Exclusive: Rhode Island governor nixed agency critiques of LNG facility, silencing health and justice concerns

“We’re going to keep fighting, we’re not going to allow this to be a sacrifice zone for people of color.”

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Image Credit: @ChloeFarand

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, squashed a letter by her own state health agency, which raised serious concerns about a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in a densely populated Providence neighborhood. Documents obtained by DeSmog show that last summer Raimondo nixed a letter by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) critical of National Grid’s Fields Point Liquefaction project right before it was to be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

FERC approved the project three months later.

Sadly, I’m not surprised by this,” Monica Huertas, coordinator for No LNG in PVD, an umbrella group of various organizations and citizens who have been fighting the facility since 2014, told DeSmog. “She’s always said this is a federal matter and there was nothing she could do, but now we see that she could do something and that she was involved.”

A critical letter silenced

According to the internal documents, obtained from RIDOH through an open records request, in June last year several health department staff members began crafting a letter in response to the publication of FERC’s environmental assessment for the project. The assessment, which was carried out by a contractor supervised by FERC but paid for by National Grid, concluded that the project will “not significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

A final draft of the RIDOH letter, which was to be signed by its Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, was ready for submission to FERC in late July. The letter detailed various critiques of FERC’s assessment, from its fairly narrow scope under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the ignoring of vulnerable communities, to public safety concerns and different scenarios for explosions. Earlier drafts discussed issues relating to climate change and environmental justice, which did not make it into the final product.

[T]he residents of the area feel disenfranchised and believe that their voices and health do not matter to government,” the letter warned, adding that the project “continues that historical pattern of discounting the voices of the people that live in the region and sets a precedent that may lead to additional, more concerning, projects in the future.”

But the letter was never sent.

On July 25, the last day of the FERC comment period for the project, Dr. Alexander-Scott emailed her staff involved in crafting the letter, informing them she had been instructed “on behalf” of Governor Raimondo not to send it. “[T]here is concern about wanting to avoid too much involvement of the State in federal legal processes,” RIDOH’s director wrote to her staff.

At this time, every state agency in the Governor’s administration has been asked not to submit a letter,” she added.

In her email, Dr. Alexander-Scott commended her subordinates for producing what she called an “excellent” document and acknowledged the decision to squash it as a “disappointment.” She added: “there is benefit in making sure that the message you have all put together so well is one that begins to educate leadership of our sister state agencies.”

Raimondo’s intervention is even more puzzling given that in 2015, while Raimondo was already in office and far ahead of the environmental assessment’s publication, RIDOH did in fact send a letter to FERC, laying out various concerns over the project. In that letter, RIDOH suggested that FERC initiate a more comprehensive Health Impact Assessment in evaluating the project.

In their pocket’

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo at her inauguration in 2015
Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island during her inauguration ceremony on January 6, 2015. Credit: Master Sgt. Janeen Miller/Air National Guard, public domain

The office of Governor Raimondo did not respond to several requests for comment.

Reached for comment, Joseph Wendelken, a RIDOH spokesperson, said that a “Federal Energy Regulatory Commission review is a federal decision making process.”

Wendelken added that as a state agency, the Rhode Island Department of Health made recommendations on the proposal when it was reviewed at the state level by the Coastal Resources Management Council.

For opponents of the project, this latest revelation seems to further their long-existing disappointment with the Raimondo administration’s approach to the project.

No LNG in PVD’s Huertas points out that Raimondo has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from National Grid employees, which is confirmed by a review of the state’s campaign finance records.

Unfortunately, I think she’s in their pocket because her inaction during all these years we’ve been fighting this [project] speaks loudly,” she said.

Furthermore, a lobbyist working for Advocacy Solutions, one of the firms lobbying for National Grid in Rhode Island, served on Raimondo’s 2015 transition team.

Charges of environmental racism

National Grid plans to construct the new liquefaction facility adjacent to its existing LNG storage tank in the Port of Providence. The facility, a short distance from South Providence residential streets, will receive fracked gas from an Enbridge pipeline and cool the natural gas into liquid form, which is cheaper and easier to transport. The proposed liquefaction project, unlike many facilities in the works around the U.S., is not intended to export LNG. Instead, it would allow the existing storage facility to receive natural gas in its vapor form but be stored as LNG.

The LNG project’s opponents have long contended it exemplifies a case of environmental racism, arguing that the greatest risks from the facility will be borne by the area’s low-income, largely minority residents.

We’re going to keep fighting, we’re not going to allow this to be a sacrifice zone for people of color,” Huertas said.

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