By Sister Mary Pendergast
Although Mercy works constantly for justice, we do not always see positive results for our efforts, as heroic as they might be. But here is a testament to the win. It can actually happen!
In August 2015, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo invited a Chicago developer, Invenergy, to build a $1 billion fracked gas/diesel power plant in the woods of Burrillville, practically in the heart of a preserved state forest park. It was a clarion call to me, since I had just returned from my pilgrimage to the Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada. Seeing the gaping destruction in the largest forest biome in the world changed me. I am not the same, nor will I ever be.
Learning that my own state was welcoming a similar type of devastation of Earth and treating the methane emissions that contribute to climate change as merely the spoils of business impelled me to find others willing to fight Goliath. The first that became an ally was FANG (Fighting Against Natural Gas), which trained a small group of us for civil disobedience. Then FANG planned a parade to wake up Burrillville residents to what the developers considered a “slam dunk.” At the parade, seven other activists and I committed misdemeanor trespass by planting tulip bulbs on the property of the proposed power plant. In jail, I met some of the people who would be my almost daily companions during the next four years.
“Birddogging” for Justice
As other organizations stepped up, we joined in whenever possible. The Burrillville Land Trust (BLT) presented a “learn the facts” program in every town and asked the councils of 33 cities and towns to oppose the building of the power plant. When they came to Pawtucket, where I live, I spoke on behalf of the opposition.
One exciting ongoing action was “birddogging” the governor. That is, a small group of us tried to show up at every public meeting the governor held, silently holding our “Save Burrillville” and “No Power Plant” signs. Regardless of whether the governor was at a press conference in the state house, on a college campus or at her own fundraiser, some of us would be there, keeping the issue alive and in front of the news media.
The decision to build or not to build was left to a three-member Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB). Each member served at the appointment of the governor. In its 30-year history, the EFSB had never refused to grant a permit to any power plant or energy structure in the state. At the required public meetings, hundreds of people gave three-minute speeches opposing the power plant, presenting the scientific points on climate, emissions levels, noise levels, light pollution levels, the endangered species that would be affected, the health concerns of the residents who had already suffered from a gas spill into the drinking water, and more. With no response from the EFSB, we never really had a good sense of how it was going.
Then came the year and a half of presentations at the EFSB by the lawyers and expert witnesses for both sides. This time, the public was not allowed to speak, but only to sit and listen. Whenever we wanted to groan at a remark, we just held our signs higher!
A Fateful Decision
On the first day of EFSB deliberation, which was expected to last a week or more, there were three issues to discern:
- Was the need for the power plant proven?
- Would there be unacceptable environmental harm if it were built?
- Was the cost justified to the ratepayer?
The EFSB Board listened as one of their members meticulously made all of the arguments about the need for the power plant. Then, quite unexpectedly, the chairwoman said, “I make a motion that Invenergy has failed to demonstrate need. All in favor say ‘aye.’” The other two members said “aye,” and it was over, just like that. The EFSB then spent several months writing a meticulous decision. The day came and went for Invenergy to appeal, and the people of Burrillville had won a David and Goliath battle!
The notion that “it takes a village” couldn’t be more true! It took everyone at every level of involvement for four full years. But it was worth it to win one for the Earth!