Environmental Study, Other Information Remain Issues for Proposed Burrillville Power Plant

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI news staff

WARWICK, R.I. — A long-running criticism of the proposed Burrillville power plant has been the lack of an environmental impact statement (EIS) of the nearly 1,000-megawatt fossil-fuel facility.

Opponents say the natural-gas/diesel-fuel power plant requires the same scrutiny that the existing Ocean State Power facility received before it was built in 1990 in the Burrillville village of Harrisville.

There are too many unanswerd questions about the potential harm of the power plant, said Jeffrey Partington, chairman of the Burrillville Planning Board. The "big reasons we want the environmental study: What is the effect of this (power plant) going to be on the groundwater? What’s the effect on he wildlife? What's the effect going to be on the biodiversity in place. We’re not sure, so we would like somebody to be able to tell us that.”

Partington made the remarks during the Aug. 16 hearing of the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). The three-member board is in the final phase of the power-plant application process, which entails the questioning of expert witnesses whose written testimony has been submitted to the EFSB as advisory opinions.

EFSB chairwoman Margaret Curran explained that the EIS was required for Ocean State Power because a portion of the project was under federal purview, while the proposed Clear River Energy Center is under state review, she said. 

EFSB member Janet Coit said the state rules that govern the review process are set by the Energy Facility Siting Act. Advisory opinions from state agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), deliver a thorough review of environmental impacts. Those reports, Coit said, are critiqued through questioning of the expert witnesses who wrote them.

“This process is intended to get at the issues that you raised and we have hearing dates on issues that you raised,” Coit said. “So I appreciate the burden that’s put on a small town to take a look at all of that. But the act now requires the board to look at all of that so all of those questions are in front of us.”

Project critic Rick Enser, an ecologist who served for years as coordinator of DEM’s Natural Heritage Program, wrote in a statement that Invenergy Thermal Development LLC doesn’t want an EIS and other reviews for fear it may lose the project's location near the Algonquin gas pipeline compressor station, a site that was rejected for Ocean State Power.

“The solution for Invenergy to preventing an EIS was to prepare their own, or at least just enough of an EIS to convince the governor and the EFSB they had performed due diligence and selected the location that would be least harmful to the environment,” he wrote. “If so, they could overcome the stigma of a site that had previously been rejected, as long as they could prove it was better than any place else.”

Enser also noted that the Ocean State Power EIS devoted 200 pages to site selection, while Invenergy wrote six pages about where it wants the energy facility. The Invenergy report overlooks the facility’s need for cooling water and the impact of new roads, pipelines, and electricity transmission corridors, he added.

The town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), the two parties allowed to argue against the power plant before the EFSB, also contend that the $1 billion project needs an independent EIS. They point out that six of 12 advisory opinions are incomplete because of a lack of information from Chicago-based Invenergy.

The lack of data also limits town planning and zoning reviews, they argued. In an Aug. 20 document submitted to the EFSB, Burrillville town planner Raymond Goff lists the missing items needed by the town to complete reviews of the project. The list includes a master plan with surveys, details of proposed structures, and how the 67-acre lot will be changed and used for parking, waste disposal, and other uses.

Invenergy has also not applied for permits for excessive noise and for building in an aquifer zone. Without this information, the town can't commence with standard reviews, including public workshops, according to Goff.

In an Aug. 14 letter from the Burrillville Zoning Board, the committee said it still needs four exemptions, called variances, for building in a wetland and an aquifer zone, and a variance for building multiple structures on a single lot.

Invenergy’s chief legal council, Michael Blazer, said Invenergy doesn't plan to submit additional plans beyond what has already been given to the EFSB.

Last November, the EFSB turned down the town's request for an EIS. In September 2016, CLF tried unsuccessfully to have the project's application dismissed because of Invenergy’s failure to provide information to the town and state agencies. CLF senior attorney Jerry Elmer said the lack of information will be grounds for appeal if the EFSB approves the project.

“This strengthens CLF’s legal argument in a possible later appeal that Invenergy has not been playing by the rules, and that any possible future permit issued to Invenergy should be taken away,” Elmer said.

The hearings are scheduled to resume Sept. 4. The schedule has been extended until Nov. 29. A decision by the EFSB is expected in the weeks after the final hearings conclude.

At the Sept. 4 hearing CLF’s expert witness Scott Comings of The Nature Conservancy is expected to testify that the proposed power plant is sited in a sensitive area for biodiversity and forest connectivity. Jason Ringler, an environmental scientist, is scheduled to testify on behalf of Invenergy regarding environmental impacts and wetland mitigation.

On Sept. 18, Brown University professor Timmons Roberts is expected to testify about carbon emission and climate impacts of the proposed power plant.