Health Department Puts Climate Before Power Plant

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) wants climate change included in the decision-making for the proposed Burrillville power plant. In its latest report to the committee weighing the fate of the Clear River Energy Center (CREC), the DOH again stressed the health effects of climate change and questioned the wisdom of approving a fossil-fuel power plant with the potential of emitting greenhouse gases for 60 years.

DOH outlined a long list of health threats from global and local warming, such as an increase in illnesses and death, a rise in infectious diseases, asthma and respiratory diseases, and greater harm to low-income earners, the elderly and children.

Most striking was DOH’s urging compliance with state greenhouse-gas reduction goals. To meet those goals, “it is essential that the state begin the move from fossil fuel energy generation as soon as possible,” according to the report.

The language stood out in a report that offers moderate concern about other health impacts, along with recommendations on issues ranging from electromagnetic fields to water pollution. According to DOH, most health impacts from the state’s largest power plant could be mitigated if the developer, Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, follows through with its plans to limit pollution.

The report also noted that a few health threats posed by CREC lacked specifics, such as the use of unproven technology to reduce noise from the natural-gas/diesel facility. Noise has been a major source of contention for years, as neighbors have complained about persistent rumblings and explosive sounds from a natural-gas pipeline compressor station, which already operates a few hundred feet from the the site of the proposed power plant.

DOH noted that Invenergy complied with its requests for emergency response plans and safety equipment to address the storage and use of ammonia, hydrogen and hazardous waste. Implementing these suggestions “would provide appropriate protections for minimizing the risk of accidental releases or incidents involving hazardous or flammable materials at or in transit to or from the purpose CREC facility,” according to the state agency.

DOH wasn't asked specifically to address climate change in its updated report, but covered the issue in its first advisory opinion released last September. That report noted that Rhode Island is suffering from climate impacts such as as heat and extreme weather.

DOH cites the work of Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts, who says the proposed power plant would prevent the state from reaching it climate reduction targets.

The agency supports the state greenhouse-gas reduction goals outlined in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. The agency says renewable-energy sources should be considered before building fossil-fuel facilities.

“It is imperative that action be taken individually and collectively to mitigate climate change — for the health and well-being of our communities," according to DOH.

Roberts told ecoRI News that he was impressed by DOH’s outspoken stance on climate change in its latest report. In particular, he liked that DOH included the local and upstream impacts of fracking.

"After 25 years researching and engaging American government involvement in climate change at all levels, this DOH report literally restored my faith in government,” Roberts said.

Nevertheless, due to their accounting method, the state Department of Environment Management and the state Executive Climate Change Coordination Council argue that the power plant doesn't conflict with state emission-reduction efforts.

When asked about the report’s emphasis on climate change, DOH director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said her department relies on science and data to make public-health decisions.

“Science and data make it clear that climate change is having, and will continue to have, implications on public health,” Alexander-Scott said.

Including the life-cycle impacts of the power plant is part of a full analysis, she said. “We understand the different big-picture considerations that exist, but analysis in light of climate change is part of any thorough environmental health review that is done today.”

Public meetings
These conflicting stances and other health effects will be addressed during public meetings in the coming weeks. 

Sept. 15: The three-member Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Burrillville’s motion to dismiss and stay the CREC application until the water issues are resolved.

Oct. 10: Burrillville High School is scheduled to host a four-hour public-comment session.

Oct 31: Evidentiary hearings are scheduled to begin at the Public Utilities Commission office in Warwick. The hearings will run all day, two or three days a week, through January.

Legal briefs will be delivered 15 to 30 days after the evidentiary hearings end. The EFSB will reconvene after 30 to 60 days and issue its decision.