Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The fifth and likely final public hearing for the proposed fossil-fuel power plant was like many of its predecessors: crowded, boisterous, and overwhelmingly against the $1 billion energy project. But there were several notable differences from prior meetings.
First, the opposition was well versed in the intricacies of the natural-gas/diesel facility. Rather then tell personal stories and the harm to the town's rural heritage, many stuck to the issues that the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) will be weighing as it judges the fate of the Clear River Energy Center. Namely, whether its electricity is needed; the environmental threats; and its influence on the economy.
Many opponents referred to reports and analysis of the regional grid operator, ISO New England, showing that the added 1,000-megawatts of power isn't needed to meet future power needs, as wind, solar, and even other natural-gas power plants are developed.
Local resident Jason Olkowski noted that ISO New England warns of the region's lopsided reliance on natural-gas power, the meager savings the proposed power plant would have on natural-gas prices, and a lack of new pipeline infrastructure.
“It’s not needed," he said. "It's not wanted, and as a state we can do better."
Several wildlife experts and amateur naturalists noted the rare species of birds that would be displaced by the power plant and the damage the project would cause to the forested corridor that runs the length of the state.
North Providence resident Bill Eccleston told the EFSB that the land was part of a 25-square-mile wildlife habitat that conservation groups have identified as some of the most ecologically valuable in southeastern New England. He criticized the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for ignoring the importance of the habitat in its advisory opinion to the EFSB.
“The exceptional biodiversity of the power-plant site is presented to you in isolation of its greater ecological context," he said. "The forested context within which could be operating for the next half century a major industrial facility, far from any industrial-zoned land, a noisy, glaring, 1,000-megawatt power plant emitting 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. What indeed is wrong with this picture?”
The four-hour hearing held Oct. 10 was the last chance for direct public comment, but a new round of expert testimony will be debated by lawyers for Invenergy and power-plant opponents beginning Oct. 31 at the EFSB office in Warwick. The meetings are open to the public and will run through the end of January. EFSB chairwoman Margaret Curran said the hearings will be followed by several weeks of deliberation, all of which will be held in public as the three-member board can't discuss the proposal in private.
One issue the EFSB will likely consider is the question asked — and unanswered — repeatedly since the hearings began 18 months ago: Why is the proposed site on Wallum Lake Road suitable after it was rejected for a power plant in 1988?
The EFSB is also going to have to grapple with the issue of how much truck traffic the power plant will create. Critics claim the project's developer, Chicago-based InvenergyThermal Development LLC, hasn't given a full estimate. Opponents estimate about 1,000 trucks per month will deliver water and other materials to and from the power plant.
One of the most moving testimonies of the night came from Matthew Moreau. The Woonsocket resident blasted fellow union members for showing up to be considered for future construction projects. Moreau said he held back from speaking out against the project at previous hearings out of fear of losing his job.
“I’m not going to have a job tomorrow,” he said. “I’m finally happy I get to say something.”
Raging Granny Jan Creamer of South Kingstown sang for 3 minutes for her testimony.
The issue about water isn't going away. Two members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe spoke out against the power plant and vowed to challenge a decision by tribal leaders to agree to sell water from tribal land in Charlestown to Invenergy.
“The tribe does not support this," Narragansett Indian Tribe council member Randy Noka said.
An estimated 500 people attended the hearing in the high school auditorium, which has a capacity of 600. Some 72 people spoke against the project. Three supported it. All three represented union and business groups.