NORTH SMITHFIELD – A Woonsocket official is raising concerns about the proximity of Green Energy Development’s proposed 38.4 megawatt solar project to a water source that serves some 47,000 people in northern Rhode Island.
Woonsocket Water Supt. Mark Viggiani sent a letter this week to North Smithfield Town Planner Tom Kravitz warning of the need to protect the city reservoir, which sits roughly one mile south of land where clear-cutting of trees to make way for the project has already begun.
“I would like to thank you for the opportunity to express my concerns for protection of source water and ultimately, our drinking water,” wrote Viggiani in a communication sent to Kravitz on Wednesday, March 4.
Viggiani noted that the solar company’s plan to use chemical pesticides, “as a last resort,” should state that “no chemical pesticides are to be used.” The language appears in a Stormwater System Operations & Maintenance Plan submitted by DiPrete Engineering.
The water official also points to the need to create an inspection schedule to ensure safety of the reservoir.
“Having a sound O & M plan and at the very least, a yearly review will ensure the checklists are being implemented correctly and will provide opportunities to update the O & M if necessary,” Viggiani wrote.
The Woonsocket Water Department also serves some 600 residents in North Smithfield, as well as some homes in Blackstone and Bellingham, Mass.
The letter comes just as the North Smithfield Planning Board prepares for what’s expected to be the last in a series of public hearings on a master plan for the project. Extensive feedback from residents at three previous hearings has focused on environmental concerns.
Planners have noted that the deadline to approve or reject the plan is fast approaching, and they are expected to render a decision following a hearing scheduled for Thursday, March 5 beginning at 7 p.m. at North Smithfield Middle School.
There is much at stake, according to an assessment of the safety of the city’s drinking water published by the Rhode Island Department of Health. The Crookfall Brook watershed – an area of land that drains into the one of two reservoirs serving Woonsocket Water customers – covers 5,000 acres in towns outside of the city.
The brook itself flows into the city’s Reservoir 1, and forms the boundary between North Smithfield and Lincoln. Spring Brook, which feeds into Crookfall, abuts the property off of Iron Mine Hill Road where the solar panels will be installed.
Construction of Green Energy’s project will require the clear-cutting of some 200 acres of forested land on Whortleberry Hill.
“Forested watershed areas are a vital factor in maintaining water quality,” notes the assessment. “Most of the watershed is in private hands and subject to intense development pressure.”
Over the years, Viggiani said that the city has tried to purchase land surrounding the reservoirs to keep them permanently protected.
“Ideally, we’d like to own the whole watershed,” Viggiani said. “There’s only so many funds.”
Viggiani told NRI NOW that he was never asked to weigh in on the project and became aware of the concerns after he was contacted by residents.
“My understanding is it’s pretty much a done deal,” he said. “It’s not an ideal spot for me, but I don’t have the power to stop it.”
“I just wanted to make sure they use the best scientific approach to protect Spring Brook,” he said.
The water superintendent’s letter also points to two auto salvage yards in the area with noting the area should be tested for contaminants before soil is disturbed.
“Do a little testing before you dig it up instead of trying to fix it after you find the problem,” Viggiani said.
Waterways, he notes, should be tested both before and after construction.
The Woonsocket water official noted that he looked over all of the plans for the project and they do appear to be thorough.
“It’s well done – the work they did on it,” Viggiani said. “They are putting in the proper drainage.”
Viggiani noted that the city tests the water for contaminants twice a year.
“If anything changes, we’ll be able to see it show up,” he said.
Update: The project received preliminary master plan approval Thursday night. Read more here .