The Providence City Council Special Committee on Municipal Operations and Oversight moved a resolution opposing the construction of Invenergy‘s $700 million fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant in Burrillville on a 2-1 vote, which brings the resolution to the floor of the full City Council for consideration. Chair Jo-Ann Ryan and Councilor Kevin Jackson voted for the resolution, Council President Luis Aponte was the no vote. Committee members Sabina Matos and Nicholas Narducci Jr were absent. Both Matos and Narducci sit on the Providence Water Supply Board (PWSB).
Attending the meeting and not voting was Councilor Seth Yurdin, who introduced the resolution and Councilors Bryan Principe, Sam Zurier, Mary Kay Harris and Michael Correia.
The resolution, in addition to opposing the plant, as 23 Rhode Island cities and towns have done to date, also calls for the city council to “express concerns” about the resale of Providence Water from the Town of Johnston to Invenergy’s power plant and asks the Water Board and the City Solicitor’s office to look into the legality of Johnston’s water deal and for ways to prevent the resale of such water.
Paul Roselli, of the Burrillville Land Trust, provided an overview of the proposed power plant project to those in the room who might not be familiar with all the details. No one knows how much water the plant will actually need to cool its turbines. Estimates run from between 12,000 gallons to well over 700,000 gallons when the plant is burning diesel oil.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening, were Ricky Caruolo, general manager of Providence Water, Xaykham Khamsyvoravong, chair of the PWSB, William O’Gara, legal advisor to the PWSB and Providence City Solicitor Jeffrey Dana, to explain the legal situation regarding Johnston’s sale of Providence’s water to Invenergy.
Caruolo explained that Providence Water is a division of the City of Providence, regulated by the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) for its revenues, regulated by the DEM (Department of Environmental Management) for its discharge and regulated by DOH (Department of Health) for its drinking water. Providence Water provides water to about 2/3 of state residents.
Providence Water does not have any wholesale contracts with the exception of Lincoln Water, continued Caruolo, which expires in the next few years. The rest of the wholesale contracts expired approximately 10 years ago. In an attempt to renegotiate those contracts the wholesale customers had zero incentive to bargain, and Providence Water has little ability to force negotiations.
“In 1915 the General Assembly created a 50 page law that created the PWSB,” said O’Gara. That statute gave Providence tremendous powers to take property and create its reservoir system, but it also requires the Board to supply water to communities like Johnston.
Johnston, through enabling legislation, is allowed to take water from Providence Water, to the tune of 150 gallons per person per day. A rough calculation/estimate by O’Gara puts the total at over 540 million gallons of water a year. Johnston is not using close to it’s statutory limit.
There is nothing in the statute that could allow Providence to prevent Johnston from selling its water. The only limitations Providence Water can impose are in the event of a drought. Ironically, the statute prevents Providence Water from profiting from its sale of water but does not prevent Johnston from doing so when it resells the water.
“Absent a change in the enabling legislation,” said Dana, Providence has no authority to prevent the sale of water from Johnston to Invenergy.
Council President Luis Aponte was very concerned with the precedent that is being set by Johnston’s deal. Providence Water can now potentially be sold at a profit by any community except Providence. He called Johnston’s deal a “significant windfall.”
Caruolo said that Providence Water is a regulated utility, and the Johnston Water District is not regulated. There are very few rules for unregulated water utilities, said Caruolo, “they go by a completely different standard.”
Councilor Jackson asked if the General Assembly might pass some legislation to deal with this issue. O’Gara thought that this situation might “be the impetus” for such legislation. Dana sees such legislation as the only way to prevent the resale of water down the road.
Councillor Yurdin reminded the room that the resolution was not just about determining what the law was around the water issue, but to come up with strategies to prevent such resale, whether it be through existing or new law.
Burrillville State Representative Cale Keable was asked to say a few words.
Jeffrey Dana said that an amendment would be needed to the enabling legislation to prevent such deals in the future. Dana did not feel that the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which he called “general” legislation would have the ability to modify the Providence Water enabling legislation which he saw as “specific.” Dana also noted that the enabling legislation, written in 1915, did not foresee this situation.
Aponte suggested that the resolution, being “multi-pronged” could be divided in two. One resolution will deal with the Providence Water issue, the other resolution would deal with the Invenergy power plant project. Yurdin disagreed, saying the two were not separate issues. Chair Ryan sided with Yurdin and kept the resolution as written.
When Ryan asked for a motion, Jackson moved it forward, but Aponte would not second it, leaving Ryan to second the motion herself. The motion passed. The resolution will be taken up at the next Providence City Council meeting.