Propane storage company expansion petition rejected

Updated at 9:53 p.m. on April 25

PROVIDENCE – Attempts to fast track expansion of a Providence propane storage and shipping operation were halted Thursday, with state energy regulators rejecting the petition.

The 2-0 vote by the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board does not prevent Sea 3 Providence from advancing its $20 million expansion project,  which includes adding rail ties and 540,000 gallons-worth of liquid propane storage tanks to its site on the eastern tip of ProvPort. However, it must apply for a license and go through what is typically a yearlong review, public hearing and approval process if it wants to make that expansion happen.

Sea 3 Providence in its March 2021 application is asking the board for a declaratory order, which would let it bypass what is typically a yearlong, review and public hearing process.

But energy regulators on Thursday concluded that the company and its expert witnesses failed to meet legal standards of proof that the expansion would not hurt state greenhouse gas emission reduction goals or public safety.

- Advertisement -

The proposed expansion has been the source of mounting opposition by community residents, environmental groups, city and state lawmakers, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, 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. At the very least, rejecting the declaratory order in favor of a full review process gives residents without legal representation – who were denied the chance to make formal arguments during the existing, court-like petition process – a chance to weigh in, as some critics argued.

But Sea 3 through its attorney Nicholas Hemond denies these claims, touting propane as a cleaner alternative to oil and the rail expansion a crucial way to meet regional fuel needs amid a volatile overseas oil market.

Tensions between the two sides intensified after the Providence City Council in December passed an ordinance that bans bulk storage of propane gas citywide. While the policy is unlikely to affect Sea 3’s existing business or its expansion plans since its applications were already on the books, Sea 3 sued the city anyway, contending that the ordinance violated the city’s long-term planning and zoning guidelines.

Board chairman Ronald Gerwatowski, who also heads the R.I. Public Utilities Commission, in comments on Thursday, highlighted the lack of clear evidence and analysis by both sides on these issues. But because the “burden of proof” rests with Sea 3, he concluded that a more detailed review was needed to meet the legal standards showing how the expansion would impact safety and emissions.

“This decision is not a decision to deny them a license,” Gerwatowski said. “It’s only a decision to require more inquiry.”

Fellow board member Meredith Brady, who serves as associate director for the state Division of Planning agreed.

Regarding public safety, she pointed out that the risk of the flammable and volatile fuel alternative inherently goes up if the company were to add railroad shipments and more storage.

“With increased frequency, comes increased risk,” she said, adding that the company in its testimony was “skirting around” exactly how much that risk has gone up.

Hemond did not immediately return inquiries for comment on the decision or if the company will seek a full review by submitting a license application. If they do apply, environmental and socioeconomic harms will again be a focus of the board’s decision, although it will also consider how the project meets state energy needs and whether it is cost-justified, according to state law.

The Conservation Law Foundation, one of the groups who testified against the application in hearings, lauded the board’s decision in an emailed statement on Thursday.

“It’s clear that we can’t wait any longer to fight climate change,” James Crowley, staff attorney for CLF Rhode Island, said. “Rhode Island has a climate law that demands cuts to polluting emissions – and this irresponsible expansion would absolutely lead to more emissions. The Board made the right call in requiring a full review and safeguarding our health and future in the face of the climate crisis.”

City Councilman Pedro Espinal, who represents the district that includes Sea 3 and introduced the city ordinance banning LPG, called the decision a “victory” for people in South Providence.

“The proposed expansion clearly poses a substantial risk both to the environment, and public safety in general,” Espinal said in a statement. “I remain dedicated to bringing commerce, in the form of clean, renewable energy to ProvPort, but I will not compromise the well-being of my community.”

Attorney General Peter F. Neronha also issued a statement applauding the board’s decision.

“We believe that energy facility expansions like this project should be subject to full and comprehensive regulatory oversight given the direct impacts they have on our environment, health, and public safety,” Neronha said. “There should be no room for regulatory shortcuts, and I am grateful that the EFSB saw things the same way. Today’s decision is a clear win for all Rhode Islanders, and especially those who live, play, and work near this facility.”

Terrence Gray, the DEM acting director who also serves on the board, recused himself from the application and decision because DEM had already submitted a letter urging the petition be denied before he joined the board.

(UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify that the R.I. Energy Siting Board’s decision pertained to a petition filed by Sea 3 Providence LLC.)

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