Providence Looks to Switch Sides in Power-Plant Case

Providence City Council member Seth Yurdin reads his latest resolution to oppose the proposed Burrillville power plant during a special meeting July 24. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Providence City Council member Seth Yurdin reads his latest resolution to oppose the proposed Burrillville power plant during a special meeting July 24. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — City Council member Seth Yurdin hoped to make quick work of his resolution to have the city change sides in a court case and once again take on the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant. But acting council president Sabina Matos had others plans.

Matos sent the resolution to committee, delaying what would have been the first Rhode Island municipality to make the switch from defendant to plaintiff in a Superior Court case that seeks to nullify the water agreement between the town of Johnston and Clear River Energy Center developer, Invenergy Thermal Development LLC.

Matos said after the brief City Council meeting that her decision to send the resolution to committee wasn't because she is against the concept, but due to the fact that the city hasn't been served notice of the case by Rhode Island Superior Court and therefore the city had no legal council to offer an opinion on the resolution.

“We’ll bring it up to the committee when we are served,” Matos said.

The reason for the switch from defendant to plaintiff in the court case is somewhat complicated. In the case, the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) are the plaintiffs in their effort to nullify the 20-year agreement that allows Johnston to resell water it gets from the Providence Water Supply Board to Invenergy.

By default, the 21 cities and towns that get their water from the Providence Water Supply Board, which dispenses water from the Scituate Reservoir, are named as “indispensable parties” and therefore automatically listed as defendants in the case.

Opponents of the power plant want CLF and Burrillville to prevail in the case so that Invenergy may be forced to find a new water source and perhaps withdraw its application to build the nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant. Critics of the power plant believe the project may only have a few months of further delay so that it can be built in time to meet its energy obligations to the power grid.

On June 30, Invenergy announced that it is pushing back the completion date of the $1 billion project by a year because of the delays in finding a water supply to cool the facility. Two water supply boards in Burrillville and the city of Woonsocket turned down offers to sell their water to Invenergy.

Had Providence approved the resolution, it would have reinforced its opposition to the power plant. In February, the council passed a resolution opposing the Clear River Energy Center. The statement also expressed concern over the sale of water from the city-owned reservoir to the power plant.

Opponents of the power plant have started a campaign to convince the other 20 defendants to switch to plaintiffs in the Superior Court case. They are confident that the municipalities will make the switch, as most have passed a resolution opposing the power plant.

These entities will be asked to join the litigation and then asked to change their standing from defendant to plaintiff in support of the court case that Johnston has no legal right to sell water to Invenergy: Barrington, Bristol, Bristol County Water Authority, Cranston, East Providence, Greenville Water District, Harrisville Fire District, Kent County Water Authority, Lincoln, Lincoln Water Commission, Nasonville Water District, North Providence, Pascoag Utility District, Providence, Providence Water Supply Board, Scituate, Smithfield, Smithfield Water District, Warwick, Warwick Water Division and Warren.

The court case was filed in March and is still in the early stages. But it has already withstood one challenge. On June 20, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein denied Invenergy’s motion to dismiss the case. Silverstein maintained that the question of reselling municipal water has “substantial public interest that cries out for a declaratory judgment.”

Meanwhile, the state Energy Facilities Siting Board is expected to begin final hearings for the power plant application in October. As long as there are no further delays, a decision on the project is not likely until January.