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Former CRMC member Tony Affigne on environmental racism and the use of police power at CRMC meetings



“In my final few months on CRMC, I repeatedly tried to convince the Council to hold its National Grid hearings in South Providence or Washington Park, closer to the affected communities,” said former council member Tony Affigne, “After all, we’d previously held hearings in Narragansett, Newport, South Kingstown—even Block Island—so that people in those communities could more easily attend and comment on controversial proposals. [Former CRMC Chair] Anne Livingston refused my request, even after I’d identified a number of likely sites, including the Meeting Street School, Johnson & Wales, Juanita Sanchez, and CCRI.”

Affigne is a professor of political science at Providence College and was a Coastal Resources Management Council member from 2011-2017. Along with along with Chair Livingston and council member Paul Beaudette, Affigne was replaced by Governor Gina Raimondo in July.

As reported by Tim Faulkner in ECO RI, “changes on the council are typically announced closer to January, when the General Assembly begins its session,” according to former-Chair Livingston.

The Governor’s action, said Affigne, left the CRMC “without any members with strong environmental commitments, and without its only member (me) who knows and understands the South Side community. I have many family members who still live in the area; previously worked as an adult education teacher and community organizer in both South Providence and Washington Park; and teach courses at Providence College (and previously at Brown) on city politics and environmental policy.”

Faulkner was unable to get a comment from the Governor’s office about why the replacements were announced atypically early and the Governor’s office has so far ignored repeated requests for comment from UpriseRI. But the timing of the Governor’s action has led to speculation that it has something to do with the CRMC’s mandated review of National Grid’s proposed LNG liquefaction facility on Fields Point in the Port of Providence. This project has been met with fierce opposition from area residents and the NoLNGinPVD coalition.

In an email taking me to task for a piece I wrote about the apparent conflicts of interest of freshly minted CRMC Chair Jennifer Cervenka, CRMC Public Educator and Information Coordinator Laura Dwyer said National Grid’s liquefaction proposal, “did not come before the Council until November…”

That’s not true. National Grid submitted their application to the CRMC in October 2016, and the CRMC had many robust discussions about the proposal leading up to the sudden changes in council members initiated by the Governor.

Here’s a passage from the February 28, 2017 CRMC minutes:

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National Grid has project before us through Federal Consistency for LNG facility in the Port of Providence. National Grid has agreed to extend our review process to June 15th… Staff will prepare reports for Council’s review. Mr. Fugate explained that the project would shift how the tank is refueled. Mr. Fugate confirmed that the CRMC had a comment period on the application and that we received many comments and objections most of which were not helpful but a series of comments that came in were much more substantive and National Grid is preparing a document to address the concerns. Mr. Fugate explained that two full Council meetings will be set aside for this project. Mr. Affigne asked about the Ports and Harbors Subcommittee review possibility. Mr. Fugate stated that staff is waiting for the draft EIS to complete their reports and that with the limited time for review of this project a subcommittee review would not have enough time – the more efficient way would be to bring it before the Council. The two meetings will be held on Tuesday, April 25th and Tuesday, May 9th.

“Months earlier, I was able to convince the staff and Council chair that CRMC needed to hold public hearings, whether they were required or not,” said Affigne. “I reminded the staff that this proposal was unlike any other they’d handled, given the project’s location in the state’s largest and most politically-powerful communities of color.”

Affigne’s statement is borne out in the March 28, 2017 CRMC minutes:

National Grid has provided additional material that staff is reviewing in order to prepare reports for Council review which will be on April 25th and May 11th. Mr. Fugate explained that the draft of the EIS from FERC had not been received as of yet. Other venues are being sought, trying to get all three conference rooms at the Department of Administration for the meeting. Mr. Affigne suggested other places in the area of the National Grid LNG project so that attendance would be easier for people affected and also suggested we talk to the Mayors office about providing a police detail. Locations suggested were: Johnson & Wales, Save The Bay, Juanita Sanchez, Narragansett Bay Commission, Roger Williams Middle School, Community College of Rhode Island.

Despite CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate saying there would be no CRMC subcommittee review because of “the limited time for review of this project” discussion of the liquefaction project seems to have died down starting in mid-April, as delays in the process pushed the CRMC docket towards November. There are scattered, almost indecipherable mentions of the project in the April 11, 2017 CRMC minutes. The May 9, 2017 CRMC minutes contains the following passage regarding the project:

Mr. Beaudette asked for an update on the National Grid/Fox Point process. Mr. Fugate stated that a letter was sent out on continuance of proceedings and that CRMC staff are meeting with National Grid on some of the staff concerns still relative to the project. Mr. Fugate stated that meeting locations were being looked into. Mr. Gagnon stated that National Grid needs to provide information to DEM on cleanup of the site.

Then, in July, the makeup of the CRMC was altered by the Governor. The CRMC lost its three environmentalists, and no reason was given for the change. Jennifer Cervenka, an attorney who has seemingly made a career out of defending polluting corporations from government regulators charged with protecting the environment, was installed as Chair of the CRMC.

“I might have helped the Council avoid the appalling display of environmental racism, contempt for low income people, and disregard for health and safety risks, which were apparent in its two National Grid hearings,” said Affigne. “I might have cautioned the new chair to show the same respect for people on the South Side, that CRMC routinely shows for people who live in the state’s more affluent seaside communities. I would have objected, strenuously, to any attempts to use police power, [or] to control what testimony appears in the official record. Neighborhood residents were right to point out that not a single member of the Council lives near hazardous petroleum or chemical facilities, and [I] can barely imagine the fear, frustration, and anger felt by people already subject to innumerable environmental dangers.

“Finally, I would add that despite Grover Fugate’s cautious bureaucratic advice, the Council has far more power over federal reviews than they have been willing to exercise to date,” said Affigne. “Long before National Grid’s final proposal was submitted, Council staff could have been much more aggressive in demanding information from the company about safety, environmental, and environmental justice considerations, to give the Council a more complete picture of potential risks to the coastal environment and nearby communities.

“In the end, a strong Council vote against this proposal might well be disregarded by FERC, but would still be important, because it would show that local officials are aware of, and concerned about, the unnecessary buildout of fossil-fuel capacity, as well as the continuing environmental racism which determines where such dangerous projects are located.

“I’m hopeful, but not optimistic, that a majority of the Council will recognize their responsibility to take a stand against this dangerous and unnecessary project, on behalf of Providence residents, and to protect the life and health of the Narragansett Bay ecosystem.”

You can see all the video from the two public comment meetings here:

Community members label National Grid’s Port of Providence plans environmental racism at CRMC meeting

CRMC hearing consumed by public testimony against National Grid’s Port project

And here’s what Affigne means when he talks about the use of police power:

See also:

The apparent conflict of interest between National Grid and CRMC Chair Jennifer Cervenka

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.