2009-01-08 / Editorial

Imagine an oil refinery on Conanicut Island

• EDITORIAL •

An oil refinery in Jamestown, you say? No way! Think about it for a moment.

Where today there are beautiful homes in East Passage Estates we would instead see massive crude oil storage tanks. The refinery itself would be located in West Passage Estates. Three large smokestacks would tower 240 feet above sea level.

A major port facility on the east shore of Conanicut Island would be where the oil tankers would offload the crude.

Instead of an island with a rural north end, we would have had the industrial north end, complete with the general pollution of our air, land and water. The north end would have been a blighted landscape.

It nearly happened a half a century ago. Jamestown almost became the home of the "world's most modern oil refinery."

Jamestown would not be the place we love today. Narragansett Bay would be a different place, too.

It was 50 years ago this week that a small group of islanders known as the Jamestown Protective Association won a landmark court ruling against a company that wanted to build the oil refinery in Jamestown.

The U.S. District Court judge, who had heard arguments in the case five months earlier, effectively barred the Commerce Oil Refining Corporation from building a massive oil refinery on the north end of the island that would have forever changed Jamestown in ways that most of us would not have liked.

Every Jamestowner should read the book "Dismissed with Prejudice," by Mary Stearns McGaughan and Terrence F. McGaughan. There are several copies available at the Jamestown Philomenian Library.

The book relates the true story about how a few islanders took on an oil giant, a real David vs. Goliath tale. The odds were not in their favor. Fifty years ago everyone wanted the oil refinery in Jamestown. It would create 250 jobs. The Town Council approved of the idea and so did the majority of the island residents. The proposal to build the oil refinery pitted neighbor against neighbor here in Jamestown.

The governor and the state legislature wanted the oil refinery. Even the Providence Journal was in favor of building the oil refinery in Jamestown.

Those islanders who formed the Jamestown Protective Association opposed the politicians and the oil industry tycoons. They simply did not want an oil refinery to spoil Jamestown.

You could say that they were our island's original NIMBY's, an acronymn which stands for "not in my backyard."

A legal battle was waged. Injunctions were filed asking the court to bar consruction of the proposed refi nery. The oil industry fought back. They sued the 17 Jamestown property owners who opposed the refinery for $2 million each.

Finally, the case went to trial. Experts for both sides testified over the 41 days.

Ultimately, the court decided that the refinery should not be built. The judge ruled invalid the zoning ordinances that had been changed to allow the construction of the refinery. The judge said it was also illegal to exempt the refinery from the town's building code. And the judge could not find any evidence that the public welfare was protected, so the license to operate the refinery was revoked.

Those of us who now live in Jamestown should be ever grateful to those 17 Jamestowners who stood in the way of progress. Their battle was fought before we were concerned about our environment. Smokestacks were a good thing in those days because they meant jobs. Those JPA members had the courage to preserve their little corner of the world. If fact, the leader of the JPA, Dr. William Miner, went on to become one of the founders of Save the Bay.

Fifty years after the court ruling, Jamestown is a place we call home. And we don't share our island with an oil refinery.

— Jeff McDonough

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