Minutes of the August 27, 2014 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Holcombe Conference Room on the fifth floor of 79 Elm Street in Hartford
PRESENT: Susan Merrow (Chair), Janet P. Brooks, Lee E. Dunbar, Karyl Lee Hall, Alison Hilding, James O’Donnell, Richard Sherman, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst), Jonathan Bauer (Intern)
At 9:33 AM, Chair Merrow called the meeting to order, noting that a quorum was present.
Chair Merrow asked for a motion to approve the meeting agenda. Dunbar said that he would like to raise two potential indicators under “other business.” Brooks moved approval with that addition; second by Dunbar. Motion was approved by the members present.
Chair Merrow asked if there were any additions or modifications to the minutes of the July 23, 2014 Council meeting. There were none. Brooks moved to approve the minutes. Dunbar seconded. The motion was approved. O’Donnell abstained, having been absent at the meeting. Hall arrived shortly thereafter.
Public Comment Period
Patricia A. Suprenant, a resident of Mansfield signed up to speak. She described her concerns about a proposed sewer line from the Four Corners section of Mansfield to the sewage treatment plant at the University of Connecticut (UConn). She explained that the legislature had authorized three million dollars for the project, which is predicted to have a total cost of nine million or more. She said the proponents are rushing forward with it, providing insufficient discussion of its true costs and effects before a town referendum. She said there is no guarantee that the State Bond Commission will allocate the money and the town is proposing to finance the entire nine million. She said that the number of failed septic systems is few. Many of the properties that had septic issues in the past have resolved them. She said the project is not intended to solve any environmental problem. It is a development project with predictable adverse primary and secondary impacts that have not been examined. The town’s consultant’s assumptions for the project include 187,000 square feet of commercial space, including a 90-room hotel and a 90-unit residential development. She said the project has no provision for handling storm water. Sherman arrived during her comments.
Wagener said that he had spoken to staff at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the project is not currently an active project for DEEP staff. He said that DEEP staff typically does not work on a project of this type until the town approves a referendum to fund it. He said the money approved by the legislature had not yet been allocated for it by the State Bond Commission. Should DEEP receive the money and administer the funds he would expect the project to be subject to the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA) though he could not say for certain; that determination would be made by DEEP. He said the state grant for the project would be required to be in conformance with the state’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD). Hilding listed additional potential adverse environmental consequences of the proposed project.
Sherman said he has trouble with the process for this project, which violates the spirit of CEPA because the funding is being discussed before a thorough environmental analysis was conducted. Ms. Suprenant said that UConn would like to see the additional sewage to help flatten the seasonal flow variations at the plant which complicates its efficient operation. She asked if the Council could communicate with the town regarding the environmental issues the proposal raises.
Hall and Dunbar suggested that, regardless of the potential environmental consequences, there is little the Council can do at this point because it is a town issue that has no state agency involvement; also, there is no assurance the referendum will pass. Wagener interjected that it would require a 2/3 vote to add this matter to the agenda if there is to be a motion for action. Chair Merrow asked if there was a motion to add this item to the agenda for action; there was none. Chair Merrow thanked Ms. Suprenant and asked her to continue to keep the Council informed about the project. Ms. Suprenant said there is no guarantee that an environmental impact analysis will be done for the project. She said that the public is slowly losing faith in the ability of state agencies to protect it. Richard reinforced his opinion of earlier that the CEPA process is intended to be a planning process, but projects of this sort often gain political momentum before the environmental analysis required by CEPA is even begun; the analysis of alternatives often becomes irrelevant. Hilding added that public hearings are a poor counter to such momentum because often general public comments are not considered. Chair Merrow said this is one more case that can be addressed when the Council takes up the issue of public hearings, and Wagener reminded members that the Council would be discussing CEPA issues with DEEP at the September meeting.
Executive Director’s Report
Wagener reported that Allison Hall, the summer intern, had returned to college at the University of Miami, Ohio. He said her work product was prodigious. She helped analyze and create charts for many projects including air pollution and asthma incidence, inland wetlands training participation, land conveyances by the General Assembly, compliance with testing requirements at the South Meadows power plant, and statewide violation data for the whole year. Chair Merrow suggested the Council send her a letter expressing deep appreciation of her contribution to the Council during the summer of 2014. Dunbar made a motion to that effect which was seconded by Hall and was approved unanimously.
Wagener recalled that the data for nitrogen discharges to Long Island Sound in 2013 were not available when the Annual Report was published in May, so an update was published in early July which attracted considerable media attention even after the July 23 Council meeting. He said that DEEP staff had told him that DEEP was proposing changes to the nitrogen credit-trading program, and that he would attend a presentation on the changes next month. Dunbar added that Connecticut’s nitrogen reduction program has been so successful that it is forcing a reduction in the amount paid for nitrogen credits if the amount collected from non-compliant facilities is to cover the payments to facilities that were exceeding their goals.
Still on the topic of nitrogen, Wagener said he had read recent articles suggesting that, in Chesapeake Bay, point-source nitrogen reductions seem to have had little effect on nitrogen levels in the bay. He said that staff had recently sought and received long-term data for dissolved nitrogen in the Long Island Sound and will be reviewing it to determine if the reduction in nitrogen discharges are reflected in the dissolved nitrogen data. That analysis might extend to other indirect measures of nitrogen also. He introduced Jonathan Bauer, a senior at Central Connecticut University who will be the Council’s intern next semester and will assist with the analysis. Dunbar added that animals and plants can take up more nitrogen than they need, complicating analyses based on gross nitrogen discharges. Hypoxia and other problems are a consequence of how nitrogen flows through the system; when it cycles through quickly, problems are fewer. O’Donnell added that a direct link between nitrogen levels and water quality remains a topic of discussion among scientists. Both New York and Connecticut are drawing up new “Total Maximum Daily Loads” for nitrogen discharges into the Long Island Sound. In connection with this he has been asked to assist in research establishing the strength of the nitrogen – hypoxia link. All agreed that the matter is complex.
Wagener said that staff had rewritten the description of the land transfer process that appears in the Environmental Monitor to eliminate any implication that all steps must occur sequentially. Staff added a flow chart to assist the reader to understand the process’ alternative routes to final transfer. The chart had been sent to members prior to the meeting. Suggestions were made to improve it. Dunbar and Sherman identified two stages where a proposed transfer project could fail to advance, and that should be made clear on the chart. Brooks asked that the chart include a legend which explained the significance of the shapes of the steps in the chart. Chair Merrow said it should be made clear that the General Assembly can dispose of land in an entirely separate process.
Wagener said he completed and submitted the annual administrative report to the Department of Administrative Services and the governor’s office, as required.
Wagener said the staff’s analysis of the performance of the jet turbines at the South Meadow power plant was distributed prior to the meeting. Aside from the inspection issues, Wagener noted that the plant, which the Council established is the most polluting plant in the state on a particulate-emission-per-hour basis, is called on when air pollution is at its worst.
Wagener noted that DEEP had announced a grant program for people who are interested in retiring or replacing their outdoor wood furnaces. At the same time, DEEP announced that it would look at the possibility of prohibiting such furnace operation on air pollution alert days, a step recommended by Environment and Human Health, Inc.
Wagener reported that Council staff met with staff from the Inland Wetlands unit of DEEP to review the online training program DEEP crated in conjunction with Central Connecticut State University. He said the program is extremely rich in information. It has the advantage of allowing the learner to study when most convenient. It includes reviews via self- assessments. It also allows for the program to be kept open so it can be shared by all wetlands commission members that wish to take it or review the material. There remain two problems that the training program can’t solve – towns that do not participate and problems with the municipal reporting system.
He said that Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection, Rob Klee, had accepted the Council’s invitation to appear at the September 24 meeting to discuss CEPA. Because the Council will be discussing the inadequacies of the existing CEPA regulations, Wagener asked members if they would like to hear from a citizen, Robert Fromer, who had offered to share his knowledge of how other jurisdictions analyze energy impacts of proposed projects. Brooks expressed concern that combining both guests into the same meeting will leave little time for other business. Members agreed to invite Mr. Fromer but that the presentation must be concise.
O’Donnell asked the status of the Freedom of Information complaint. Wagener said that he had just learned that an Ombudsman has been assigned to the case, and that he hoped to learn more shortly.
With regard to CEPA, Hall asked if there has ever been a study of the practical consequences of the elimination of the ‘finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) from the statute. Wagener remarked that they remain in the regulations, though no longer performed. He said it would be an interesting, though difficult, analysis to undertake.
Review of State Agency Actions
Chair Merrow asked Wagener to review any new information regarding the Water Planning Council (WPC). He said the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the WPC and UConn had been posted on the Environmental Monitor to solicit public comment, as the Council had requested. The WPC will consider comments received and make a decision at its September meeting. He said the WPC held a half day meeting which was attended by Hall and Dunbar. Dunbar said the participants represented a wide range of diverse opinions and interests. He did not see consensus forming and there were no action items. Hilding said the range of stakeholders was a strength of the process. The facilitator, Virginia de Lima, did an excellent job of dealing with the diversity. Chair Merrow asked if the Council should submit comments on the MOU. Considerable discussion followed regarding the MOU, the funding source for the study and whether a better process could be found. Several members suggested that It was not possible to arrive at a consensus on specific recommendations regarding the process because of a lack of clarity relating to funding available for the study, what alternative consultants or staff would be available to assist, and other matters. O’Donnell asked that the minutes reflect that, because he is an employee of UConn, he had recused himself from the discussion. Unrelated to the discussion of the WPC, he said that, as a general principle, the public purpose is not as well served when advocacy groups provide work that would more appropriately be performed by government. Hilding suggested that, for the Council to comment only on the draft MOU language would be an implicit endorsement of the process, which would not necessarily be accurate. Chair Merrow suggested that, should the Council wish to submit comments on the text, it could comment on deficiencies in the process without recommending any specific alternative. Chair Merrow asked for a straw vote to determine if members wanted to submit comments. Hall and Sherman voted yes. All others voted no (with O’Donnell abstaining); no action was taken.
Indicator of the Month
Wagener referred to the memo that had been distributed prior to the meeting with his recommendation for deleting the current indicator for inland wetlands from the annual report. Brooks said that she was keenly interested in inland wetlands and that she was in favor of dropping the indicator for the report. She agreed the data available are usually years out of date and often inaccurate or ambiguous. Importantly, she said, there is not a way to assess whether a disruption is good, as in removal of invasive species, or bad, as in filling. Until clearer metrics are available it should be put on hold. Dunbar questioned why the data should be collected in the first place if they were not useful. There was some discussion of the ways in which reporting could be improved, with O’Donnell noting that electronic reporting is essential for data to be useful. Chair Merrow asked for a motion on whether the inland wetlands indicator should be discontinued until better data are available. Dunbar so moved; seconded by Brooks and approved unanimously.
Chair Merrow asked Dunbar to explain his suggestions for new indicators. He said there were two he wished to suggest. One is a measure of water quality of streams and its correlation with the percentage of impervious surfaces in their watersheds. He noted that of 100 randomly-sampled locations no (0%) of sites in areas with greater than twelve percent impervious cover met the water quality standards for fully supporting aquatic life. Ninety seven percent of streams in the areas with less than twelve percent impervious cover met the standards. He said this is dramatic evidence of the effect of development on natural resources and needs to be highlighted in the annual report. The other association he believes is worth exploring is the relationship between hypoxic areas and biomass. He said that hypoxia drives out animal life and to the extent it is caused by nitrogen, is a practical benefit of the state’s nitrogen reduction efforts.
There being no further business Chair Merrow asked for a motion to adjourn. This was made by O’Donnell and Seconded by Hall. The meeting was adjourned at 11:50 AM.