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EFSB comes to Charlestown to discuss water, Invenergy denies residents water plan details



Janet Coit, Margaret Curran and Parag Agrawal

The Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) held a hearing in Charlestown Tuesday evening to hear public testimony about Invenergy‘s plan to build a $1 billion fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant in the heart of the pristine forests of northwest Rhode Island. Charlestown is involved because Invenergy has a signed contract with the Narragansett Indian Tribe to truck water from tribal lands located in the town to the proposed site of the power plant in Burrillville.

As EFSB Chair Margaret Curran said at the beginning of the hearing, “Charlestown had moved for and was granted limited intervention status because of or based on Invenergy’s contingent water supply agreement with the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Because Charlestown depends or draws from the same aquifer or the same water source, they made the case that they were an affected community, and therefore we’re having a public comment hearing here, even though the proposed plant is planned to be built pretty far away from here.” (emphasis mine)

It’s a bout an hour’s drive from Burrillville to Charlestown, as the dozens of Burrillvillians in attendance at last night’s meeting can attest. Though available information on the water deal is scant and sometimes even contradictory, at the very least dozens of 8000 gallon water trucks could be making the two-hour round trip between the two cities on a weekly basis.

John Niland, right

Invenergy’s Director of Development, John Niland, was sworn in to give testimony on the water plan. What he presented instead was a sales pitch, touting the Invenergy’s claimed benefits of the power plant. During public comment one speaker called Niland’s presentation Disney-esque. Invenergy presented no new information about the deal they had reached with the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

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This was unfortunate, because the contract between the Tribe and Invenergy has been challenged as illegal by the Narragansett Tribal Council. Tribal Councilor Randy Noka (Speaker 40), maintained that Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas lacked the authority to enter the deal, which would have required a vote among tribal members. Furthermore, in a letter presented to the EFSB last week, Thomas wrote that the water would not be coming from tribal lands in Charlestown, but from a farm the Tribe owns in neighboring Westerly.

Niland’s presentation tackled none of these issues. Instead. Charlestown was presented with a slightly updated version of the same sales pitch Burrillville was presented on multiple occasions over two years ago.

In all, 65 people spoke against the power plant and/or the proposed water deal. Town Planner Juliana Berry (Speaker 02), representing Richmond, Rhode Island, was the first of a steady stream of town and local officials concerned by the lack of data and details from Invenergy about the water plan and its impacts. After Berry we heard from Charlestown Town Council President Virginia Lee, said that the aquifers in Charlestown are replenished because the water used in the town is returned. Invenergy’s plan to truck the water away takes the water out of the system permanently.

Each and every public official said that Invenergy’s interest in their water was a complete surprise. Invenergy never approached any town council or public official, they simply made a deal with Narragansett Tribal leadership, and local residents and officials learned of the deal from the Providence Journal. This is in keeping with the way Invenergy does business. They don’t approach healthy, democratic communities with their plans, they approach local governments that are democratically compromised, preferring, it seems, to work with officials who promise easy access and not too much public involvement.

In addition to local elected officials, Narragansett Tribal leaders and environmentalists, residents of Charlestown registered their dismay at the thought of having their natural resources targeted by a multinational corporation. Some, having now learned about Invenergy’s proposal for the first time, expressed amazement. Several people asked how the EFSB could have let such a terrible proposal proceed this far. Charlestown resident Edward Fox (Speaker 69) summed up these attitudes when he said, “It’s unconscionable that we are still talking about this [proposal]… Please put an end to this. Enough is enough. Let’s move on and set this thing out to pasture.”

Justin Price, Blake Filippi and Elaine Morgan

State Representative Blake Filippi (Republican, District 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) (Speaker 38) said that the lack of public knowledge about the water plan means that the public cannot properly comment, because they have no information upon which to intelligently comment.

“I urge you to bang the gavel and adjourn this meeting,” said Filippi to the EFSB. “Release the documents to the public, let all of us read them, know what’s going on and then come back here and listen to the people of this town intelligently respond and give you public comment.”

State Senator Elaine Morgan (Republican, District 34, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich) (Speaker 21) also spoke, but I’m not sure what her point was. Representative Justin Price (Republican, District 39, Richmond, Exeter Hopkinton) was in the room for a while, but did not speak.

What Edward Fox, Blake Filippi and other Charlestown residents and officials might not know is that the EFSB is designed precisely to limit the democratic involvement of the public. The whole point of the EFSB is to permit the building of large, polluting power plants over the objections of local residents, and limit the ability of voters to hold their elected officials accountable for such decisions.

As the hearing ended, Invenergy’s John Niland and his lawyers were escorted out a back exit by a Rhode Island State Police officer and another local officer.

Not one member of the public had spoken in favor of the plant.

All the video of all the public comment is available here:

The next meeting of the EFSB is Wednesday night, December 6, at the Burrillville Middle School starting at 6pm.

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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.