Saying No to Fracked Gas

The people of Burrillville stand tall against fossil fuel interests

Laurie O'Reilly | @LaurieOReilly Conservation Matters Annual Report, Summer 2019

In 2015, energy giant Invenergy announced its plan to pave over a pristine forest in Burrillville, Rhode Island, to build a 900-megawatt fracked gas power plant. The plant size and scope immediately set off alarm bells at CLF’s Providence office.

With coal plants across New England shutting down, thanks in large part to CLF’s campaign to make the region coal-free by 2020, fracked gas was being touted as a cheap and clean substitute. But gas is still a climate-damaging fossil fuel, one that New England (and the world) needs to stop using to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts.

With an expected life of 30 years, the Invenergy plant would lock Rhode Island into climate-damaging fossil fuels well beyond 2050, the date by which the state had committed to cut its carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels. In November of 2015, the day after Invenergy applied to the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board for a permit, Senior Attorney Jerry Elmer filed a motion for CLF to intervene in the proceedings.

Elmer admits that, at the time, he wasn’t sure CLF could stop the plant. The proposal already had the support of many town and state leaders, who eagerly repeated Invenergy’s talking points about the supposedly dire need for the 900 megawatts of electricity the plant would produce.

What Elmer didn’t know then was just how powerful an ally CLF would have in the people of Burrillville. Invenergy, too, would soon learn that it had seriously underestimated the power of community.

“If it wasn’t for the hundreds of volunteers and a broad coalition of amazing groups all around the state, that plant would be sited right now,” says Jason Olkowski, who lives in Burrillville with his wife Erin and their children. Instead, community members, alongside CLF and other allies, blocked the plant at every opportunity, drawing out the approval process for nearly four years, which strengthened their argument that the plant is not needed in the first place.

The Olkowskis had heard about the power plant proposal when it first was announced but hadn’t given it much thought at the time. When they went to a town meeting to learn more, they found it packed with Invenergy supporters. Most weren’t from Burrillville, yet they dominated the microphone when it came time for the public to comment. Frustrated by what they had seen, they went home and read Invenergy’s 473-page application for state approval.

“We started scanning through the tables of hazardous pollutants that are going to be spewed into the air, the acres of forest to be clear-cut, the 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide it will emit,” recalls Jason. Surely, the couple thought, if they want to put something like this in their beautiful town, there must be a real need for it.

Jason and Erin OlkowskiBut as they dug deeper into the hazards of fracking, the dangers of the pipelines and infrastructure needed to transport it, the water wasted to run gas power plants, and fracked gas’s role in climate change, they realized that the Invenergy plant wasn’t just about Burrillville – it all tied into a bigger system that is harming the global environment as well.

As the Olkowskis started voicing their concerns, they were repeatedly told that the plant was a done deal and that there was nothing they could do. But that only galvanized them more. “We had been consulting with lawyers from the town and CLF, so we knew it was far from a done deal,” Erin says. 

The Olkowskis soon connected with other community members opposed to the plant, one of whom was Kathy Sherman, who lived across the street from the proposed building site with her husband.

Because of their proximity to the site, they had received a formal notification about Invenergy’s proposal, but details were scarce. They were given a deadline by which they could intervene in the proceedings of the Energy Facility Siting Board but having a seat at the table during the Board’s deliberations came at a price. “We were required to have attorneys to represent us,” Kathy says. “So that seat at the table cost us money. It wasn’t fair democracy.”

Kathy grew more concerned as she learned about the plant, especially its potential health impacts for herself, her husband, and her neighbors. “Toxic pollution won’t happen in a vacuum over the town of Burrillville,” she says. “It will impact the entire state, as well as Connecticut and Massachusetts.”

As those opposing the plant started to come together, they combined their strengths to tackle the issue from multiple angles. “Once we all rallied together, everyone brought their different expertise and interests,” says Kathy. “We were able to put together a group that took this fight to different levels.”

A Facebook page was launched, and fact sheets and signs distributed. Rallies were held, and petitions signed. Residents educated neighbors and town officials about the dangers the plant posed, creating an army of vocal opponents. “If we had a chance of winning, we had to reach a lot more people like us, people who don’t see themselves as activists but who we knew would care once they learned what’s really at stake,” says Erin.

Knowing this needed to be viewed as more than just a local issue, the Shermans, Olkowskis, and their allies broadened their focus to include statewide and regional outreach.

An effort to garner support from nearby towns ultimately gathered letters of opposition from 36 communities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. A successful campaign to educate and pressure water districts to deny Invenergy the water it would need to run the plant dealt the proposal a major blow, delaying its approval and giving residents and CLF more time to build their case and raise awareness, including through media events across the state. Community groups organized bake sales and concerts to raise funds and boost awareness. Other allies like Paul Roselli led critical efforts to educate Rhode Islanders statewide through “learn the facts” sessions in numerous communities.

Residents also worked with CLF and the town’s attorney, Michael McElroy, to show why the plant’s dirty power is not needed and would do more harm than good. “We were very fortunate to have CLF on our side,” says Kathy. “Knowing that there were lawyers representing our interests was a great relief.”

For CLF, having such strong grassroots opposition on the ground – from residents like the Olkowskis and Shermans to the Burrillville Land Trust and other organizations – bolstered its legal case. “Many different individuals and groups have worked together to good effect,” says Elmer. “We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for the contribution of the people of Burrillville, and we’re deeply grateful for their efforts.”

When the fight against the Invenergy plant started more than three years ago, the Shermans and Olkowskis had no idea they would still be fighting it today. “We didn’t quite understand how much time and effort would be required when we started,” admits Erin. “But it’s been time well spent, and it’s been encouraging to see so many other people helping and collaborating, coming together across the state and the region.”

Days before this story went to press, all those years of hard work and organizing came down to a final hearing of Rhode Island’s three-member Energy Facility Siting Board. The packed room was silent as the Board announced its decision: permit denied.

Cheers erupted as the Burrillville residents in attendance rejoiced at the outcome for which they had fought for so long – a testament to the persistence of local heroes who refused to give up and go home.

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