Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — The atmosphere was passionate and at times tense during the second public hearing for a natural gas-cooling facility proposed for the city's waterfront.
The nearly five-hour meeting on Nov. 28 was expected to be an abbreviated session, after a four-hour hearing had been held Nov. 14, but opponents of the project came out in greater numbers; they offered accounts of living next to the industrial waterfront and had done extensive research on the contention put forth by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) that the state agency was limited in its scope to judge the project.
CRMC executive director Grover Fugate began the Nov. 28 meeting by explaining that he was told that day by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the council can only consider the design life and aesthetics of the proposed liquefaction project. All other issues, such as public health and safety, are preempted by the federal Natural Gas Act of 1938, he said.
“We are also very concerned about carbon-based fuel systems and their implications for climate change," Fugate said. "However, NOAA has indicated to us that in this matter we cannot consider those issues."
Arely Diaz of The FANG Collective contested CRMC’s federal preemption claim and argued that the developer, National Grid, could be held to a full review by state agencies such as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Diaz submitted a Jan. 17 letter from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) stating that the federal preemption only applies to projects for the transportation of natural gas or to state reviews that delay operation and construction of a facility.
FERC “encourages applicants to cooperate with state and local agencies regarding the location of pipeline facilities, environmental mitigation measures, and construction procedures,” according to the letter.
The FERC letter also maintained that Rhode Island is obligated to address environmental issues, as delegated by the Clean Water Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Clean Air Act.
Paul Ryan, an attorney for No LNG in PVD, argued the CRMC can consider National Grid a third-party applicant and can therefore hold them to greater scrutiny and even consider environmental impacts decades in the future. He noted that Houston has endured three 500-year storms in three years.
“If you saw a 500-year storm on this waterfront it would be a complete disaster,” Ryan said.
Sen. Jeanine Calkin, D-Warwick, said National Grid had to demonstrate a hardship not just an economic advantage in order to pass scrutiny by CRMC. She suggested that the council take a firmer stance on protecting the environment.
“I just want you to say, 'Rhode Island might be open for business, but it is not for sale,'” she said.
Rev. David Helfer, minister at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of South County and former environmental scientist, described how a coastal regulatory agency in California rejected a similar project even though it was uncertain about its authority to do so.
This project is “a risk you should not put forth in any community,” he said.
Several neighbors of the proposed project site on Allens Avenue noted that the community has the highest rate of asthma and respiratory illnesses in the state. Two urban farmers from the Washington Park neighborhood spoke of restoring soil polluted by decades of industrial pollution. Other opponents spoke of family and friends suffering from the pollution caused by the industrial waterfront.
“Our community is not a dumping ground for rich corporations,” said Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, D-Providence, who represents South Providence.
The special education teacher said the project will harm students already suffering from learning and cognitive disabilities caused by pollution.
“It is not only morally wrong, it is cruel," Ranglin-Vassell said. "By wanting to build in this neighborhood it sends a clear message that National Grid does not care about our infants, children, seniors, aging population, our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of whom are already suffering from compromised immune systems.”
Gina Rodriguez, a Washington Park neighborhood resident, jolted the CRMC board by calling on members to “wake up” and show greater interest in the proceedings.
CRMC chairwoman Jennifer Cervenka scolded Rodriguez for addressing committee members directly. “Don’t attack council members,” she said.
Cervenka and several board members stood up and left the table after Rodrigues said, “I am disappointed in each and every one of you, because as a mother, I cannot believe whoever raised you, raised you to be a coward.”
“No. You can sit down. You’re done,” Cervenka said before leaving the table.
State and Capitol police surrounded Rodriguez briefly. After shouting by opponents, the scene calmed and Rodriguez was allowed to finish.
“We have provided you a way to fight this and shut this down at the state level,” Rodriguez said.
Of the nearly 50 speakers, only two spoke in favor or the project. Michael Sabitoni of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council urged the CRMC not to be swayed by the emotional arguments against the LNG project.
“I get the emotion of it, but just stick to what you have in front of you," he said. “I know it’s difficult not to have the emotion but we need the ability to supply reliable natural gas in this region.”
Time ran out before National Grid could respond to the accusations and questions presented by project opponents, but the utility will answer at a Dec. 12 public hearing. After the company's rebuttal, the CRMC board will likely vote on whether the project should go forward.
After getting input from CRMC and DEM, FERC will have the ultimate say on the project. A ruling by CRMC is due Feb. 28.
Cervenka noted that the public hearings weren't required.
“That is a choice that we’ve made in our discretion because we think its important to provide an opportunity to the public to provide their public comment," she said.