Land Use

Proposed Power Plant Clear Cut at Rhode Island’s Forestland

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The pink ribbon marks a boundary for the natural-gas power plant proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Largely forgotten amidst all the talk about jobs, noise, taxes, pollution and terrorism is the impact the proposed natural-gas power plant would have on an ecosystem that is quickly fading from the Rhode Island landscape: contiguous forest.

It’s been estimated that at least 200 acres of forestland would be impacted if a second fossil-fuel power plant is foisted upon Burrillville, joining 560-megawatt Ocean State Power. The area’s woods are home to some 165 wildlife species, including the hairy woodpecker, the black-throated green warbler, the wood frog, eastern box turtle, big brown bat and the six-spotted tiger beetle.

“There’s few places left in Rhode Island with this type of tree canopy,” Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust, recently told ecoRI News. “It’s a pretty dense property and part of the state’s last contiguous forest canopy. It seems incomprehensible that anyone would think of breaking that up.”

Spectra Energy Corp., which currently owns the 67-acre property, plans on doing just that. The Houston-based business has partnered with a host of energy companies, such as Iroquois Gas Transmission System L.P., Northeast Utilities — now Eversource Energy — and Invenergy LLC, to propose the construction of a nearly 1,000-megawatt power plant. The work also includes the expansion of natural-gas infrastructure in the area — a 730-acre site that currently contains the Burrillville Compressor Station.

In all, this convoluted expansion of fossil-fuel energy, which features different parts, Access Northeast and the Algonquin Incremental Market Project, and the benign-sounding Clear River Energy Center, will bring more fracked natural gas into the region and the inevitable methane leaks and greenhouse-gas emissions that come with old-school power.

The proposed project would also harm the environment, here and elsewhere. The 471-page application submitted to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board last October by the power plant’s developer, Chicago-based Invenergy, noted that “the overall size of the interior forest habitat at the site will be reduced, both due to the direct alteration of some areas and the increase in forest fragmentation that will result from clearing within the existing forest.”

And, as the application also noted, the reduction in forest interior habitat will negatively impact wildlife, most notably birds such as warblers and scarlet tanagers. Last year, multiple pairs of black-throated blue warblers, which are listed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management as a threatened species in the state, were observed displaying territorial breeding behavior in the footprint of the proposed power plant.

The property also features an assortment of vegetation, from eastern hemlock, red maple, and various birch and oak trees to maleberry, blueberry, mountain laurel and witch hazel to cinnamon fern, threeleaf goldthread, northern starflower and peat moss. There are streams and brooks running through the property, and stonewalls dot the landscape.

Forest fragmentation, however, would increase the potential for invasive species, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, to displace established plants and decrease the value of the ecosystem’s wildlife habitat. Fragmentation would also increase the rate of brood parasitism of neotropical migratory breeding birds by the brown-headed cowbird, which would lessen the reproductive success of forest breeding birds.

“We need to recognize this is a special environment,” said Roselli, noting parks and other open space can’t replicate the ecosystems created by forest canopy. “Parks have no understory and only a few trees.”

Roselli, and other opponents of the project, say the governor and Statehouse leadership’s support of having this forestland developed, for what is essentially 19th-century power, is inconsistent with Rhode Island’s land-use and environmental policy. The natural-gas facility certainly won’t help the state meet the greenhouse gas-emission-reduction goals outlined in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014.

The state’s support of the power plant further highlights a growing pattern of land-use mismanagement. In two other Rhode Island forestlands, in Johnston and Hopkinton, the state supports the building of a corporate banking campus and a travel plaza. This trio of woodland projects has left environmentalists and conservationists wondering when Rhode Island will stop living in the past and start looking to the future.

“The labor unions funded Gina’s (Gov. Raimondo) campaign; she’s catering to her funders,” Roselli said. “It’s certainly not the the will of the public, most of whom are against the project.”

The numerous signs against the proposed power plant posted throughout the northwest corner of the state back Roselli’s claim.

Many of the project’s opponents, like Roselli and Greg Gerritt, understand the need for power, but are baffled as to why the Ocean State embraces the expansion of a dirty fossil fuel. They say the state should be putting trade unions and others to work building renewable-energy facilities, upgrading the power grid to better handle 21st-century technology and implementing energy-efficiency projects.

Gerritt has repeatedly said, “The point is to build things communities want.”

Roselli said the technology exists to better tap into renewable-energy sources. “Technology has caught up, but our mindset hasn’t,” he said.

The community in Rhode Island’s northwest corner has made it known it doesn’t want another fossil-fuel power plant in its collective backyard. Most of the more than 100,000 people who live in the area don’t want the 52 known pollutants that will be spewed from the plant’s twin 200-foot-tall stacks, nor the 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide the plant will generate annually.

They and others are concerned about the impact the facility could have on the many environmental areas within a 5-mile radius of the proposed Clear River Energy Center. Those areas include 20 bodies of water, including three drinking-water supplies — Wallum Lake, Wilson Reservoir and Pascoag Reservoir — 25 state recreation areas and eight conservation areas.

The project, with its roads, buildings and equipment, will increase the area’s collection of impervious surfaces and, thus, the amount of stormwater that will need to be managed.

However, the siting plan avoided placement of structures and pavement within the boundaries of delineated wetlands “to the extent practicable,” according to Invenergy’s lengthy application.

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  1. A couple of things to add to this excellent article. First, the simple math of what might be called, "It’s the Location, Stupid" argument against the power plant:

    Your map doesn’t show that the power plant site shares a property line with the George Washington Management area. George Washington contains a State Camping Area and the Pulaski Park Recreation area. George Washington is contiguous with the Durfee Hill Management Area to the south and together they total 5, 176 acres of forest.

    George Washington-Durfee is also contiguous with the 1,600 acre Narragansett Council Boy Scout Reservation which is contiguous with Connecticut’s 1,109 acre Quaddick State Forest on the west and the 1,777 acre Buck Hill Management Area on the north—which in turn is contiguous with the 5,525 acre Douglas State Forest in Massachusetts.

    Add it all up and you have 15,187 acres of contiguous protected forest.

    In fact, that’s 1,370 more acres than what 99% of the combined membership of the Rhode Island Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, and Save the Bay think is our biggest State forest, Acadia.

    Ecosystem don’t respect political boundaries.

    And as far as threatened species are concerned, to the east of the power plant site across Wallum Lake you have the thousand acre plus, mostly privately owned Clear River Valley, home to two turtle species—according to DEM—that are currently being considered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act, the Wood Turtle and the Spotted Turtle.

    And right in the middle of all you are going to have a 1,000 megawatt power plant adjacent to a pipeline compressor station whose turbine engines will have a rating of over 19,000 horsepower.

    Why, may I ask, are our "renowned" conservation organizations NOT PAYING ANY ATTENTION TO THIS?

    If this were proposed ANYWHERE NEAR ACADIA, Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and Save the Bay would be screaming about it.

    If the editorial board of ecori news is really serious in its opposition to this power plant, your reporters need to confront the leaders of those organizations with some hard questions.

  2. Yes, the forest canopies should be preserved and yes, RI needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. But I’m offended by the blame placed on unions.

    “The labor unions funded Gina’s (Gov. Raimondo) campaign; she’s catering to her funders,” Roselli said. “It’s certainly not the the will of the public, most of whom are against the project.”

    1 Labor unions weren’t Raymond’s main contributors–esp. not the public ones. #2 Putting labor unions against the public is an instance of neoliberal brainwashing. #3 The article states that it’s a private company that’s pushing this — thus, it’s an instance of capitalist greed rather than an effort of workers trying to preserve a living wage.

    Even if the statement isn’t the journalist’s or EcoRI’s viewpoint, leaving it in there with no context, no explanation, no disclaimer, is a disservice to public discourse. Shame on you. You’re proving to be as bad as MSM.

  3. I thank ecori for calling attention to this and also the first three posting comments who all made interesting points.
    I think the conservation societies noted probably have limited capacity to deal with every such issue of loss of forest and open space, this is not the only one. For example, to my knowledge, they haven’t’ commented on the new interchange on I-295 for Citizens and no doubt many others to build on green space, or the Tiverton casino either.
    I think it is right not to blame the construction unions for supporting the power plant, they don;t have a lot of short term real alternatives. But "capitalist greed" isn’t the whole story either, underlying this is the desire of the people to consume electric power, capitalists will meet this demand if there is a profit, not meeting the demand means higher prices or shortages.

  4. Reading this article again, I notice a major point where it fails to capture the full extent of the wider "land-use mismanagement" issue alluded to—or rather, the body-blow that approval of this power plant site will deliver to decades of local, State and regional land-use planning. It occurs when Mr. Roselli is quoted saying, "We need to recognize this is a special environment." In fact, the site where the plant would be built is already recognized as a special environment in the texts of existing Burrillville, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts planning documents. The foundational description and its accompanying data were collected in the massive 1995 Resource Protection Project. One hundred individuals, nine NGO’s, URI and Brown, and every State agency with a slice of planning authority participated. The power plant site—which, remember, was rejected by DEM as an alternative site for the Ocean State power plant in the 80’s—is located within the most densely overlaid portion of the "Moosup River/Western Blackstone Watershed Resource Protection Area." The area is described as follows: "These watersheds comprise the northern section of Rhode Island’s "Western Forest," the largest tract of forest habitat in the state. It is also a significant non-urbanized area in the Washington D.C. to Boston corridor, especially considering its interstate connections with Connecticut and Massachusetts. This area is inhabited by species that require large un-fragmented tracts of forest, including neotropical migrant birds (that use these forests for nesting habitat) and wide-ranging mammals such as the bobcat and fisher. The higher elevations and cooler microclimate in this part of the state support natural communities typical of regions north of Rhode Island. The public is able to enjoy the large amounts of open space that are accessible through significant state holdings and the North/South trail currently under development."

    And yet, as I repeat again, the NGO’s who played a major role in the Resource Protection Project, and who claim to be the advocates of its legacy embedded today in planning documents from the "State Guide Plan" on down to the Town of Burrillville’s Comprehensive Plan, are, to date, standing aside and allowing the Energy Facility Siting Board to make its decision without their input. I refer to The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island, Save the Bay, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Audubon, for the record, did indeed testify in favor of the Keable-Fogarty EFSB reform bill, but has not taken a stand yet on the main issue in the only forum that counts now, the EFSB’s public hearings.

    Why?

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