Expert continues plea for impact study on power plant

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PROVIDENCE – Rick Enser readily admits that he doesn’t want to see a power plant, such as the one Invenergy Thermal Development LLC has proposed by the property line of George Washington State Forest, built anywhere in Rhode Island.

But as an ecologist who spent 28 years documenting the state’s biodiversity as the coordinator of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Natural Heritage Program, Enser says he definitely does not want to see one built in the state’s north west corner.

“A small group of us have been concerned about this power plant since the very beginning and it’s the location argument,” Enser told a crowd gathered at Bell Street Chapel in Providence last week. “The biggest power plant ever built in this state is proposed for what is currently the largest ecosystem in this state.”

The ecologist noted that 17 state-listed rare species and an additional 32 species identified by Rhode Island Natural Action Plan as being of “greatest conservation need,” have been found where the Chicago-based developer aims to build the massive fossil-fuel burning Clean River Energy Center.

Enser made his case for why the Energy Facility Siting Board, the state governing body poised to decide the fate of the plant, should order an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal for the nearly 1,000-megawatt facility, which he and other opponents worry will threaten the area’s ecological diversity.

“He’s a good friend to the state of Rhode Island, he’s a good friend to the environment and really, he’s a good friend to all living things,” said Jason Olkowski of Keep Rhode Island Beautiful during an introduction of the ecologist. “When you hear people say they write the book on something, Rick actually did.”

A past president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey and the Rhode Island and the RI Wild Plant Society, Enser also wrote the original Atlas of Breeding Birds in Rhode Island. And he says that if the power plant is built, it will take several species out of the state.

“This really is a forest issue,” he said. “In truth, this argument has not received enough attention. It’s really getting slipped under the door.”

Enser’s Providence talk came just as the EFSB began final hearings on the plant, the culmination of a nearly three year process that’s seen mounting opposition from residents and conservationists statewide and beyond. Opponents say that the current environmental assessment for the project is lacking, and have called on federal authorities to order a broader EIS to address biodiversity.

Enser was among those who mapped out important areas to preserve in Rhode Island when the state sought to address the issue of biodiversity in the 1990s. The effort resulted in the establishment of  “Natural Heritage Areas,” wherever numerous rare species were found. He says that while the proposed site for Invenergy’s plant didn’t receive the official designation, it is surrounded by such zones.

“Essentially, it’s the biggest piece of mature first in Rhode Island,” he said. “It is all part of the same ecosystem.”

Required by the National Environmental Policy Act, Enser noted that a main purpose of an EIS is to look at alternative locations that are less harmful to the environment.

Enser pointed out that when Ocean State Power first sought to build a plant in the state in the 1980s, an EIS was ordered, and 82 alternative locations were examined. As that plant’s potential to disturb the natural environment was further studied, the number was whittled down to 32 sites, and then 14, before the company finally settled on their location on Sherman Farm Road in Burrillville.

Invenergy, by comparison, focused on a single location when the company submitted an application to the EFSB in 2015.

“They didn’t talk about alternative sites until they received a request from DEM a year and a half later in 2016,” Enser said.

He says that’s just one of several issues with the process currently being followed.

Because the plant would be built on privately-owned land, no records have been kept on the site leading DEM to conclude in one statement that one “could not make conjectures” of the full impact on species “with such little info.”

Enser speaks to the crowd gathered at the Bell Street Chapel in Providence.

“Any power plant that’s ever been constructed or proposed for construction in this state has had an environmental impact statement,” Enser said. “It’s really a must at this stage of the game.”

Similar pleas for more study have been submitted to federal authorities by the Burrillville Land Trust and the absence of an EIS was also noted by during opening statements at the final hearings for the $1 billion plant last month.

But Invenergy has disputed the level of impact the plant will have on the region. Michael Blazer, chief legal officer for Invenergy, told EFSB members that arguments against the plant have focused on “misleading rhetoric,” “exaggeration,” and “media-tailored sound bites.” He noted that the state Public Utilities Commission and the Office of Energy Resources both said the plant would help meet future electrical demand in the region, and that renewable energy and energy efficiency will not be sufficient to replace the power lost by retiring power plants.

For Enser, however, the question is the forest, and how fragmentation and noise will affect a delicate habitat situated right next to state conservation land.

“This is forest interior destruction that is going to take several species out of Rhode Island,” he said.