Climate goals, equity issues at stake in contested Providence propane terminal expansion

Updated at 10:39 a.m. on July 2, 2021.

SEA 3 PROVIDENCE LLC, a propane gas terminal in the Port of Providence, is seeking to expand operations to incorporate rail shipments. The proposal has drawn concern from a number of environmental groups and city and state lawmakers, who made arguments before the Energy Facility Siting Board on Thursday.

PROVIDENCE – Whether plans to add rail connections and new storage tanks at a propane storage site in the Port of Providence will create significant environmental, health or safety impacts is at the heart of a controversial proposal before the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board.

The board on Thursday heard oral arguments in Sea 3 Providence LLC’s plans to expand its existing port-side liquified propane gas terminal, adding connections to receive shipments by train and building storage tanks to hold the additional fuel on a vacant lot adjacent to its existing operations. The proposal has drawn increasing objection from a number of community residents, environmental groups, city and state lawmakers and even the R.I. Office of the Attorney General. Among their concerns are how the proposed expansion might conflict with state decarbonization goals, including the recently enacted Act on Climate legislation, as well as pollution and safety hazards on a low-income, minority community already burdened by some of the highest rates of asthma in the country. 

The immediate question before the Energy Facility Siting Board, however, is whether the proposed changes are significant enough to require a full application and review process including public hearings. Sea 3 Providence in its petition for a declaratory order is seeking to bypass what is typically a year-long review process by the board, saying the expansion does not result in significant changes to the environment, or community health, safety or public welfare. 

Nicholas Hemond, an attorney with Darrow Everett LLP representing the company, framed the proposal as a way for the company to capitalize upon a more reliable, affordable and -eventually – greener source of fuel. 

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Sea 3 Providence, which took over the property in 2019, currently receives massive shipments of the flammable gas which come from overseas, which are cooled and stored in a 19 million gallon storage tank, before being reheated and loaded onto trucks to send elsewhere. The $15-$20 million expansion onto an adjacent, vacant lot would reconnect to existing rail ties, adding offloading space for up to 16 rail cars at a time, plus six, 90,000-gallon-each storage bullets to hold the extra fuel. By entering the rail shipping market, the company can get smaller, more regular and more affordably priced fuel to service Rhode Island and the greater New England region, Hemond said. 

The rail-transported fuel can also be stored at room temperature, bypassing the reheating that would cut carbon emissions by 30%, according to analysis submitted to the board.

Rail connectivity also plays into Sea 3 Providence’s long-term strategy to start storing and shipping renewable propane, which is already gaining popularity on the West Coast, according to Hemond.

“Everything about this is about meeting those [decarbonization] goals that have been outlined by the state,” he said.

But James Crowley, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation who argued for a full application and review of the proposal, contended that even fuel produced from renewable materials is not truly clean energy, nor is it viable as a significant energy source due to market price and volatility.

Sea 3 Providence projected demand for propane in Rhode Island would nearly double this year – from 35 to 60 million gallons – as customers switch from oil, reaching 900 million gallons across Southern New England. But Crowley said this would be a “step backwards” in the state’s carbon reductions goals, since propane is not as clean as alternative heating sources like heat pumps.  

Consumers who buy the equipment to support propane heating are making a “long-term commitment to that dirty propane fuel,” losing a decade or more of saved emissions from cleaner alternatives like heat pumps, Crowley said.

Nicholas Vaz, special assistant to the attorney general within the R.I. Attorney General’s Office, and Jeffrey Dana, Providence City Solicitor, also made arguments against the requested declaratory order on Thursday.

Both Vaz and Dana spoke to the negative effects of pollution, noise and safety hazards  on the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods around the site. That these communities are predominantly low-income people of color makes this a question of  environmental justice, they said.

Pedro Espinal, the city councilman who represents the area, submitted written comments to the board voicing similar concerns.

“The local community cannot afford this additional burden when for years they have been subjected to breathing toxins from polluted air resulting from the industrial operations in the Port of Providence,” Espinal wrote.

Hemond countered that it was too little, too late to renege on the area zoning, which specifically allows for and is intended to attract these kinds of marine and industrial uses. He also pointed to the number of other groups – including the state fire safety marshal, the city of Providence, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council – that must weigh in on various health, safety and air pollution aspects of the proposal.

“None of this stuff get done under the cover of dark,” Hemond said. “There is a watchful eye and there should be.”

That both the city and DEM submitted comments to the Energy Facility Siting Board urging them to conduct a full review was indicative of the limits of their own authority over the project, said Ronald Gerwatowski, who heads the board.

The People’s Port Authority, a grassroots organization formerly known as No LNG in PVD, also filed a request to make arguments at the hearing Thursday, but was denied in part because the group does not have a lawyer to represent it, which is required under the court-like proceedings.

To Crowley, this was further evidence that the application required a full review and public hearing where residents and community groups could make their case heard without a lawyer to represent them.

Given the high-profile nature of the application and what he described as a “collision of perspectives on the facts of the case,” Gerwatowski said the Energy Facility Siting Board will conduct additional hearings before making its decision. If it grants Sea 3 Providence’s request for a declaratory order, its role in the expansion ends there. Denying the request, however, forces the company to make a full application and go through a multi-hearing review process.

Hemond in a prior interview with PBN said the company had not yet decided how a denial of its declaratory order application would impact its desire to move forward with the expansion.

Bill Fischer, a spokesman for Waterson Terminal Service which runs ProvPort, declined to comment except to say that the port is “actively monitoring the process.” He referred additional comments to Sea 3 Providence.

Correction: The story has been updated to correct the response from Bill Fischer.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

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