At a short and rowdy special session held Tuesday evening in a small room where people were turned away because the room was at capacity, then stood in the hall and chanted “change the venue,” the Town Council took minutes to approve a plan for Johnston to supply water to the power plant proposed in Burrillville.
The plan is currently under review by the Energy Facility Siting Board and needs to secure a source of water in order to move forward.
Invenergy Services LLC has for several months sought a water supply so plans can move ahead to build the Clear River Energy Center (CREC), a nearly $700 million, 1,000 megawatt natural gas and oil powered plant proposed for Wallum Lake Road in Burrillville.
The power plant is a controversial proposal and has drawn complaints and environmental concerns from residents near the proposed site and across the state. Invenergy must locate a source of water to create steam for power generation.
Members of the town council unanimously approved Resolution 2017-5, which authorizes the mayor to enter into a water supply and economic development agreement between the town and the corporation.
Approval of the plan coincided with a nearly simultaneous Woonsocket City Council meeting, which the company also sought to buy water from. That body voted 5-2 against the similar measure for their city to provide a water supply. The Pascoag Utility District and the Harrisville Fire District have also ended negotiations with Invenergy.
“Invenergy is now prepared to become a new water customer of the Town of Johnston, and to extend to the town the same level of financial support – more than $18 million over the next 20 years – as we had offered Woonsocket,” said Invenergy in a statement to the Sun Rise. “While we are disappointed Woonsocket decided not to move ahead with us, we’re pleased to have identified our water supplier. We look forward to continuing the review process of this critically important project.”
According to Mayor Joseph Polisena, talks between the town and Invenergy began late last year. At the time, Invenergy considered Johnston to be a secondary supply source should an arrangement with Woonsocket fall through.
“They approached me probably about three weeks ago, and they approached me as a backup. They came in and they said we’d like to make you an offer if Woonsocket obviously doesn’t vote for it we’ll give you the offer we made Woonsocket,” said Polisena.
Timing for the arrangement was critical for Invenergy, as a deadline of January 11 had been given by the Energy Facility Siting Board for the company to obtain a viable water source for the plant.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that I get as much money as I can without going to the taxpayers of this town. I think it’s a great deal for the town,” said Polisena. “It comes to $18 million over 20 years. What it look like is something like this; they’re going to give us $500,000 up front every year, then another $200,000 in basically a PILOT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] program. Keep in mind, if they buy a building, they don’t have to pay any taxes because they’re an energy company. So basically we’re going to get $700,000 for 20 years.”
The mayor also explained that the arrangement provides for a 3 percent escalator clause increase per year. The resolution also provides the town with a $200,000 payment per year, up to a million dollars, to be used at the town’s discretion.
“What I’m going to do with that is, myself and the town council will decide how that money is spent. I’ll sit down with the council, and we’ll make a decision on what’s best so it covers the taxpayers both young and old, and we’ll make a decision on how that money will be spent,” said Polisena “Keep in mind this isn’t going to take effect for two or three years. I’m not going to be waiting at the mailbox for the check because they have other issues that they have to go through the process in order to build.”
The brief council meeting saw a packed council chambers, with constituents overflowing into the hallway. The sudden arrangement caught some residents by surprise, who then questioned the legality of the compromise.
“We advertised legally. The opposition is trying to say that we didn’t advertise, that it was through the Secretary of State’s website, which we did legally, and [Town Clerk] Vincent Baccari posted it in three spots,” said Polisena. “So everything was done obviously to the letter of the law. Woonsocket ended up voting no and in the agreement that they had last night, which they saw prior too of course, was all legal. They knew what the agreement was, they basically voted on the entire package if you will that if Woonsocket said no we’d be primary if Woonsocket said yes we’d be secondary.”
While some residents questioned if the arrangement was a ‘done deal’ prior to approval, Polisena stated that each council member was informed of the terms of the arrangement in advance and knew what they were voting on.
“I met with the council one on one, which is perfectly legal. I obviously showed them what the offer was and told them what the offer was,” he said. “They were obviously on board; it’s money that comes to the town for doing absolutely nothing but selling water.”
Polisena also stated that his office received about a half dozen phone calls in opposition to the plan, but indicated that the majority of these calls came from out of state, with another coming from Gloucester. He was also unbothered by potential reactions stemming from environmental concerns.
“If I have to govern because those people from those states tell me how to govern, I might as well throw the keys on the table,” said Polisena. “I’m not concerned at all about backlash. The day that I have people from the environmental community try to tell me how to run the town I might as well give the keys back to the taxpayers. When we were having the profuse odors that were penetrating the town, none of these so called environmentalists or anyone from Burrillville ever called and said “Gee, I feel bad for Johnston, this isn’t right, this is not good.” Burrillville just continued to put their trash out on the curb and they dumped 4,000 tons of solid waste in Johnston’s landfill, which is fine.”
Recent media reports have indicated that the Providence Water Supply Board may not authorize Johnston to sell water to the plant, but Polisina stated that was not the case.
“Some said Providence is not going to sell us the water, well that’s not true. Our agreement says that Providence wholesales water to us as much as we want, and we can sell it to who we want to sell it to,” he said. “We’re going to sell it to them at the rate that we decide on as long as we don’t charge them any more than any other customer. So we’ll look at that.”
Polisena also stressed that there would be no financial burdens placed on Johnston taxpayers because of the arrangement.
“We don’t have to spend one dime on anything. The only thing we have to do is turn on the spigot and sell them water. There are no infrastructure costs at all. They’re going to buy a building or buy a piece of property and put up a building, and they’re going to buy the trucks,” said the mayor.
CREC’s water will be trucked in to Burrillville from a facility in Johnston, which has yet to be purchased or built. Residents also raised concerns about the amount of water necessary to meet the plant’s needs, which some reports have pegged at upwards of 900,000 gallons per day.
“That’s nonsense. That’s the opposition making false statements. They’re looking at possibly three truckloads containing 8,500 gallons a day. It’s also written in there that if there’s a drought, we don’t sell them water,” added Polisena. “We’re obviously not going to put ourselves at risk or the residents at risk. There’s a lot of safeguards in for the town, and it’s a windfall for the town.”
The mayor also said that there was no public comment allowed at the special session because while it was a public meeting, it was not a public hearing. He indicated that the resolution was no different than any other agreement with any other company and that “there was nothing covert about this.”
“Anybody from Johnston that claims it’s a bad deal, to me they're anti Johnston and they’re anti-citizens because this money is going to benefit all the citizens in the town,” said Polisena. “We woke up this morning, and we’re $18 million more in the black than we were yesterday. So I think it’s a great deal.”