State Claims Power Plant Helps Climate and Economy

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The advisory opinions are in and they show local opposition to the proposed power plant, but more support for the fossil-fuel project at the state level.

In all, 12 advisory opinions were sought by the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) to help inform its vote on what would be the state’s largest power plant: the Clear River Energy Center and its owner Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC.

In recent weeks, the Burrillville Planning Board, Zoning Board and two municipal water boards issued reports that criticized the nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant. The Planning Board said the project doesn't fit with local and state planning and environmental goals.

The advisory opinions are intentionally not binding so that the EFSB can deliberate energy projects that would otherwise encounter stiff local resistance. Until the latest state-level reports were published only the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission had issued a report, which found no objection to the project.

The state Department of Health (DOH) issued a draft opinion in August and it final report backed those findings. Many of the conclusions acknowledge health risks, such as the threat from greenhouse-gas emissions, but DOH doesn't take a stance or make a firm recommendation as to whether these threats amount to an approval or a disapproval of the proposed power plant.

This quote highlights DOH's persistent neutrality:

“Climate change is a local and global challenge, but it is also an opportunity for positive change. It provides us a challenge to change the way we have done things in the past, to ultimately live healthier and happier lives. It is imperative that action be taken individually and collectively to mitigate climate change for the health and well-being of our communities."

When considering expansion of the fossil-fuel-based energy system, DOH said renewable energy should be prioritized, when at all possible. "This will not only help to prevent negative health outcomes, but will also protect the environment and the natural systems on which we rely," according to the agency's report.

Given the negative impacts of climate change on public health, DOH noted that it supports the Resilient Rhode Island Act’s goals and encourages efforts aimed at maximizing carbon-emission reductions and the development of renewable-energy sources.

“It is not possible to create a no-risk environment. However, (DOH) strongly supports mitigation of health risks to the extent possible," according to its on-the-fence advisory opinion.

Noise from the proposed Clear River Energy Center (CREC), which has been a persistent concern of abutters, must be controlled with the latest technologies, DOH said. Sound proofing of homes and buyouts of homes are also recommended. DOH found that health effects from new high-voltage power lines are negligible. The report leaves a major issue unaddressed: water pollution. Invenergy has been denied access to cooling water sources for the power plant and, as such, DOH has asked to assess drinking water issues when a source is found.

DOH said it can't make an informed analysis on air pollution, as federal standards are pending and the state Department of Environmental Management considers an application for air emissions. DOH acknowledged that residents and children living near the site of the proposed power plant could suffer from respiratory conditions. Rather than take a stance on air pollution, DOH again suggested that all possible steps be taken to mitigate the health impacts from air pollution if the power plant is built.

DOH also takes a pass on taking a position on the risks from hazardous chemicals and waste stored onsite and transported to and from the facility. Instead, the state agency recommended stringent safety standards and evacuation plans.

The Office of Energy Resources (OER) took a firm stance. In its view, the power plant will not impede state climate-emission-reduction goals and will in fact lower regional emissions in the first seven years of operation. Regional is the key term, as local (Rhode Island) emissions will surely increase. But using a consumption-based model instead of an emission-based model means that emissions will go down if you just look at the electricity coming out of the wall socket, which gets its power from across the Northeast. To OER and the state Climate Change Coordinating Council, emissions are a matter of accounting, and not necessarily from where the power plant is built.

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) makes a more clear stance, noting that the power plant is a threat to the flora and fauna in one the state’s largest tracts of forestland. DEM must issue the all-important permits for air and water pollution.

“Failure to receive ANY of these required permits would represent a determination by DEM that the proposed facility presents an unacceptable harm to the environment,” according to the DEM report.

The report goes on to say only one of the three applications for the permits have been received and it will not likely be decided until early 2017 and after the EFSB is expected to make a ruling.

For its advisory opinion, the Division of Statewide Planning said the power plant will help the economy and will bring revenue to the state and to Burrillville. The project is also consistent with the state guide plan, according to the state agency.

Gov. Gina Raimondo supports the power plant and insists that the EFSB application process is the appropriate way to address the project, despite public opposition.

Public hearings on the CREC and the advisory opinions 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 third hearing is set for Oct. 13 at the Public Utilities Commission office in Warwick at 9 a.m.