Tribal dispute provokes another call for state intervention in Burrillville power plant debate

A rendering of Invenergy's proposed power plant in Burrillville. (credit: Invenergy)

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — An already raw relationship between quarreling factions of the Narragansett Indian Tribe is now strained even more by the possible use of the tribal water supply for a hotly debated power plant in Burrillville.

A group of tribe members has filed a motion for intervention with the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board, hoping for the state to step in to a dispute over an agreement announced last month to allow the Narragansett’s water to be used as a supplemental supply for Invenergy’s Clear River Energy Center.

Tribe Historic Preservation Officer John Brown told Target 12 he reached what he called “a tentative agreement” with the company that hopes to build the $1 billion dollar, 10,000 megawatt power plant.

The Chicago-based company is planning to put the facility on-line by the summer of 2020.

Tribe member Darlene Monroe said Brown did not have the power to act independently, and the motion states, “such a resolution requires a special tribal meeting and vote by the [tribal] body.”

“We are concerned about our water supply,” she said. “[Indian tribes] don’t sell their water. It’s spiritual. It’s historic. It is not ours to sell.”

Brown strongly disputed the motion and the very standing of the tribe members who filed it.

“Those people are not who they claim to be,” Brown said. “Their representation is fraudulent at best. The tribe water supply is not in jeopardy.”

Brown said he has conducted thousands of similar transactions as the historic preservation officer and he called the uproar over the “tentative” agreement “political,” tied to the upcoming election for chief and tribal council which have not been scheduled yet.

“They are trying to gain a political platform,” Brown said. “This is no different than all the other historic intervention projects that I’ve done. No one said anything about those.”

Monroe fired back.

“He is changing his story now,” Monroe said. “Our constitution does not allow him to do what he did.”

Brown said money has not changed hands at this point, but that if the agreement is finalized, Invenergy would help the Narragansetts expand their public water system.

Over the past few years, Monroe and Brown, who is also the Narragansett’s Medicine Man, have sparred over elections, the legal residence of Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, the impeachment of Thomas, a hostile takeover of the tribal offices and now, water.

That siting board will soon be hearing testimony for and against the proposal, and according to Tom Kogut, the R.I. Division of Public Utilities and Carriers’ public information officer, the tribe’s motion for intervention is one of more than a dozen filed in opposition to the plant.

“If there are no objections, the board could simply rule on the motion at an open meeting,” Kogut said. “In the event of an objection the board would hold a hearing and then rule on the motion.”

Meaghan Wims, a spokesperson for Invenergy said, “We’ll decline to comment on this.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau