Johnston Mayor Explains Vote for Invenergy Water Deal

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

JOHNSTON, R.I. — Mayor Joseph Polisena weighed in on his town's surprising water deal with the developer of the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for Burrillville and the controversy the recent agreement created.

Polisena said the process began when he was approached by Invenergy Thermal Development LLC on Dec. 31 with an offer to have the town serve as a secondary water source for the proposed Clear River Energy Center. Polisena said he turned down an initial proposal of $200,000 annually for 10 years. But days later he was agreeable to a second offer to serve as the power plant’s primary water source. The deal offered $18 million paid over 20 years, the same deal that Invenergy offered to Woonsocket some six weeks ago.

On Jan. 10, by a 5-2 vote, the Woonsocket City Council turned down the proposal to sell two to three tanker trucks of water daily to Chicago-based Invenergy. Council members cited health risks posed by the 900-megawatt power plant and potential threats to the city’s water supply.

Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, however, favored the agreement and had hoped the money would pay for water infrastructure improvements.

“I consider this a missed opportunity that another city stands likely to benefit from,” Baldelli-Hunt said in a statement.

At a Jan. 6 public hearing at Woonsocket High School, critics of the deal said the process was rushed and required further vetting.

Polisena said Johnston had only days to consider Invenergy’s offer, and didn't hold public discussion or hearings. Polisena said he briefed Town Council members individually on the proposal four to five days ahead of their vote, which was held on the same night of the Woonsocket vote, Jan. 10. He insisted, however, that he adhered to the rules for posting and announcing the meeting, known as “open-meeting laws.”

“It was open process. It was a transparent process,” Polisena told ecoRI News on Jan. 11. “That’s all we needed to have is one meeting.”

Public input, he said, would only be necessary if the offer required spending taxpayer money.

The proposal was too good to pass up, he said. “Of course I was in favor because the town is going to get money.”

Polisena insisted that the town’s agreement with Providence Water, the water commission owned by the city of Providence, allows it to resell water. Providence Water confirmed that Johnston can resell the water, saying that the agency can only restrict water use if the supply is stressed — a scenario that seems unlikely given the relatively low volume of water that Invenergy is seeking.

“We can sell as much as we want to whoever we want,” Polisena said.

On the day of the council vote, Polisena said no residents reached out to say they supported or opposed the project. But his office received numerous phone calls and e-mails from across the country and the state asking him to oppose the project due to its environmental impacts.

He said some comments were offensive and threatening, accusing him and his office assistant of killing babies if the town approved the water deal.

Polisena’s response to concerns about possible environmental impacts was to ask why the “so-called environmentalists” weren’t offering support in 2011 when the community was suffering from offensive odors emanating from the Central Landfill operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

“When we were down and out, none of these environmentalists came to our rescue,” Polisena said.

The Clear River Energy Center's environmental impact wasn't part of the decision, he said.

“This is a no-brainer,” Polisena said. “We’re 18 million dollars better off than we were yesterday. And the big winner is going to be Burrillville. They are going to get $200 million.”

Meeting reaction
Word of the Johnston vote spread online late Monday afternoon, prompting power-plant opponents to scramble to attend both Jan. 10 meetings. Several claimed of arriving an hour or so ahead of the vote in Johnston, seeing open seats in the Municipal Court building but being told to sit in a separate room or asked to leave. Many were forced to wait in a narrow hallway, while being yelled at by supporters of the deal, who packed the small meeting space, to go home. Many of the supporters were members of building trade unions who occupied most of the seats in the meeting room.

“So the whole thing was an orchestrated piece of theater designed to keep us out,” said Sally Mendzela, a power-plant opponent from North Providence.

Climate activist Beth Milham of Newport said, “I was witness to what had to be the biggest travesty in democratic process Tuesday night in Johnston."

Both opponents said only three women, a union member, an attorney for Invenergy and the stenographer, were in the meeting room that had a capacity of about 90 people. Despite the insufficient size of the meeting venue, both noticed that larger venues, such as a middle school, were nearby.

Polisena said he didn't put out the call to union supporters to pack the house. “It was an open meeting, they have a right to come,” he said. “There was no cloak and dagger.”

Opponents such as Milham and Mendzela said they intend to contest the meeting with the secretary of state.

Polisena, meanwhile, said the agreement with Invenergy needs no other action by the town. “Its all set; signed, sealed and delivered," he said.

The agreement means that Invenergy met its Jan. 11 deadline to find a water supply to the cool the 900-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant. The deadline was set by the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) after two Burrilllville water district refused to offer water for the project.

The EFSB will likely decide if a hearing is required to discuss Invenergy’s new water plan. The three-member board also is considering motions to dismiss the project filed by the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation. The project also requires air- and water-pollution permits from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.