Siting process for Clear River Energy Center has largely ignored the importance of biodiversity and the needs of nature
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Something they say was hidden in the Biological Inventory Report conducted to gauge the environmental impact of the proposed Clear River Energy Center has both Rick Enser and Bill Eccleston, among others, concerned about the future of Rhode Island’s northwest corner.
The phrase “Compensatory Wetland Mitigation Plan” first appears on page 5 of the 245-page report. It’s seldom mentioned after that, but Enser, a retired Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) botanist, believes these four words could ultimately determine the fate of Invenergy’s fossil-fuel power plant.
“Invenergy is basically admitting they’re going to do things that are going to be environmentally impactful. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to cause damage,’” Enser said. “They’ve likely talked to agencies about what this compensation will be.”
The Biological Inventory Report’s executive summary notes that, “It is anticipated that the final mitigation package will primarily consist of land preservation and possibly some restoration should a viable project be identified.”
The report, done by ESS Group Inc. and funded by Invenergy, doesn’t identify where in Rhode Island compensatory land preservation and restoration would be done, or what institutions would benefit. Common sense dictates that the land/projects would be confined to the area of Burrillville and Glocester, in the state’s forested northwest corner — a place largely ignored by Ocean State branding.
However, both Enser and Eccleston, two vocal opponents of the energy project who spoke with ecoRI News several days before the Oct. 10 public hearing, worry that negotiated land preservation could happen miles from the site of the proposed natural-gas/diesel power plant and thus do nothing to protect Burrillville’s upland forest.
Eccleston said the mitigation plan is “well camouflaged.” Enser claimed DEM’s Division of Fish & Wildlife (DFW) will gladly accept any land that “will add to their fiefdom, so they can manage it any way they want.”
“They see no major impacts to the wildlife they are most interested in conserving: game species,” Enser said. “Power lines are considered early-successional habitat and, therefore, beneficial to wildlife. This accounts for the DEM pathetic advisory opinion that includes no interpretation of the results of the biological inventory. Also, no recognition of species identified in the wildlife action plan.”
Eccleston, who grew up in Burrillville, still marvels at the area’s collection of towering pines, amazing network of brooks and steams, and freshwater recreational opportunities.
The North Providence resident is frustrated that little attention has actually been paid to the location of Burrillville’s second fossil-fuel power plant, on the border of the 4,000-acre George Washington Management Area. He’s angry that the proposed Clear River Energy Center could be built some 200 feet from Iron Mine Brook, a Clear River tributary. He’s offended that the Chicago-based developer has said the site is well buffered by woods and falsely claimed the location is zoned for power generation. He’s upset that the facility has been sited “right in the middle of a wildlife corridor that runs along the spine of the state.”
The nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant would be situated among some 16,000 acres of protected wilderness in three states: George Washington Management Area, Durfee Hill Management Area, and Buck Hill Management Area in Rhode Island; Quaddick State Park in Connecticut; and Douglas State Forest and Mine Brook Wildlife Management Area in Massachusetts.
Enser, who spent 28 years at DEM coordinating the agency’s now-defunct Natural Heritage Program, which worked to protect Rhode Island’s biological diversity through a program of inventory, restoration work, environmental impact reviews, and conservation planning, said the forestland in the state’s northwest corner is arguably the most valuable land-based ecosystem in Rhode Island. (The Natural Heritage Program is now managed by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a small nonprofit.)
The former DEM employee noted that the presence of 17 state-listed species, including the cerulean warbler and the black-throated blue warbler, indicate Burrillville’s forestland is of high integrity and maturity. Enser said habitat destruction, such as mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, is pushing these birds to the outskirts of their range, like the George Washington Management Area.
The above photograph of the state-endangered cerulean warbler, taken in May 2016 by Dylan Pedro, a board member of the Ocean State Bird Club and a technician for the Rhode Island Bird Atlas, was shot about 1.5 miles north of the Clear River Energy Center site. Two days earlier, Pedro had recorded the song of a cerulean warbler.
“These birds need a large acreage of land to breed,” Enser said. “Development pushed them up into the northwest corridor. And now we’re going to wrench it away from them?”
More than just two species of warblers, however, make the Clear River Energy Center site a significant ecosystem. The Biological Inventory Report notes that the power plant would displace and disrupt numerous species: 81 birds, 21 mammals, eight amphibians, three reptiles, 220 invertebrates and 187 plants.
Enser said the report shows that the Wallum Lake Road site has a high concentration of interior-forest species. The land is owned by an energy company formerly known as Spectra. This Texas/Calgary conglomerate owns and operates the Algonquin natural-gas pipeline and a massive compressor station on the 730-acre property.
Enser, a South Kingstown resident, is concerned about the poor condition of Rhode Island’s remaining — and fast-dwindling — forestlands, and the impact of their declining health on the state’s collection of flora and fauna. He noted that the state’s remaining forestland is quickly becoming more fragmented.
“They’ll wait until the last possible second to make the mitigation plan public,” said Enser, noting that a public hearing should be held prior to its final draft and release.
ecoRI News asked Invenergy’s hired public-relations firm if a public hearing was planned. In an e-mail, the spokeswoman wrote, “You should check with the relevant permitting agencies on the scheduling of public hearings.”
In response to another question — Is Invenergy investigating the possibility of buying properties for conservation enhancement and, if so, would those properties be in just the northwest corner of Rhode Island or statewide? — she wrote, “See attached for info from Invenergy’s EFSB filings that addresses your question. We do not have anyone available for an interview.”
The attachment doesn’t answer the question. A follow-up e-mail asking when the Compensatory Wetland Mitigation Plan is expected to be filed, went unanswered.
Several e-mails sent to three different DEM spokeswomen — to speak with someone about the Biological Inventory Report and the Compensatory Wetland Mitigation Plan; to find out if a public hearing for the mitigation plan would be held; and to find out the status of the Clear River Energy Center’s applications for wetlands, stormwater, and wastewater management permits — were all ignored.
Forest fragmentation invites invasive species, such as multiflora rose and Japanese barberry, to displace established vegetation and decrease the value of an ecosystem.
According to the most recent Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan, fragmentation is linked to the impacts of climate change, because the dispersal and migration of forest plants and animals are disrupted. A 2008 forest survey of Rhode Island reported a total of 348,400 acres of forest in the state — a reduction of more than 11 percent from the 393,000 acres reported in 1998, according to the 2015 wildlife action plan.
The Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council’s 2016 report acknowledges the importance of preserving and expanding wetlands and forests in Rhode Island to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
It’s been estimated that the Clear River Energy Center’s construction and operation would impact at least 200 acres of forestland. The area’s woods are home to hundreds of wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the wood frog, red fox, gray fox, the six-spotted tiger beetle, and the wood turtle, which has become increasingly rare because of its complex habitat needs.
Of the 17 state-listed species — animal, insect and plant — found on the proposed site of the Clear River Energy Center, one is state endangered (cerulean warbler); two are protected (eastern box turtle and spotted turtle); four are state threatened (black-throated blue warbler, blackburnian warbler, northern parula and bobcat); and 10 are species of concern (great blue heron, Cooper’s hawk, pileated woodpecker, worm-eating warbler, white-throated sparrow, dark-eyed junco, arrowhead spiketail, wild calla, white-edge sedge and pointed trillium).
Enser has noted that since the overall condition of Rhode Island’s forests are so degraded, any tract that contributes either size or uniqueness should be considered significant.
The woods of Burrillville were fragmented 27 years ago by another fossil-fuel power plant. Ocean State Power began operating in 1990. The project required approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This time, the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) didn’t request FERC approval.
During the siting process for Ocean State Power, more than 80 locations throughout southern New England were reviewed. Two of the last sites considered, Sherman Farm Road and Buck Hill Road, were both deemed inappropriate by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“Based on our review of the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) and other relevant information, we recommend that the Buck Hill Road and Sherman Farm Road sites be deleted from further consideration as potential locations for the proposed combined-cycle power plant,” Gordon Beckett, New England supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, wrote in a letter attached to the July 1988 Final Environmental Impact Statement Volume II. “We believe the proposed project is inconsistent and incompatible with the existing land use on and adjacent to these Wildlife Management Areas.”
Beckett also wrote that, “We believe siting these facilities close to wildlife management areas, parks and similar public facilities should be considered fatal flaws and, therefore, the Buck Hill Road and Sherman Farm Road sites should be eliminated from further consideration.”
The federal agency’s concerns were ignored, and the 560-megawatt facility was built on Sherman Farm Road — the preferred site of the developer, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co.
Now, some three decades later, only one location was selected for the Clear River Energy Center — a 67-acre site about a mile from the Buck Hill Road site the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in the late 1980s, deemed inappropriate and flawed for a power plant.
“Only one site was chosen, no alternatives,” Enser said. “One would think they have some guarantees.”
Eccleston noted that the site is 3 miles from the closest industrial-zoned area. He also noted that the existing pipeline and compressor station were built in the 1950s, three decades before Burrillville adopted its current zoning ordinances. He said the area’s “buffering woods” are to buffer wildlife from people, not to shield people from industry.
“Natural diversity is vital and needs to be protected,” Enser said. “We do need to preserve nature for nature’s sake. Conservation is more than about preserving nature for people. When we manage resources for human use, we’re not protecting biodiversity.”
While the Biological Inventory Report was filed before the latest round of advisory opinions were submitted, both Enser and Eccleston claim its findings have largely been ignored by state agencies and by two of Rhode Island's largest conservation organizations.
The ESS Group report “is one of the better reports I’ve ever seen done in my 30 years of doing this work,” Enser said. “It’s a remarkable survey, but the problem is getting DEM to say anything about it.”
He said The Nature Conservancy seems to be ignoring its 1997 conservation plan for northwest Rhode Island. He claimed the Audubon Society of Rhode Island has refused to accept the validity of the inventory, even though it supports the organization's argument of the presence of rare birds on the site. Enser said he was told that the Audubon Society was concerned that the ESS Group may have used volunteers to identify the birds present at the proposed site.
ecoRI News reached out to both organizations for comment, but was unable to connect with anyone to address the concerns of the project opponents. This past summer both The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island issued letters opposing the Clear River Energy Center. Last month Scott Comings, the conservancy's associate state director, provided rebuttal testimony regarding the project.
DEM’s most recent advisory report avoids declaring whether the fossil-fuel power plant should be approved or denied. The agency’s non-answer stems from a reluctance to determine whether the power plant will cause unacceptable environmental harm.
In early July the EFSB asked DEM, in its second advisory opinion, to determine “the impact of the proposed facility on state conservation priorities and plans, fish and wildlife habitats, and rare species, including those identified in the Natural Heritage database.”
But the state agency in charge of environmental management essentially ignored the EFSB, claiming its response is contingent on the outcome of pending permits for wetlands, stormwater, and wastewater management.
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.”
Enser doesn’t agree with DEM’s position. “It is not the job of the EFSB to read and interpret the results of the biological inventory,” he said. “It is the job of the DFW to interpret those results and provide the EFSB an interpretation of what the inventory results mean.”
DEM’s Aug. 15 advisory opinion does highlight 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.
In its original advisory opinion, DEM noted 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. ... 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, like its original, finds that the proposed power plant will not impact Rhode Island’s compliance with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The updated advisory opinion from the Statewide Planning Program, however, contradicts DEM’s assertion about land protection. DEM’s latest opinion made a point to “reaffirm its assertion” that “substantial forest clearing and fragmentation will negatively impact area-sensitive wildlife ... and will inhibit DEM’s attempt to enhance landscape resiliency to mitigate the loss of biodiversity through habitat fragmentation and climate change.”
Statewide Planning’s opinion maintains that the proposed power plant doesn't conflict with the state planning documents for outdoor recreation, forest protection, or any other aspect of the State Guide Plan.
Enser said the agency’s opinion is “horrifyingly wrong,” and noted that the proposed facility isn’t in a State Guide Plan-recommended urban service boundary, which are designed to focus growth in developed areas. He also said state agencies, in their advisory opinions, are ignoring other taxpayer-funded plans, such as Land Use 2025, Ocean State Outdoors, A Greener Path, the Rhode Island Forest Resources Management Plan, and A Path to Tomorrow’s Forests.
“A lot of people spent much of their careers writing plans and reports that are then largely ignored,” Enser said. “It speaks to the lack of integrity in the process.”
While the Statewide Planning opinion offers little in the way of environmental concern — it basically ignores the importance of open space and biological diversity — it does highlight the project’s financial gains. During construction, the project is expected to generate between 477 and 1,193 jobs, and the overall economic impact is projected to be between $196 million and $447 million, according to the Department of Administration agency.
Statewide Planning 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.”
“People don’t pay attention to how their land is used,” Enser said. “The public needs to know they are getting screwed here.”
ecoRI News sent an e-mail to the Department of Administration spokeswoman seeking comment about the Statewide Planning Program’s advisory opinion and the project’s Biological Inventory Report. We didn’t receive a response.
ecoRI News staffer Tim Faulkner contributed to this report.