Proposed Power Plant a Clear Cut at R.I.’s Forestland

The pink ribbon marks a boundary for the natural-gas power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

The pink ribbon marks a boundary for the natural-gas power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Largely forgotten amidst all the talk about jobs, noise, taxes, pollution and terrorism is the impact the proposed natural-gas power plant would have on an ecosystem that is quickly fading from the Rhode Island landscape: contiguous forest.

It’s been estimated that at least 200 acres of forestland would be impacted if a second fossil-fuel power plant is foisted upon Burrillville, joining 560-megawatt Ocean State Power. The area’s woods are home to some 165 wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the black-throated green warbler, the wood frog, eastern box turtle, big brown bat and the six-spotted tiger beetle.

“There’s few places left in Rhode Island with this type of tree canopy,” Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, recently told ecoRI News. “It’s a pretty dense property and part of the state’s last contiguous forest canopy. It seems incomprehensible that anyone would think of breaking that up.”

Spectra Energy Corp., which currently owns the 67-acre property, plans on doing just that. The Houston-based business has partnered with a host of energy companies, such as Iroquois Gas Transmission System L.P., Northeast Utilities — now Eversource Energy — and Invenergy LLC, to propose the construction of a nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant. The work also includes the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure in the area — a 730-acre site that currently contains the Burrillville Compressor Station.

In all, this convoluted expansion of fossil-fuel energy, which features different parts, Access Northeast and the Algonquin Incremental Market Project, and the benign-sounding Clear River Energy Center, will bring more fracked natural gas into the region and the inevitable methane leaks and greenhouse-gas emissions that come with old-school power.

The proposed project would also harm the environment, here and elsewhere. The 471-page application submitted to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board last October by the power plant’s developer, Chicago-based Invenergy, noted that “the overall size of the interior forest habitat at the site will be reduced, both due to the direct alteration of some areas and the increase in forest fragmentation that will result from clearing within the existing forest.”

And, as the application also noted, the reduction in forest interior habitat will negatively impact wildlife, most notably birds such as warblers and scarlet tanagers. Last year, multiple pairs of black-throated blue warblers, which are listed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as a threatened species in the state, were observed displaying territorial breeding behavior in the footprint of the proposed power plant.

The site of the proposed Clear River Energy Center from a map on page 77 of Invenergy’s application. The blue represents wetland areas. The broken black lines represent the power plant’s footprint.

The site of the proposed Clear River Energy Center from a map on page 77 of Invenergy’s application. The blue represents wetland areas. The broken black lines represent the power plant’s footprint.

The property also features an assortment of vegetation, from eastern hemlock, red maple, and various birch and oak trees to maleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel and witch hazel to cinnamon fern, threeleaf goldthread, northern starflower and peat moss. There are streams and brooks running through the property, and stonewalls dot the landscape.

Forest fragmentation, however, would increase the potential for invasive species, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, to displace established plants and decrease the value of the ecosystem’s wildlife habitat. Fragmentation would also increase the rate of brood parasitism of neotropical migratory breeding birds by the brown-headed cowbird, which would lessen the reproductive success of forest breeding birds.

“We need to recognize this is a special environment,” said Roselli, noting parks and other open space can’t replicate the ecosystems created by forest canopy. “Parks have no understory and only a few trees.”

Roselli, and other opponents of the project, say the governor and Statehouse leadership’s support of having this forestland developed, for what is essentially 19th-century power, is inconsistent with Rhode Island’s land-use and environmental policy. The natural-gas facility certainly won’t help the state meet the greenhouse gas-emission-reduction goals outlined in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014.

The state’s support of the power plant further highlights a growing pattern of land-use mismanagement. In two other Rhode Island forestlands, in Johnston and Hopkinton, the state supports the building of a corporate banking campus and a travel plaza. This trio of woodland projects has left environmentalists and conservationists wondering when Rhode Island will stop living in the past and start looking to the future.

“The labor unions funded Gina’s (Gov. Raimondo) campaign; she’s catering to her funders,” Roselli said. “It’s certainly not the the will of the public, most of whom are against the project.”

The numerous signs against the proposed power plant posted throughout the northwest corner of the state back Roselli’s claim.

Many of the project’s opponents, like Roselli and Greg Gerritt, understand the need for power, but are baffled as to why the Ocean State embraces the expansion of a dirty fossil fuel. They say the state should be putting trade unions and others to work building renewable-energy facilities, upgrading the power grid to better handle 21st-century technology and implementing energy-efficiency projects.

Gerritt has repeatedly said, “The point is to build things communities want.”

Roselli said the technology exists to better tap into renewable-energy sources. “Technology has caught up, but our mindset hasn’t,” he said.

The community in Rhode Island’s northwest corner has made it known it doesn’t want another fossil-fuel power plant in its collective backyard. Most of the more than 100,000 people who live in the area don’t want the 52 known pollutants that will be spewed from the plant’s twin 200-foot-tall stacks, nor the 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide the plant will generate annually.

They and others are concerned about the impact the facility could have on the many environmental areas within a 5-mile radius of the proposed Clear River Energy Center. Those areas include 20 bodies of water, including three drinking-water supplies — Wallum Lake, Wilson Reservoir and Pascoag Reservoir — 25 state recreation areas and eight conservation areas.

The project, with its roads, buildings and equipment, will increase the area’s collection of impervious surfaces and, thus, the amount of stormwater that will need to be managed.

However, the siting plan avoided placement of structures and pavement within the boundaries of delineated wetlands “to the extent practicable,” according to Invenergy’s lengthy application.