Concern Widens Over LPG Expansion in Port of Providence
May 6, 2021
Recent statements by the Rhode Island attorney general have sparked public outcry and generated health and safety concerns over a proposed liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) storage expansion along the Providence waterfront.
The project — proposed by Sea 3 Providence LLC, a subsidiary of New England propane provider Blackline Midstream LLC — would add six 90,000-gallon propane storage tanks to a vacant lot next to Sea 3’s existing 25 Fields Point Drive facility. The facility currently hosts a 19-million-gallon cold-storage tank. The proposed expansion would also connect the facility to a rail line allowing daily train deliveries to supplement regular marine shipments of LPG.
“This appears to be inconsistent with Rhode Island’s long-term climate change goals,” according to a May 3 statement released by Attorney General Peter Neronha. “Further, because the proposal raises public safety concerns — it must be fully vetted by the EFSB [Energy Facility Siting Board] before it is approved.”
In a May 7 letter to the EFSB, the attorney general’s office notes that the “proposed increase in operations is significant and raises serious concerns about the cumulative addition of harmful air emissions associated with increased truck traffic in an environmental justice community already overburdened by pollution.”
The letter also points to public health and safety concerns related to rail transport and storage of LPG. It notes that the EFSB should be mindful of the rights of environmental-justice communities to be heard on projects that have the potential to impact already-overburdened neighborhoods. It says expansion of the facility would allow for increased distribution of fossil fuels, which is contrary to the state’s mandatory goals to address climate change.
“A full application from Sea 3 Providence and comprehensive review by the EFSB are imperative to ensure that all aspects of this proposal are satisfactorily addressed and that the public is given adequate opportunity to comment on the proposal’s potential impacts to the community,” according to the eight-page letter.
Sea 3 filed a petition in March seeking to bypass the Energy Facility Siting Board’s full application process. The petition argues the project doesn’t qualify as “a significant modification to a major energy facility,” as outlined by the EFSB, and therefore shouldn’t be subject to a full review.
The attorney general’s office disagrees. It has requested that the EFSB determine the proposed expansion of the facility is an alteration of a major energy facility and requires a full application and review by the board
Local representatives and community advocates joined in criticism of the proposed expansion and pushed community members to submit public comments to the EFSB. A letter signed by 20 state representatives and six senators asks the EFSB to fully vet and reject Sea 3’s proposed expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure.
In a May 7 letter filed with the EFSB, Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, notes that the project is in a waterfront location vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge. She also takes exception with the public comment process.
“I object to the onerous requirements for public comments as set forth in the public notice on this petition,” according to her four-page letter. “The requirements on this petition differ from the requirements for other petitions and has the potential to chill public participation. These issues are of great public concern and no one should be required to produce a ‘memorandum of law’ to participate in the public comment period. To instill such a requirement is inequitable and unjust.”
She said the EFSB should publish a corrected notice and extend the comment period to “correct this serious issue.”
“The industrial operations already taking place in this neighborhood have repeatedly created major threats to public health, safety and the local environment,” Pedro Espinal, president pro tempore of the Providence City Council, wrote in an email to ecoRI News. “Any economic gains presented by Sea 3’s expansion proposal is far outweighed by the risks of further polluting the Port of Providence and South Side neighborhoods.”
Espinal represents the Port of Providence neighborhoods of South Providence and Washington Park.
“As the Councilman to Ward 10, protecting public health, safety and quality of life remains my top priority,” he wrote. “For this reason, I will be submitting a letter of opposition to this proposal as part of the public comment period.”
“What Sea 3 is doing — expanding fossil fuel infrastructure in a community with so many people of color who are already afflicted with high levels of pollution and rates of asthma — is racist. Plain and simple,” Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, tweeted.
Nicholas Hemond, a litigation lawyer representing Sea 3 through DarrowEverett LLP, said the company appreciated the public concern for “the environmental impacts of energies,” but felt criticism over the expansion was “misplaced.”
He billed the project as a “marginal expansion” of Sea 3’s operations, increasing storage capacity by about 3 percent and diversifying propane delivery to allow for domestic rail shipment. He said access to the domestic market would enable a long-term transition to renewable propane, a statement echoed briefly in the site report provided to the EFSB.
Hemond said the expansion wouldn’t surpass the use already permitted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is in line with zoning codes and historical usage of the port.
LPG facilities have existed on the Fields Point Drive site since 1975, 11 years before the EFSB was established as part of the Energy Facility Siting Act of 1986, according to EFSB acting coordinator Emma Rodvien.
“What that means is that the terminal would have been locally permitted at that time and since then has been grandfathered [in] post the passage of the Siting Act,” she said, “which means that it’s actually treated as if it had been granted a license by the board.”
Sea 3 has operated out of the Port of Providence since 2019. The area is zoned as a W-3 Port and Maritime Industrial Waterfront District.
“If there’s a larger policy debate about whether you want to have a marine industrial port,” Hemond said, “well, that’s got nothing to do with Sea 3 because that’s what is the allowed use there.”
The recent letter from the attorney general’s office notes that additional truck traffic into the Port of Providence from the proposed project may result in significant increases in nitrogen oxide and easily inhaled fine particulate matter in an area with already-elevated pollution levels and asthma rates.
“The residential neighborhoods to the south and west of the Port of Providence are already suffering the disproportionate impacts associated with heavy truck traffic and the industrial and commercial activities taking place along Allens Avenue,” according to the letter. “These activities are highly concentrated in a relatively small geographic area and expose the residents of South Providence … to greater risk of severe respiratory illness than other Rhode Islanders.”
Monica Huertas, executive director of The People’s Port Authority, called on the city to take greater responsibility for an area plagued by “never-ending” industrial expansion.
“Somebody has to have some responsibility over these people,” she said. “And so, I think that it is the city’s job, and the city’s job to change the zoning in these areas and stop sanctioning violence on the community.
“The comment that we are going to make is that we don’t want this in our community because we’ve had enough.”
The EFSB is accepting public comment by email at [email protected] until 4 p.m. May 7, though additional comments will be accepted throughout the review process. The board will “consider carefully” every comment before reviewing the Sea 3 petition, according to Rodvien.
“I think this is a perfect opportunity,” Huertas said, “for the politicians who say they care about the environment and that they care about Providence to really put their money where their mouth is and actually put [in] policies that not only prevent new things from being built there, but force existing companies to leave immediately.”