Power-Plant Water Fight Gets Loud, Ends Abruptly

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — True to form, the latest hearing related to the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant included drama and controversy. And perhaps, the most contentious moment was how it ended. After two hours of pubic statements and a 10-minute break, City Council president Daniel Gendron abruptly halted the hearing despite still having some 50 members of the pubic signed up to speak.

The hundred or so remaining members of the audience collectively groaned with a few yelling at the council for the unexplained halt to the Jan. 6 hearing.

Most in the audience of about 250 spoke and applauded in opposition to the proposed project. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Most in the audience of about 250 spoke and applauded in opposition to the proposed project. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

After the hearing ended, Gendron spoke one-on-one with with power-plant opponents from Burrillville.

“(The hearing) was intended to be for Woonsocket residents,” Gendron told ecoRI News. “When it got out of control, it convinced me to stop.”

Gendron was referring to an outburst from a North Smithfield resident who lashed out at the City Council and the project's developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, for threatening the water supply that serves her community. “Shame on you!” she yelled. “Crooks!”

The outburst, however, came after Gendron declared the hearing over.

The hearing was unlike past meetings in that two representatives from Chicago-based Invenergy answered questions from the audience. Several residents inquired about the closed-session negotiations that took place during the past six weeks. Others asked why Invenergy was paying $18 million for just three tanker trucks of water a day.

The give and take revealed some new facts about the proposed $700 million Clear River Energy Center and the water deal with Woonsocket. First, none of three positions — two drivers and a dispatcher — at the proposed water fill-up station would be union jobs, nor would the 25-27 full-time jobs at the power plant.

John Niland, Invenergy’s director of business development, repeated the disputed claim that the natural-gas/diesel power plant would save ratepayers $210 million during the first four years of operation — a point Invenergy officials admitted was inaccurate during a hearing before the state Energy Facilities Siting Board.

Mark Russo, an attorney for Invenergy, said the design of the power plant was recently altered to include a system that reduces the need for water from 200,000 gallons daily to 20,000.

“Why haven’t we done it to date? It’s very expensive,” he said.

Russo also noted that Invenergy is still negotiating with Woonsocket about “caps” on the daily volume of water and the number of trucks.

Most in the audience of about 250, covering a range of ages, spoke and applauded in opposition to the project.

“I am the next generation that is going to have to deal with this,” 19-year-old Woonsocket resident Jonah Houle said.

Houle spoke about harmful emissions from the proposed 900-megawatt power plant, such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide and benzene.

“My mom had cancer, she’s a breast-cancer survivor,” he said. “There’s no way I am letting her go back to cancer, there is no way.”

Local resident Leslie Mayer called the $18 million offer for water a “monstrous proposal.” She implored the seven-member City Council to be respectful of the large and highly organized opposition movement led by Burrillville residents and their Town Council.

“I know that if the table were turned we in Woonsocket would not expect a neighboring community to do this to us,” she said. “This council has the opportunity to become the hero of the citizens of Burrillville by coming to their aid.”

Fellow resident Chuck O’Neill offered a biblical perspective. “Our water source is sacred,” he said. “I think we may be selling our inheritance short, just like Esau sold his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of porridge. We need to be very careful.”

At the start of the hearing, Niland gave a brief presentation on the benefits of the proposed water deal. The project, he said, will pay about $700,000 annually for 20 years, making it the fourth-highest taxpayer in the city. It would also use less than 1 percent of the city’s excess capacity of 7 million gallons daily, Niland said. The site of the water fill-up station hasn't been determined.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt kept a low profile at the recent hearing, and was accused by several residents of making a deal without input from the City Council or public.

“The purpose of this evening’s hearing is to be certain we have the opportunity to share accurate information with the residents of Woonsocket and also clarify any misinformation that may have circulated throughout the last month,” she said at the outset of the hearing.

Resident Linda Majewski said northern Rhode Island already has some of the highest cancer and asthma rates in the state. “This company will be spewing toxic waste into our air at alarming rates," she said. “We all breathe the same air. ... No amount of money is worth sacrificing health, air quality, clean water or life.”

Many at the hearing said the process seemed hurried, and asked for additional time for vetting the offer.

“It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like you are being rushed,” resident Philip Lebrecque said to the City Council. “The most precious things we have our are water and our health. ... Did you really get all of the information? Did you explore all of the information?”

Resident David Fisher added, "This is insane for the city to do this. When are you all going to figure out that we cannot go for the quick fix, silver mythical bullet that doesn't exist ever at any time now or in the future."

Dannielle Simonik, an organic farmer, berated Russo and Niland for putting profits over the environment. "You are making money off the torment of other people," she said.

Three of the 30 or so union members spoke in favor of the project, as did real-estate owner Bruce Bosco, who said the power plant will help the city’s economy and won’t pollute as much as people fear.

“We have to have jobs and the only way to have jobs is infrastructure, highways, roads, bridges, sewer lines, power plants," Bosco said. "It has to be done.”

A member of the Local 195 International Union of Painters and Allied Trades was escorted out by police for turning his back to the City Council to address the audience. 

Invenergy has until Jan. 11 to name its water source. The City Council is expected to vote on the Invenergy proposal at it Jan. 10 public meeting.

To read coverage of the City Council's previous meeting on the water deal, Dec. 19, click here.