For power plant opponents, EFSB decision was grown on home turf

For power plant opponents, EFSB decision was grown on home turf

Roberta Lacey, left, and Julia O’Rourke, members of the group “No New Power Plant,” stand with some of the items they used to raise more than $100,000 for a public awareness campaign against the proposed Clear River Energy Center. The group was one of several that fought the application since it was first submitted in 2015.

BURRILLVILLE – Driving down Route 102, visitors to the town of Burrillville encounter what has now become a common site for residents of northern Rhode Island: yard after yard of brightly colored signs featuring the message, “No new power plant.”

After last week’s decision by the state Energy Facility Siting Board to deny an application to construct a gas and oil-burning power plant off Wallum Lake Road, the signs appear in many ways redundant, proclaiming a message already confirmed by state authorities that a new power plant is not needed in Rhode Island.

But for the residents who fought the application for four years, the signs are a victory lap, a celebration of the role played by local townspeople in forcing a multinational company to reckon with their concerns.

In 2015, when Chicago-based Invenergy first announced its proposal to build a 1,000-megawatt power plant in the woods of northwestern Rhode Island, not many people knew of residents’ opposition to the project. State lawmakers touted the proposal as a solution to the state’s energy problems and local unions saw an opportunity to bring jobs to the region. Even residents, who’d found out about the proposal a few months earlier, were unsure what to think about the proposed plant. Julia O’Rourke and Roberta Lacey, both Burrillville residents, remember the first meeting of power plant opponents on May 1, 2015, when eight individuals wrote their names on an attendance list.

“I don’t think anyone understood the magnitude of it,” said Lacey.

However, the uncertainty didn’t last long. Over the next four years, residents, along with the municipality and local environmental groups, would amass an organized campaign against the power plant that spread throughout the state. Jerry Elmer, the Conservation Law Foundation attorney who represented the organization’s case against the plant, told The Valley Breeze it was the actions of local residents that created the delays that ultimately caused the EFSB to rule the energy produced by the plant wasn’t needed in Rhode Island, the first factor considered in a decision to award or deny a permit. Without those delays, he said, and the changes in the state’s energy landscape that have occurred since, the board may have reached a different conclusion.

“I think all of those factors, increased renewables, increased supply, decreasing demand, added up to make a very, very clear picture for the board that the plant just isn’t needed,” he said.

It was pressure from citizens, he said, that caused the Pascoag Utility District to back away from a nonbinding agreement to provide water to the plant from wells that had been previously closed due to contamination. After local residents raised concerns the plan could release contaminants into the environment, the company was forced to turn to other parts of the state to find a source of water for cooling the plant.

“That forced the board to suspend the docket for many months while Invenergy was forced to look for another source of water. And in that time, things started to happen that showed the plant wasn’t needed,” he said.

By then, public opposition to the plant had spread throughout Burrillville, with signs popping up on lawns and street corners all over town. In 2016, the Burrillville Town Council adopted a resolution expressing their public opposition to the project, and town attorney Michael McElroy joined the legal battle against the project before the EFSB. The town’s legal fees were funded by a tax treaty the town had previously signed with Invenergy that accounted for about $2.1 million in payments over the past four years, according to Town Manager Michael Wood.

As the company turned to other municipalities for water, so did residents of Burrillville, bringing their public awareness campaign to all corners of the state. Opponents of the power plant raised more than $100,000 to fund advertising on billboards, RIPTA buses and in people’s front yards, but O’Rourke, a member of the group “No New Power Plant,” laughed at the characterization by some Invenergy officials that they were a “well-funded organization.” Most of the funds, she said, came from small donations by residents or through fundraising events such as a motorcycle run and wine tasting. Over the course of four years, volunteers baked pies, ran raffles, sold mugs and even put together a cookbook of local recipes in order to raise money for the awareness campaign.

“I think the least amount of money we made at a bake sale was $1,000,” she said.

As some residents raised funds on the local front, other groups, including Keep Rhode Island Beautiful and the Burrillville Land Trust, tried to draw political support to the effort. Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, visited venues around the state to educate other communities about residents’ concerns with the project. Those concerns included not only the environmental impact, but also the loss of local control in a process that left the final decision on the plant in the hands of a state board.

“We had a lot of people saying, this is a done deal,” said O’Rourke.

“All through this whole thing, that was the hardest thing to hear,” added Lacey.

Last fall, ISO New England, the region’s energy grid operator, canceled a capacity supply obligation contract with Invenergy, a development seen by some as a death knell for the project, though O’Rourke and Lacey said they remained cautious. As late as April, a Superior Court judge upheld the company’s agreement with the town of Johnston to purchase water for the project, overcoming the obstacle that had initially set the company back.

Last Thursday, as members of the EFSB began what was scheduled to be a three-day process of deliberations, both women were at work, unable to attend the meeting. When word came in that the board had voted against the project after just a few hours of deliberations, Lacey rushed to the Stillwater Heights apartments in Harrisville to share the news with her mother. Down the street, power plant opponents were gathering for an impromptu celebration outside Burrillville Town Hall, waving the signs they had been using to protest for the past four years.

Despite the relief passing through town, said Lacey and O’Rourke, the fight is not officially over yet. Invenergy still has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the Rhode Island Supreme Court after the EFSB releases its written decision. Reached by email, Invenergy spokesperson Beth Conley released the following statement: “We will review the written decision and evaluate our options.”

According to Wood, the process has been grueling for residents, but the eventual decision brought relief. Like Elmer, he noted the support of town residents against the project at a time when almost every state official stood in favor of the plant.

“We had no support from the governor, no support from the General Assembly leaders, no support from the Office of Energy Resources, none of the federal legislators supported us, National Grid was against us, even the mayor of Johnston was against us,” he said. “Basically, the people, they were behind us when no one else was.”

O’Rourke and Lacey said that despite the long process, they think the town may be better off as a result. Many residents, they said, are far more engaged in town issues than they were before the proposal and are now looking for new ways to better their town. Plus, O’Rourke added, there are the friendships that developed out of the fight. The two women, who had never met prior to 2015, now speak every day and consider themselves lifelong friends.

“That’s one thing we can thank Invenergy for,” she said.

Opponents of the proposed power plant celebrated outside Burrillville Town Hall last Thursday, June 20, after the state Energy Facility Siting Board denied a permit for the project to Invenergy.

Comments

Thanks to all the advocates who worked hard and put in so many hours to fight this proposed power plant. Good job and God bless you. Hopefully, this is the end of this application and the USACOEs will also deny the permit based on environmental reasons.

Invenergy, the unstoppable force that met an immovable object: Burrillville's residents! Congrats!