Johnston Mayor Explains Vote for Invenergy Water Deal


JOHNSTON, R.I. — Mayor Joseph Polisena weighed in on his town’s surprising water deal with the developer of the fossil fuel power plant proposed for Burrillville and the controversy the recent agreement created.

Polisena said the process began when he was approached by Invenergy Thermal Development LLC on Dec. 31 with an offer to have the town serve as a secondary water source for the proposed Clear River Energy Center. Polisena said he turned down an initial proposal of $200,000 annually for 10 years. But days later he was agreeable to a second offer to serve as the power plant’s primary water source. The deal offered $18 million paid over 20 years, the same deal that Invenergy offered to Woonsocket some six weeks ago.

On Jan. 10, by a 5-2 vote, the Woonsocket City Council turned down the proposal to sell two to three tanker trucks of water daily to Chicago-based Invenergy. Council members cited health risks posed by the 900-megawatt power plant and potential threats to the city’s water supply.

Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, however, favored the agreement and had hoped the money would pay for water infrastructure improvements.

“I consider this a missed opportunity that another city stands likely to benefit from,” Baldelli-Hunt said in a statement.

At a Jan. 6 public hearing at Woonsocket High School, critics of the deal said the process was rushed and required further vetting.

Polisena said Johnston had only days to consider Invenergy’s offer, and didn’t hold public discussion or hearings. Polisena said he briefed Town Council members individually on the proposal four to five days ahead of their vote, which was held on the same night of the Woonsocket vote, Jan. 10. He insisted, however, that he adhered to the rules for posting and announcing the meeting, known as “open-meeting laws.”

“It was open process. It was a transparent process,” Polisena told ecoRI News on Jan. 11. “That’s all we needed to have is one meeting.”

Public input, he said, would only be necessary if the offer required spending taxpayer money.

The proposal was too good to pass up, he said. “Of course I was in favor because the town is going to get money.”

Polisena insisted that the town’s agreement with Providence Water, the water commission owned by the city of Providence, allows it to resell water. Providence Water confirmed that Johnston can resell the water, saying that the agency can only restrict water use if the supply is stressed — a scenario that seems unlikely given the relatively low volume of water that Invenergy is seeking.

“We can sell as much as we want to whoever we want,” Polisena said.

On the day of the council vote, Polisena said no residents reached out to say they supported or opposed the project. But his office received numerous phone calls and emails from across the country and the state asking him to oppose the project due to its environmental impacts.

He said some comments were offensive and threatening, accusing him and his office assistant of killing babies if the town approved the water deal.

Polisena’s response to concerns about possible environmental impacts was to ask why the “so-called environmentalists” weren’t offering support in 2011 when the community was suffering from offensive odors emanating from the Central Landfill operated by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

“When we were down and out, none of these environmentalists came to our rescue,” Polisena said.

The Clear River Energy Center’s environmental impact wasn’t part of the decision, he said.

“This is a no-brainer,” Polisena said. “We’re 18 million dollars better off than we were yesterday. And the big winner is going to be Burrillville. They are going to get $200 million.”

Meeting reaction
Word of the Johnston vote spread online late Monday afternoon, prompting power-plant opponents to scramble to attend both Jan. 10 meetings. Several claimed of arriving an hour or so ahead of the vote in Johnston, seeing open seats in the Municipal Court building but being told to sit in a separate room or asked to leave. Many were forced to wait in a narrow hallway, while being yelled at by supporters of the deal, who packed the small meeting space, to go home. Many of the supporters were members of building trade unions who occupied most of the seats in the meeting room.

“So the whole thing was an orchestrated piece of theater designed to keep us out,” said Sally Mendzela, a power-plant opponent from North Providence.

Climate activist Beth Milham of Newport said, “I was witness to what had to be the biggest travesty in democratic process Tuesday night in Johnston.”

Both opponents said only three women, a union member, an attorney for Invenergy and the stenographer, were in the meeting room that had a capacity of about 90 people. Despite the insufficient size of the meeting venue, both noticed that larger venues, such as a middle school, were nearby.

Polisena said he didn’t put out the call to union supporters to pack the house. “It was an open meeting, they have a right to come,” he said. “There was no cloak and dagger.”

Opponents such as Milham and Mendzela said they intend to contest the meeting with the secretary of state.

Polisena, meanwhile, said the agreement with Invenergy needs no other action by the town. “Its all set; signed, sealed and delivered,” he said.

The agreement means that Invenergy met its Jan. 11 deadline to find a water supply to the cool the 900-megawatt natural gas/diesel power plant. The deadline was set by the state Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) after two Burrilllville water district refused to offer water for the project.

The EFSB will likely decide if a hearing is required to discuss Invenergy’s new water plan. The three-member board also is considering motions to dismiss the project filed by the town of Burrillville and the Conservation Law Foundation. The project also requires air- and water-pollution permits from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.


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  1. The meeting was a farce and a sham. They did not give 48 hours’ notice: the typo in the original notice meant that monitoring services (Google Alerts) could not recognize the topic of the meeting, so opponents did not have time to organize. Intentional or not, the vote was illegal and must be retaken. The town of Johnston should be ashamed of itself for showing such an ugly face to its neighbors.

  2. Johnston didn’t care to protect the woodlands in their own town when Citizens Bank wanted to build their sprawl campus/new I-295 interchange, how can they be expected to care about the loss of woodland in Burrillville. Note there was nobody coming to help the local opposition to the Citizens raid,

    It seems strange to me that so much environmental effort has gone into opposition to this power plant while no attention was paid to the situations in Johnston, or Tiverton for that matter where natural areas are also being sacrificed. At least in the Burrillville case there will be a facility generating electricity that people want to use, in other cases destructive gambling at a casino, or a bank facility that just replaces those that had already been in the metro area. Its also hard to believe Burrillville residents care that much about the environment as they voted substantially for Trump despite his climate-change-is-a-hoax position.

  3. "Polisena, meanwhile, said the agreement with Invenergy needs no other action by the town. ‘Its all set; signed, sealed and delivered,’ he said."

    Ah, the good old days when politicians everywhere in Rhode Island acted like this.

    Un-mentioned in the article is the fact that Building and Construction Trades Council boss, Michael Sabitioni, Johnston native and key political ally of Governor Raimondo—he served on her transition team—and chief political ram-rod for the power plant project to be built on the property line of the second largest publicly owned forest complex in the state, was not present in Johnston. He was at the Woonsocket City Council meeting. (Reports that he broke into a broad grin when the Woonsocket Council rejected the Ivenergy deal are unsubstantiated; nobody thought of snapping a photo.) Proof, right, that he had nothing to do with packing the Johnston meeting with union members to exclude seating for members of the rest of the public?

    And Governor Raimondo, she went to bed early, no doubt, no need to stay up for the 11 o’clock news from Woonsocket with the deal already in the bag days earlier…

    Again, gotta’ love old school Rhode Island insider politics! This "Clear River Energy Center" has been a classic Rhode Island Railroad Job from the beginning, "all set; signed, sealed and delivered."

    Some struggling documentary film-maker just out of school should be making a movie of this.

  4. Where will the ‘used water ‘ be deposited ? Could this quantity of used water be potentially damaging to the environment of the area where it is deposited, or where it may flow?

  5. Mr. Polisena made a veiled threat on my life at a 6/10 Connector meeting I attended. He did so three times, once in front of the full group. He said he hoped that "This one" (me) didn’t "have an unfortunate accident and die" on my bicycle, before accusing the boulevard plan of threatening the speed of ambulance trips. One of these utterances, made for the full group, was made after he was given an honored place to speak for the highway, and despite his literally pointing at me and making those comments, RIDOT director Peter Alviti tried to stop me from responding. Polisena is a scar on our state.

  6. "Polisena said he briefed Town Council members individually on the proposal four to five days ahead of their vote, which was held on the same night of the Woonsocket vote, Jan. 10."

    Mayor Polisena’s statement proves that this decision was not made legally. In Rhode Island, members of a public body discussing a topic by phone prior to a meeting is called a "Rolling Quorum" and is in violation of the Open Meetings Act. See details in:
    The "rolling quorum" prohibition is discussed on page 4.

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