The gas-fired power plant that Invenergy wants to build in Burrillville faces more legal hurdles this week.
On Tuesday attorneys for the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation asked the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board for more information about how the power plant would affect the region.
Meanwhile the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation are suing to stop the project.
The power plant remains controversial a year and a half after it was first proposed.
Paul Roselli and I watch four robins hop around the branches of a pine tree off Wallum Lake Road in Burrillville.
“This is what a natural semi-old growth forest looks like, especially in Rhode Island.”
Roselli runs the Burrillville Land Trust. And he’s one of many Burrillville residents who doesn’t want to see these 20 acres of forest cleared for a new power plant.
“The common thread around here is people love where they live. They love the backyard. They love the birds and the trees and they love looking at the sky at night.”
Burrillville’s backyard is full of natural areas like this one. The Nature Conservancy calls this part of Rhode Island one of the region’s most sensitive wildlife corridors.
But it’s also home to a natural gas compressor station and a gas pipeline. That makes it a perfect spot for the new gas-fired power plant that Invenergy has been trying to build in the state since 2015.
One thing the area doesn’t have is water for Invenergy to cool its proposed plant. Last year Invenergy tried to buy water from three utilities in the area and was denied three times.That’s what brought them to Johnston, about 20 miles south of Burrillville.
Denied by Burrillville, Harrisville and Woonsocket, Invenergy offered Johnston 18 million dollars over 20 years for water they plan to truck up to the plant in Burrillville.
Johnston’s town council accepted the proposal in January at a public meeting packed with protesters.
Johnston resident Michelle Faella broadcast the council vote on Facebook. She and other protesters are upset because they had no say in the decision. Some of them even allege the town violated Open Meetings laws by not giving enough notice for the vote.
Faella, who is 21 years old, says she felt cheated by the deal.
“I lost a lot of faith in the town. It was honestly like one of the most frustrating experiences of my life I think. Everyone assumes that you know on a national level and even at like you know the state level of politics you don’t have a say, your voice doesn’t matter. You think at least in your town, everyone tells you you should invest in your town politics. It’s like, well, your mayor shut the door on you. So what do you do then?”
But Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena says their deal with Invenergy was done legally, and he’s just looking out for Johnston taxpayers.
“That money’s going to go a long way. I feel very confident, if I had to do it again I’d do it again. And my obligation, once again, is to the residents of Johnston—not to Burrillville.”
Eight gold and silver plated shovels hang on the walls of Polisena’s office—evidence, he says, of the pro-business attitude he brought to Town Hall when he took office in 2007.
“When I first took over the business climate in this town was stagnant. You could breed mosquitoes it was so stagnant. And obviously it took a while to fix but we’ve had over a billion dollars in new business in this town since I took over.”
Polisena says if the people of Johnston don’t like it, there’s an election coming up in two years.
That’s one thing the towns of Johnston and Burrillville agree on. Here’s Burrillville Town Manager Mike Wood.
“I think the political people in Johnston have turned a deaf ear to our situation. They're doing this for the money. I do get that. ...but we hope that the officials in Johnston change their mind, and we hope if that doesn't happen maybe the people in Johnston will help them change their mind.”
The Town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation have both filed lawsuits challenging Johnston’s right to sell water to Invenergy for use in Burrillville.
Wood says he understands why Johnston took Invenergy’s offer, but he says Mayor Polisena’s decision essentially undercut the the town of Burrillville, where the plant may actually be built.
“I understand the business part of it, but this is another sister community in Rhode Island that is saying to Johnston and other cities and towns in Rhode Island that this isn't something we want or that the state the state of Rhode Island needs.”
In addition to settling those lawsuits, Invenergy still needs to get three permits from the state Department of Environmental Management, and approval from the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board. That could take the better part of 2017.
Invenergy says they’re confident they’ll be approved. But environmentalists opposed to the plant say they’re prepared to keep up the pressure as long as it takes.