies and local boards writing advisory opinions for the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB), the Planning Board was asked if the $700 million project complies with comprehensive plans and town noise regulations.
The 27-page report states that the project doesn't conform to goals that address natural and cultural resources, landscapes, wildlife and biodiversity, local air and water quality, excessive traffic impacts, and noise. A second fossil-fuel power plant in Burrillville is simply not part of the town’s long-term vision and goes against policies that reduce pollution, according to the report.
“The CREC proposal is contradictory to the economic development objectives of the Town of Burrillville, specifically its efforts toward balancing locally sourced jobs with natural historic preservation, and it’s long-term land use plan, which promotes conservation and economic development of its natural resources and tourism potential, preserves open space resources and the low-density character of the region,” an unnamed Planning Board member wrote in the report.
The town's comprehensive plan specifically calls for development in Burrillville’s existing rural villages while encouraging forestry, agriculture and recreation. It also sets policy to “minimize the adverse impacts of power generation and transmission facilities on the environment." The CREC counters policies that protect open space and rare and endangered animals, the report concludes.
The Planning Board reached similar conclusions after reviewing the power plant’s relation to the state comprehensive plan, which outlines goals to protect public health, drinking water, environmental quality, and open space.
The Planning Board’s advisory opinion didn't object to the anticipated noise level from the natural-gas/diesel power plant. It endorsed granting a waiver for managing noise pollution provided that sound from construction and operation complies with environmental safeguards and enforcement measures. It requested that compensation be awarded to residents if the noise becomes burdensome.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, described the Planning Board report as potentially significant. The lack of endorsement by the Planning Board, he said, is the latest bad news for the developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC.
On Aug. 30, the Zoning Board voted unanimously to deny the Chicago company's proposal. Earlier in August, two local water boards rejected requests from Invenergy to access public-water supplies that would cool the power plant.
Elmer noted that the Planning Board described Invenergy’s response to requests for information as incomplete and evasive — a fact that may influence the EFSB’s decision to approve or deny the CREC application.
However, Elmer noted that the stance by the Planning Board report is weakened by the list of 18 "Conditions for Approval." Most of the stipulations address health, safety and environmental protections. However, some of the conditions, such as one that requires the lifting of a court order to open a polluted well, are unlikely or nearly impossible to achieve, Elmer said.
Ultimately, Elmer said, the fate of the power plant lies at the state level with the EFSB. By design, the advisory opinions aren't binding so that cities and towns can't impede state and regional energy needs.
Nevertheless, the proposal has yet to receive much positive support from local entities. And it has yet to find a source for cooling water.
In an e-mail response to the latest developments, Invenergy’s director of business development, John Niland, downplayed the setbacks.
"While we respect the Planning and Zoning Board's views, the ultimate decision rests appropriately with the state's Energy Facility Siting Board, who is far more experienced and better qualified to review a highly complex project such as our proposed power plant. Not only that, but the EFSB also has a level of impartiality and perspective that local boards do not. We're confident the EFSB will consider all advisory opinions and testimony in rendering their decision, and we'll continue to work closely with the EFSB to ensure they have all of the information they need to make a fully informed decision on the Clear River Energy Center."
Until now, only the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission had issued an advisory opinion. The state Department of Health has issued a draft advisory opinion. Advisory reports are also expected from the Department of Environmental Management, Office of Energy Resources, Department of Transportation, Office of Statewide Planning, the Burrillville tax assessor, and the Burrillville building inspector. The Zoning Board is expected to issue an advisory opinion based on its recent vote. All advisory opinions are due to the EFSB by Sept. 9.
Public hearings on the CREC are scheduled for Sept. 21 at Toll Gate High School in Warwick at 6 p.m. and Oct. 3 at Burrillville High School at 6 p.m. A final hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13 at the Public Utilities Commission office in Warwick at 9 a.m.