Johnston Mayor Threatens Use of Invenergy's Legal Team

The Rhode Island Water Resources Board voted against Johnston selling its water system — a request that Johnston no longer wants granted. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

The Rhode Island Water Resources Board voted against Johnston selling its water system — a request that Johnston no longer wants granted. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena isn’t intimidated by threats from the Providence City Council to stop him from reselling the town's water to the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for Burrillville.

“We have every right to sell water to whoever we want to,” Polisena told ecoRI News.

He may be correct. At a Jan. 25 Providence City Council subcommittee meeting, officials representing Providence Water, the state’s principal water supplier, said its enabling statute doesn’t prevent the resale of water by a municipality as long as that city or town doesn’t exceed its specified cap. Johnston uses far less than its daily limit of 150 gallons of water per person, per day. Providence Water, a city department, can only restrict water use during droughts, the officials said.

Although most Johnston residents are direct customers of Providence Water, the town also operates the Water Control District that serves 1,758 customers. Providence Water also supplies water to this water district. The Johnston Town Council, at the behest of Polisena, voted Jan. 10 for the water district to resell an unspecified amount of water to Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, the Chicago-based developer of the proposed 900-megawatt Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville.

It’s worth noting that last September, before Invenergy approached Polisena about buying water, he asked the Rhode Island Water Resources Board for permission to sell the town's water system — its pipes, two pumping stations and a 121-foot-tall water tower — to a private entity.

At its Jan. 20 meeting, the state water board voted against allowing such a sale, as the state maintains a financial interest in the water district. That interest was formed in 1983, when the water district received an $854,908 state grant for improvements. Polisena promised to repay the funds upon the sale of the district.

“We have no choice but to oppose or block the sale,” said Susan Licardi, chairwoman of the Rhode Island Water Resources Board.

The decision by the state water board, Polisena said, is moot. Instead of selling his town’s water district to a private company, he now wants the town to keep the water district and cash in on the more lucrative $18 million/20-year offer with Invenergy.

“It’s a better deal for the taxpayers, so we are not going to sell,” Polisena said.

He said any efforts to block the sale of water to Invenergy through the courts, the General Assembly, the city of Providence or the state Public Utilities Commission would be fought using Invenergy’s money and high-caliber legal team from the Providence law firm of Alder Pollock & Sheehan.

“We are prepared in a heartbeat to file a suit against whoever is going to try to stop us,” Polisena said.

The Johnston mayor noted that any new legislation only applies to future water deals, not to agreements made under current laws, such as his deal with Invenergy. He described any new legislative efforts as “feel-good legislation.”

"We would win in a court of law. I would have no hesitation going to court fighting this," Polisena said.

He also said the town is addressing 10 notices of open-meeting violations filed after the Town Council's quick unanimous vote in favor of the water deal with Invenergy.

Despite the legal obstacles, the Providence City Council Special Committee on Municipal Operations and Oversight voted 2-1 to pass a resolution that opposes construction of the Clear River Energy Center onto the full council for a vote.

Twenty-three cities and towns in Rhode Island have passed the nonbinding resolution. The Providence City Council will likely vote on its resolution at its Feb. 4 meeting. The resolution has additional provisions that ask the city solicitor and the manager of Providence Water to comment on the legality of the markup and resale of city water, and on the possible impact on other water customers.

“Given the local, statewide and national concern about the impact of fossil fuels on our climate, it is simply wrong for Providence to support the Invenergy plant,” said City Council member Seth Yurdin, the sponsor of the resolution. “Providence’s resources, including its water, should not be used to support the project.”

Meanwhile, on Feb. 6, the Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss Invenergy’s application for the $700 million project. The motion was filed by the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation.