When Governor Gina Raimondo came to Burrillville Monday evening to hear the concerns of residents regarding Invenergy’s proposed $700 million fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant, the people greeted her with applause, cheers, and gifts. Over the course of the two hour meeting, the Governor assured the people that she had not just listened to them, but had truly heard them.
The people rose and told them their stories, many of which those who have attended meeting after meeting in Burrillville had heard before. But Governor Raimondo was hearing them, in person, for the first time. She told the six hundred people gathered at the Burrillville High School that though she understood the problems with the MTBE in the water, that to hear the stories first hand was very powerful.
She heard them, she said.
Time and again Governor Raimondo assured the people that the power plant was “not a done deal.” For the first time the governor publicly walked back her support for the plant, saying that it was important that she maintain neutrality during the process of approving the plant. She told the people that there was a process, that the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) was holding a series of hearings and meetings. She urged the people to get involved and let their opinions be known.
Here, I think, Governor Raimondo stumbled. The people of Burrillville could not be more involved in this process. Her visit to Burrillville is a testament to their involvement. The visit is the result of months of work by Kathy Martley of BASE (Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion) and Nick Katkevich of the FANG Collective. If anything, the people of Burrillville understand “the process” better than the governor ever will. They attend the meetings of the EFSB, the Burrillville Town Council, the sewer board, the DEM, the DOH and countless others. There are many people in in Burrillville who dedicate every moment of free time, the entirety of their non-working lives, to this power plant.
This is what Invenergy has already stolen from the people of Burrillville: Every free moment of their lives.
Governor Raimondo urged the people to ”trust the process” but if the people don’t trust the process, it’s not out of some perverse anti-authoritarian impulse, it’s out of first hand experience with the very process she’s telling them to trust in. The people understand the process intimately, and they know that the process favors Invenergy, not the people.
Governor Raimondo was not asked to come to Burrillville as an advocate for “the process” she was asked to come to Burrillville to become an advocate for the people.
As people were let into the Burrillville High School, after waiting outside in the parking lot in the ninety degree heat for hours, security informed them that no more than one person would be allowed in the restrooms at a time. Each restroom accommodates at least seven people. I asked the man in charge of security why this was the case. He told me “Security reasons.” I asked how two people in a men’s room might threaten security in a way that one person couldn’t. He became angry and said, “I’m not going to debate you, I already answered your question.”
The event was moderated by retired newscaster Dave Layman, who volunteered for the mission. Layman set the rules for the meeting, but did so in a way that was infantilizing. This wasn’t a high school full of children, this was a high school full of engaged residents who were very familiar with the ways in which public meetings work. This was a high school auditorium full of people who understand how to behave at a public forum, yet Layman decided to devote no small amount of time to explaining the importance of a Norman Rockwell painting about civil civic engagement. It was elitist and condescending and a poor way to set the tone.
But, despite these caveats, once the meeting got under way, it seemed to go well. The people of Burrillville stood tall, hit hard and did not back away from calling the governor to account. She stayed through the end and beyond, coming off the stage after the meeting and greeted the people one on one.
The people of Burrillville have been treated as afterthoughts in this process, then as agitators and then as children. But by the end of the night Governor Gina Raimondo was forced to see them as people, and recognize their full humanity.
Here’s the full video:
Senator Paul Fogarty
Representative Cale Keable
Dave Layman sets the rules.