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Monday, December 4, 2017

Time for Charlestown to stand united

Charlestown showdown over water deal and power plant
By Will Collette

Photo of one of several protests by Narragansetts against the power plant
(Photo by Steve Ahlquist, RI's Future)
Rarely does our little town get a chance to stand together as neighbors and speak with one voice about a common concern. That’s tonight, December 5, at the state Energy Facilities Siting Board’s (EFSB) hearing at the Charlestown Elementary School from 6 PM to 10 PM.

The hearing is being held especially for Charlestown because of an announced deal between the Narragansett Indian Tribe and Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer that proposes to build a controversial fracked gas power plant in Burrillville at the other end of the state.

Charlestown is now party to the case because some members of the Tribal government want a lucrative sales agreement to serve as a back-up water supplier to that power plant.

The power plant needs that back-up agreement to meet regulatory requirements. The deal, if put into play, could mean massive amounts of water drawn from the aquifer we all use and a fleet of water trucks going back and forth to Burrillville.

By all appearances, there’s a consensus in Charlestown that we do not want the groundwater we all share to be shipped to Burrillville for a proposed fossil fuel power plant that is not needed and runs against state efforts to combat climate change. We don't want this deal.

Charlestown had already joined nearly every other Rhode Island city and town by enacting a resolution of opposition to the power plant, but now we have become one of the frontline communities in this battle.

So far, the only public voice heard in favor of the water deal has been that of Narragansett Tribal Medicine Man John Brown who signed the contract with energy developer Invenergy. Mr. Brown told ecoRI reporter Tim Faulkner that Invenergy offered the tribe a lot of money to serve as a backup source of water and asked “What would you have us do?”

Other Narragansett tribal members, including the Tribal Council, have answered Mr. Brown’s question in testimony, public statements and street protests: “Don’t sell our water.”

We have since learned the deal accepted by Mr. Brown on behalf of absentee Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas who now lives in Florida calls for Invenergy to pay the Tribe $220,000 a year just to listed as a potential water source. Invenergy will pay for any actual water pumped and sent to Burrillville at the going municipal rate for water.

What we don’t know is the actual amount that may or may not be drawn from the aquifer or where the pumps would be located. A recently surfaced letter from Mr. Thomas indicated the water may be pumped from Crandall Farm, a property the Narragansett Tribe owns in Westerly.

Maybe this is a bit of misdirection, but it is a distinction without a difference since the water will still be pumped from the same aquifer. Now Westerly has a direct stake in this case.

The EFSB has already declared its unwillingness to make a determination about the internal battles raging inside the Narragansett Indian Tribe, where the embattled Matthew Thomas’ tribal government has made the deal and everyone else in the tribe seems to oppose it.

I would advise my fellow Charlestown residents who are not tribal members to also leave that issue alone. It is not for us to say who governs the tribe.

Our focus needs to be on the harm a major water draw-down would have on our drinking water, environment, land and property. The Narragansetts themselves have already shown that they can address the legitimacy of contract signed by Messrs. Brown and Thomas as they work to resolve the broader internal conflict.

And for pity’s sake, PLEASE keep Charlestown’s anti-Narragansett hired gun, East Providence attorney Joe Larisa, out of the room.

Even though we all pay him $25,000 a year to represent Charlestown in opposition to anything the Tribe wants to do, this is not the time for him to spout his rhetoric about how the town of Charlestown holds dominion over the Tribe.

This is not the forum to debate the issue of tribal sovereignty, especially since the EFSB has already stated it will not get into it.

One of my favorite quotes from late President Lyndon Johnson is “Don’t spit in the soup; we’ve all got to eat it.”

For Charlestown, for the Tribe and for all our neighbors who draw water from the Wood River aquifer, this is the core issue.

We share this water. We all have a legal right to this water. We all count on this water. Anyone who harms or threatens to harm that water is doing that to us all.

A contract to sell large quantities of this water to give a dubious industrial development a way to meet a regulatory requirement is an affront to the entire community.

I am proud of the way just about everyone in this community has come together. This could have been another one of those issues that tears this town apart.

I wasn’t living in Charlestown during the classic 1976 battle against the scheme to build a nuclear power plant on the old Navy airfield that is now Ninigret Park and the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. But from what I have been told, that too was a battle that united Charlestown across class, race and culture.

So let’s stay focused. Resist attempts to divide us.

Let’s not blow it.