Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
One of the main reasons the Burrillville Town Council accepted a tax agreement with the out-of-state developer of the proposed Clear River Energy Center was that the money could fund the town's opposition to the fossil-fuel power plant.
At public meetings, the Town Council and its attorney, Michael McElroy, stated that they intended to use money from Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC to fund efforts to stop the nearly 1,000-megawtt project.
Under the agreement, Invenergy pays Burrillville between $4.6 million and $9.1 million per year for 20 years. Beginning in 2017, Invenergy began making payments toward an upfront fee of nearly $3 million.
“These fees are unrestricted. They can be used to fund the town’s vigorous and relentless efforts to kill the plant at the (Energy Facilities Siting Board) and at the Supreme Court, if necessary," McElroy said during the Nov. 3, 2016 Town Council meeting where the tax deal was approved.
McElroy said the tax agreement would specifically pay for legal costs and expert testimony needed for the multiyear application vetting by the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), and for appeals if the power plant is approved.
“These agreements will give the town the funds necessary to fight long and hard to kill the plant,” McElroy said.
“We’re really going to have to fight, and fight and fight,” Town Council president John Pacheco III said after the Nov. 3, 2016 vote. “This is going to take a long time and a lot of money.”
Invenergy is now accusing town officials of spreading false information, and therefore decided to withhold a $500,000 payment to the town.
“Burrillville representatives are disseminating misleading information in their effort to derail the Clear River Energy Center,” Michael Blazer, Invenergy's senior vice president and chief legal officer, said.
Blazer didn't offer examples of the disinformation, but said town representatives violated “a good-faith tax agreement with the town.”
“Until this dispute is resolved, we are putting scheduled payments into an escrow account," he said. “That money will be waiting there, for the benefit of Burrillville residents and taxpayers, when the town decides to uphold its end of the agreement."
Burrillville town officials called the claim of deceptive information “absurd.”
“This is a heavy-handed attempt by Invenergy to intimidate and silence the Town of Burrillville and its opposition to the Clear River Energy Center power plant,” according to a statement from the town. “Burrillville needs resources to fully vet and investigate Invenergy’s arguably defective application, to protect the interests of our community and, as it turns out, the state of Rhode Island."
Town manager Michael Woods accused Blazer of overreaching. “Invenergy seems out of sorts these days. Frankly, at this point, nothing that Invenergy is doing surprises us, including bringing in a pit bull from Chicago to beat up on the town."
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy legal group and intervenor in the power-plant application process, called the withholding of funds “terribly troubling, unwise and stupid of Invenergy.”
“Invenergy is being a bully with the town and making themselves look bad,” Elmer said.
He compared the move to Invenergy’s recent effort to have ratepayers subsidize the $100-plus million cost to connect the power plant to the electric grid. The EFSB is scheduled to decide at a Jan. 30 hearing whether that effort warrants suspending the application process. The delay could last months or longer as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides whether Invenergy or ratepayers will pay the interconnection expense.
“Here’s another example of Invenergy trying to wriggle out of a legal obligation and a financial obligation,” Elmer said.