New Power Plant Reports Offer Conflicting Opinions

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — The latest advisory opinions for the proposed Clear River Energy Center don't offer much in the way of recommendations on whether the $1 billion fossil-fuel project should be built. They do, however, outline additional environmental risks and identify vulnerable wildlife, while also providing support for advocates of the power plant.

The advisory report from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) avoids declaring whether the power plant should be approved or denied. The agency's non-answer stems from a reluctance to determine if the power plant — proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development — will cause unacceptable harm to the environment. The state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) hoped to have DEM answer that query, but DEM says its response is contingent on the outcome of pending permits: three pollution permits, one permit to destroy wetlands, and permits for stormwater and wastewater management. The permits are still pending and the EFSB doesn't require that they be issued as part of the application vetting process.

If those permits are granted, DEM says, “It is a formal declaration that the proposed facility has met the standards and criteria for acceptable harm to the environment as established in state and federal laws and regulations.” 

DEM’s advisory opinion also outlines environmental harms. The report’s biggest concern is the destruction of forest. The proposed 67-acre site sits in one of the largest stretches of woodlands in the state and the largest in the northern half of Rhode Island. The Aug. 15 report highlights the “fragmentation” of habitat, which conflicts with state plans to preserve open space.

In 2010, DEM classified the region as a priority forest and wetland area, and a large parcel of undeveloped habitat to be preserved. The site is also part a tract of open space that runs the length of the state. The land, however, is private property, owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy. Spectra owns and operates the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline and a massive compressor station that already operates on its 730-acre property.

In its original advisory opinion, DEM concluded that, “The location of a [power plant] of this size and scope immediately adjacent to substantial acreage of state holdings of conservation land is not consistent with the conservation priorities that informed these state conservation lands.”

According to that advisory opinion, “Given the weight of this threat in an already fragmented landscape, the best course of action is to avoid further fragmentation to the greatest extent practicable.”

DEM’s latest advisory opinion also reviews data from a detailed wildlife study conducted by ESS Group Inc. and paid for by Invenergy. That report states that the nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant would displace and disrupt numerous species: 81 birds, 21 mammals, eight amphibians, three reptiles, 220 invertebrates and 187 plants. Of these, one is a state-endangered species, four are threatened, 10 are species of concern, and two are protected species.

The report singles out the presence of the black-throated blue warbler and the blackburnian warbler, two state-threatened birds. Local bird experts conducted an independent survey near the site and identified rare cerulean warblers and bobcats, a state-threatened species.

Despite contrary beliefs from some power-plant opponents, DEM's latest advisory opinion maintains its original conclusion that the power plant will not impact the state’s compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the federal Clean Power Plan.

DEM also didn't answer a request by the EFSB not to comment on the cumulative impacts of the proposed power plant, the nearby compressor station, and the town’s existing power plant, Ocean State Power, until Invenergy submitted its wetland destruction application and its plans for the interconnection project.

DEM, however, made a point to “reaffirm its assertion” that “substantial forest clearing and fragmentation will negatively impact area-sensitive wildlife (and plants) ... and will inhibit DEM’s attempt to enhance landscape resiliency to mitigate the loss of biodiversity through habitat fragmentation and climate change.”

An updated advisory opinion from the Statewide Planning Program contradicts DEM’s assertion about land protection. The state entity said the power plant doesn't conflict with the state planning documents for outdoor recreation, forest protection, a protected nature corridor, and any other aspects of the State Guide Plan, including state water and transportation plans. The report claims the site was never singled out in state plans for land protection.

Statewide Planning also noted the financial gains from the project. During construction, the project will generate between 477 and 1,193 jobs. The overall economic impact is between $196 million and $447 million, according to the agency.

Statewide Planning applauded the proposal for building near existing fossil-fuel facilities instead of in a new tract of land. It concluded, “the State Guide Plan recognizes that additional development is needed for the wellbeing of our society in terms of housing, jobs, and particularly with regard to our need for viable energy sources both over the long term, as well as the immediate future.”

An updated advisory opinion from the Burrillville town building/zoning inspector, Joseph Raymond, maintained that the proposed fossil-fuel power plant in unacceptable. Invenergy has failed to submit adequate plans to the town and, based on the limited information Invenergy has produced, the project will require several variances from the Zoning Board.

“It is clear, two years into the public portion process, that the choice for the Clear River Energy Center, from a planning and zoning perspective alone, was poorly thought through," according to the opinion.

The updated advisory opinions were requested by the EFSB, after Invenergy reached an agreement with the town of Johnston to supply water to cool the facility. That agreement is being challenged in Rhode Island Superior Court by the Conservation Law Foundation and the town of Burrillville.

A final round of public hearings is scheduled to begin in October. A decision on the power plant is not expected until at least January.