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My testimony for the Energy Facilities Siting Act Commission



The following testimony was presented to the Special Legislative Committee to Study the Energy Facilities Siting Act on Monday. The committee is examining possible changes to the Energy Facilities Siting Act (EFSA):

Boards like the the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), councils like the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and commission like the I-195 Commission were not created to serve the people of Rhode Island. They were instead created to better serve the wealthy and politically connected in a way that insulates elected officials from the consequences of decisions that would not withstand the scrutiny of a well functioning democracy.

When a board like the EFSB approves the permitting of a power plant that pollutes the air, spoils the water and tanks the property values of nearby residents, who takes responsibility?

Politicians are quick to distance themselves from accountability, saying things like, “I wish I could do more”  or “trust the process.”

Yet, as people engage with the process and work hard to have a voice, they soon come to understand that the process is built so as to minimize the importance of their voice and to essentially remove them from the process altogether. The people, of the affected community and of the state as a whole, are reduced to second class status in proceedings that have potentially serious and life-altering impacts on the health, safety, quality of life and finances.

If the people push too hard, they are accused on NIMBYism, or, as happened in Senate Judiciary last year, the people are insulted, dismissed and lectured at for their impudence. If people don’t push hard enough, their acquiescence to the outcomes of the process is assumed.

The only people served by these processes, by these boards, councils and chambers of un-elected officials, are the billionaire sponsors of these unwanted projects and their local enablers.

When communities exercise their voices, they are marginalized, such as when the EFSB placed all the resolutions of the cities and towns of Rhode Island against the building of the power plant in Burrillville into the easily dismiss-able pool of public comment. (As a side note: The fact that public comment is easily dismiss-able is a big issue when one considers that the Republican controlled FCC ignored and dismissed public comment when they reversed the Obama-era rules on Net Neutrality last week.)

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When communities exercise their voices, they are insulted, as when State Senators Archambeault, Lombardi, Conlet and Nesselbush interrupted, insulted and high-handedly lectured Burrillville residents testifying for legislation that might protect their interests in dealing with Invenergy and the EFSB last year.

When communities exercise their voices they are racially discriminated against, as when the chair of the CRMC recently tried to cutoff the testimony of women of color because they were speaking about the environmental racism inherent in locating hazardous, polluting facilities near low-income communities of color.

On the other side of the coin are the companies that propose these projects. They ask for expedited dockets, to rush applications through the process, steamrolling the approval process to get ahead of possible community resistance, when instead they should be developing trusted relationships with communities, honestly explaining the advantages and dangers of their proposals, and working with communities to understand rather than sneak around their concerns.

Instead of understanding the current situation as being one that overwhelmingly favors corporate interests, instead of understanding that the EFSB, for example, was established as “one-stop shopping” for power plants, corporate advocates such as Peter Lacouture, who spoke to this commission two weeks ago, complained that, “From the utility point of view, it is not a one-stop process.”

Think about that: They would see the process made easier for corporations, billionaires, and their apologists.

I, and I believe most of the people of Rhode Island, do not think the process should be made easier. We would prefer a re-commitment to the fading principle of Democracy. We need to enshrine into law the absolute right of local communities to disallow projects they have reason to oppose. If the effects of a facility are going to have statewide implications or costs, then we need state wide and perhaps even regional democratic approval.

I know this is a big lift for this little commission. The EFSB was created to end run democracy and fast track polluting energy projects over the objections of those who would be negatively impacted. And on the federal level we have FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which does to Rhode Island on a national level what Rhode Island does to its cities and towns on a local level through the EFSB. Why should state government treat local municipalities better than the Federal government treats the states?

Because Rhode Island should aspire to be better. We should embrace and trust in the people of this state and their democratic wishes.

Optimally, the EFSB should vet projects and pass worthy projects onto the voters for approval. The projects should be voted on by the local community and by the state as a whole, if appropriate. A project should only be allowed to move forward if it wins popular approval at both the local and state level.

Is this a radical, progressive, outlandish proposal? Only if you believe that democracy is radical, progressive and outlandish. Oligarchs and their defenders will hate it – Americans should be rushing to institute these ideas.

In the video I attempt to encapsulate the testimony and answer questions from the commission.

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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.