Monday evening’s Woonsocket City Council meeting was the first open meeting since it was confirmed that Invenergy, the company that wants to build a $700 million fracked gas and diesel oil burning power plant in Burrillville, was in semi-secret negotiations with Woonsocket to buy the water needed to cool the plant’s turbines. Invenergy was not on the official agenda, the meeting that will allow for public comment is scheduled for January 6, but power plant opponents from Burrillville and Woonsocket used the public comment period, listed on the agenda as “Citizen’s Good and Welfare” to let their opinions be known.
The first speaker of the evening, Lorraine Corey, was more interested in the reported cost overruns plaguing the Jilson Avenue water treatment plant in Woonsocket. Budgeted at $40-45 million dollars, new estimates are double that price. Any deal with Invenergy will in not come close to covering this increased cost. The city council declined to answer Corey’s questions.
Gerry L’Heureux is a Woonsocket resident with experience in successfully battling power plants. About 30 years ago, L’Heureux was involved with the opposition to a power plant to be built in Woonsocket called A.E.S. Then Mayor Charles Baldelli, uncle to present day Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, was pushing the proposal hard. Citing what he called “people power,” L’Heureux said that after six months of learning the facts and organizing against the plant, “We, the People” stopped the plant from going forward.
L’Heureux urged the council to reject Invenergy’s offer.
Harrisville resident Denise Potvin invited the Woonsocket City Council to attend the Burrillville Land Trust‘s “Learn the Facts” sessions. Conducted by Paul Roselli, these informative presentations explain the environmental repercussions of the kind of bad deals companies like Invenergy make with towns and cities like Burrillville and Woonsocket.
Nick Katkevich of the FANG Collective presented evidence of the high asthma rates suffered by Woonsocket residents, noting that there are already five fracked gas burning power plants within nine miles of Woonsocket. One of the plants, Ocean State Power, is in Burrillville, the rest are in neighboring Massachusetts.
It was at this point that Council President Daniel Gendron tried to limit public testimony, explaining that the time for public commentary on the Invenergy proposal is scheduled for January 6 and that the council has a lot of business to attend to. Gendron said that there was “nothing on the night’s agenda concerning Invenergy” but as we shall see, that wasn’t an accurate statement.
Happily, residents of both Woonsocket and Burrillville ignored Gendron and spoke out anyway, in the truest spirit of the First Amendment.
State Representative Cale Keable, who represents most of Burrillville, gave a good speech filled with reasons for Woonsocket to reject Invenergy’s offer. Keable spoke about the good relations among the cities and towns of northern Rhode Island, and pledged himself as a “fourth representative” to Woonsocket, “for whatever you need.”
While Keable spoke of political effects, Burrillville resident Bill Potvin spoke of the larger effects on the environment as a whole. He presented the math on water usage, oil burning and the impacts of both on Burrillville and Woonsocket. He also gave a shout-out to RI Future!
Gendron once again said the public comment section of the city council meeting was not the proper forum for comments on Invenergy. After listening patiently to Gendron, Woonsocket resident Linda Perrault took immediate issue with the council president, saying that “we have not been allowed to have an executive session or a closed meeting or any type of meeting to discuss this… I’m taking the night off [from work] to be here, and I’m hoping you can respect our time.
“I am opposed to selling water to the power plant.”
Burrillville resident Stephanie Sloman asked if the Woonsocket City Council received the letter from the Burrillville Town Council requesting a meeting. Gendron confirmed that plans for the two councils to meet are being made.
Pascoag resident Ken Putnam Jr spoke about the water, which is a precious commodity threatened by companies like Invenergy.
Woonsocket resident Carole Pichette said that she could tell that some of the Woonsocket City Council members seemed bored, judging by their body language. “You’ve got to understand,” said Pichette, “We don’t know what you know, because it’s all behind closed doors!”
URI physics professor and occasional RI Future contributor Peter Nightingale pointed out that Invenergy was required to take into account “all the sources of pollution in Rhode island” but, “molecules and atoms do not respect state boundaries.” The pollution from power plants in Massachusetts should be of concern when considering the power plant in Burrillville.
Even those who came to the city council meeting for reasons other than the proposed water sale, such as Jean Karon, thanked the council, “for listening, regarding the power plant.”
“May God have mercy on the water situation,” said this Reverend, who came before the city council on unrelated business.
Margaux Morrisseau invited the city council to Woonsocket’s annual MLK Day celebration, featuring Ferguson Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal as keynote speaker. One of the workshops being held is to be called “talking to your elected officials” which is, in a way, ironic, given Gendron’s earlier comments.
Burrillville resident Lynn Clark arrived from the Cranston City Council meeting with news that the city council there had just approved a resolution in support of Burrillville and in opposition to Invenergy’s power plant.
After public testimony finally wrapped up, Council President Gendron reeled back his earlier comments about the public using the public comment period to publicly comment. “I understand you frustration,” said Gendron, “in not hearing what is going on in closed session.”
Gendron then went on to essentially ask the public to trust the process.
Way back in Novemeber I questioned Burrillville Attorney Michael McElroy‘s contention that there is, “no inconsistency between entering into these agreements and dead set opposition to the plant.” McElroy said that entering into a tax treaty would not be seen as weakening the position that Burrillville stands in opposition to the plant.
I wrote then that,
“…McElroy is a lawyer. He is not a business man trying to buy water to cool a power plant. What businessman wouldn’t mention the tax treaty as proof that the town council is actually okay with having the power plant sited in their town? The resolution in opposition will be described behind closed doors as merely political theater, something to satisfy the rubes while the real business of government is imposed by the movers and shakers in secret meetings paid for with political contributions.”
At last night’s Woonsocket City Council Meeting, McElroy was proven to be wrong.
Former Woonsocket City Council memeber Albert Brien, father to present city council member Jon Brien, addressed the council, saying, “What I don’t understand is, if 85 percent of the people in Burrillville are against the power plant… how is it that the Burrillville Town Council voted to enter into a pilot agreement with Invenergy?”
One possible answer comes to mind: bad legal advice.
The elder Brien was speaking directly on the Invenergy proposal, contrary to Gendron’s earlier remark that the water sale was not on the night’s agenda. Brien disputed the testimony of Woonsocket resident Gerry L’Heureux, who said that people power stopped the AES plant thirty years ago.
“It wasn’t people power,” said Brien, “It was the power of [the City Council].”
Brien said that the money Woonsocket stands to make is not worth the cost of selling the water, which will net the city about $300 thousand.