Burrillville Town Councilor Stephen Rawson became combative with some of those who spoke against the Spectra pipeline expansion and Invenergy’s new fracked methane power plant at this week’s council meeting.
Rawson was quiet early on as Kathy Martley, who leads BASE (Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion), read her statement about the health and environmental dangers of a methane gas energy plant. She ended her talk by urging the town council to pass a resolution opposing the buildup of fracked gas infrastructure in Burrillville.
Rawson was even quiet when Nick Katkevich of FANG (Fighting Against Natural Gas) handed out copies of a recent story in RI Future in which two former Spectra safety inspectors alleged dangerous working conditions on Spectra’s build sites and a disregard for environmental and safety regulations.
But Rawson’s ability to restrain himself reached its limit with the third speaker, Lauren Niedel, who spoke of why she opposes the buildup of fracked methane infrastructure in northern Rhode Island and why she decided to be arrested for trespass, along with seven others, as a protest against Spectra over the weekend.
In the course of her testimony Niedel said that, “Governor Raimondo just came out saying she wants us to be using 100 percent renewable energy by 2025,” a reference to Raimondo’s executive order, signed in a State House ceremony the day before. Niedel misspoke, she meant to say that the order was for all state buildings to be using 100 percent renewables by 2025.
Rawson jumped on Niedel for this. “Can you give the date and time that Governor Raimondo said these things?” he asked.
“Yesterday,” said Niedel, along with several other people crowded in to the town council chambers. “It was for government buildings.”
“I believe it would be hypocritical of [Raimondo] to have a press conference to welcome the power plant, then come out with that statement,” said Rawson, “But for state buildings, that’s different.”
Rawson then looked at Niedel and admonished her, saying, “That was an exaggeration.”
“I’m sorry I misspoke,” said Niedel.
Of course, this wasn’t the point Niedel was trying to make. Governor Raimondo supports the proposed Invenergy Clear River power plant. The plant will have “a 30 year life span,” said Niedel, “We will be indebted with a fossil fuel infrastructure until 2050, making us beholden to Invenergy until then.”
Niedel’s point appears to be that for the Governor to have one standard for state buildings and another for the the rest of Rhode Island is hypocritical, or at least inconsistent. But that point was lost on Rawson, who went in for a cheap rhetorical hit instead of grappling with Niedel’s larger point.
Later that same evening Rawson got into what seemed to be a full on argument with Kathy Sherman, a Burrillville resident seeking clarification on just what the Town Council would be doing when negotiating with Invenergy about the proposed power plant. Sherman’s home is within a half mile of the plant’s location, and she is afraid that her property values are going to plummet due to the noise and air pollution a large power plant will bring. Will the town council be representing her needs, she wondered, or should she and her neighbors retain their own lawyers?
It was a complex question, and Town Manager Michael Wood didn’t have a lot of information or satisfactory answers. Much of what Invenergy is proposing hasn’t been fully revealed yet. There are hundreds of details to nail down. The town council’s job is to represent Burrillville, said Wood, but that doesn’t mean that the town council will be representing every concern of every resident.
Rawson then jumped in to explain that 25 years ago, the town went through the exact same process with the Ocean State energy plant. There was noise, there was construction, there was the “occasional blow off” but the plant ultimately had no effect on property values, said Rawson.
“That was 30 years ago,” replied Sherman, “things are different now.”
“Not 30 years,” said Rawson.
“1987, 2015. That’s thirty years, minus two,” she countered.
Now Rawson was exasperated. “Can I speak now?” he asked, eager to finish what he called his “history lesson.”
“Maybe you should listen instead of talking,” said Sherman. She didn’t have time for history lessons. She needed to understand the town council’s intentions, and was realizing that the town council had little idea of what it’s intentions were going to be.
“Please be patient,” commanded Rawson, “We’re going to do what’s necessary to mitigate the negative impacts.”
“You sound like Algonquin,” said Sherman, to a smattering of applause. She was referring to Spectra’s Algonquin pipeline expansion.
“Algonquin’s not the issue here,” countered Rawson, employing one of the town council’s favorite tactics, “We’re talking about the power plant.”
Whenever a speaker brings up an aspect of the power plant in reference to the pipeline or mentions the pipeline in relation to the power plant, town councilors pounce on the chance to explain that these are two different projects from two different companies. Of course most of those speaking to the town council know this. The projects, though different, are related: by proximity, because both projects are in Burrillville; by nature, as they are both methane infrastructure projects; and by business, since the pipeline will be supplying the methane that powers the energy plant.
Rawson and some other town councillors sometimes smugly correct speakers in this way to score easy, rhetorical points and shut down the conversation. Maybe it’s easier than addressing the concerns of the public in an honest, open way.
“We are in the process of developing an idea of what we want to do,” said Wood, the town manager. “You have to take a leap of faith and trust that the town council will do what’s best.”
This inspired pained groans from the audience.
Outside, after the meeting, residents clustered in small groups, talking about what had just transpired inside. They were not very happy. A consensus quickly formed that Rawson and Councillor Donald Fox, who had interrupted and admonished a woman in an argument about water filters, never treated male speakers with the kind of disrespect and argumentative tone they used when addressing women.
One resident, who hadn’t spoken during the meeting, asked if it was possible to recall the council members and force a new election. Another pointed out that they were in an election year, and that change was in the offing if the town council doesn’t begin to better represent the concerns of the residents.
There were three categories of speakers at the town council meeting. Those for the methane infrastructure build up, those against it, and those neutral on the subject but who are afraid that having such facilities so close to their homes will ruin their property values. Kathy Sherman falls into the last category.
Only two people spoke in favor of the new power plant. Chris Votta is a union iron worker, interested in the construction jobs the project will create. David Eston is a power plant worker who believes that methane will be a necessary bridge fuel as we make the conversion to renewables.
But every other speaker, and a large number of those crowded into the council chambers, opposed the project.
In their flyer “Invenergy talks about clean energy, then proposes gas, not a clean energy,” said one resident, “natural gas and fracking is exactly the opposite of” clean energy.
“Having a second power plant in this small town is complete insanity,” said another.
Lorraine Broussard, a self-described “ardent environmentalist” was one of the last to speak against the projects, saying, “Fossil fuel is a dinosaur on the eve of extinction… Natural Gas is a fracking lie.”