Minutes of the November 18, 2020 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality (Council) held in compliance with Governor Lamont’s Executive Order 7B.
MEMBERS PRESENT: Keith Ainsworth (Acting Chair), Kip Kolesinskas, Alison Hilding, David Kalafa, and Charles Vidich.
ALSO IN ATTENDANCE: Peter Hearn (Executive Director), Paul Aresta (Environmental Analyst), Vincent McDermott (Milone and MacBroom), Catherine Rawson (Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy), and Paul Elconin (Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy).
1. Call to Order: Establishment of a Quorum
At 9:30 AM, Ainsworth called the meeting to order. Ainsworth noted that public comment is welcome during the specified public comment period for items not on the agenda, or during the appropriate time for items on the agenda. He also briefly explained the Council’s statutory responsibilities. He then confirmed which Council members were present and noted that there was a quorum.
2. Approval of Agenda
Ainsworth asked that two items be added to the agenda: 1) Candlewood Mountain determination under Endangered Species Act, and 2) Historic Preservation Council action in Stamford. He asked if there were any other suggested changes to the agenda. Hearing none, Ainsworth asked for a motion to approve the agenda as revised. Vidich made a motion to approve the revised agenda; seconded by Hilding. The motion passed.
3. Approval of Minutes of October 28, 2020
Ainsworth asked if there were any changes to the draft minutes of October 28, 2020. Hearing none, Ainsworth asked for a motion to approve the minutes. Vidich made a motion to approve the minutes of October 28; seconded by Hilding. The motion passed.
4. Citizen Comment Period
Ainsworth asked if there were any members of the public that wished to speak at this time. Vincent McDermott stated that he had a few comments regarding the proposed solar project in New Milford. He stated that he encourages the Council to adopt the draft comments (distributed to Council members before the meeting and posted on the Council’s website) regarding the State’s Endangered Species Act and actions by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Ainsworth noted that the item is scheduled for discussion later in the agenda and that he would not participate in the discussion because he had represented a client in a proceeding that involved that proposed solar project.
Hearn discussed a determination letter from the Natural Diversity Database (NDDB) regarding the slimy salamander, a state listed species, and reviewed the relevant portions of Connecticut’s Endangered Species Act (ESA). Hearn noted that there are four exceptions to the ESA and mentioned that it appears that the fourth condition, which addresses “reasonable mitigation and enhancement measures”, cannot be met in this case. Hearn noted that Connecticut is the northern extent of the slimy salamander’s habitat range, which is why it is rarely found in the state. Hearn reported that an initial determination from DEEP’s NDDB allowed the solar project in New Milford to go forward with an “incidental taking”, which acknowledges that a state-listed species may be lost to construction activities for the project. However, given the availability of more data, the most recent letter from the NDDB stated that the direct and indirect impacts of the proposed solar project would adversely impact the population of state threatened salamanders and their habitat. Hearn added that the draft comments, which was sent out before the meeting, has been reworded. He displayed the revised proposed wording on a PowerPoint slide.
There was discussion regarding the suggested changes to the draft comments. Vidich questioned the source of the NDDB determination letter’s claim that 500 acres are needed to support populations of slimy salamander. Kolesinskas indicated that he would serve as chair for the discussion of this item since Ainsworth recused himself. Kolesinskas asked Mr. McDermott if he had any additional comments regarding this item on the agenda. McDermott stated that Dennis Quinn, a herpetologist, recently conducted research and prepared a report on the existing population of slimy salamander on Candlewood Mountain in New Milford. McDermott added that there was limited information regarding the existing population of the slimy salamander on the proposed site when the Siting Council approved the project. He noted that NDDB’s initial determination did not have the benefit of recent information from the Petitioner or Mr. Quinn, and that Mr. Quinn’s report noted that the Petitioner’s early assessment of habitat impacts was calculated incorrectly.
Discussion of the potential impacts of the proposed project on the slimy salamander continued. Hearn noted that the intent of the draft letter is not to endorse the data that DEEP staff used to come to its conclusion. The letter was written to ask that DEEP respect the professional determination of its staff in the matter. He added that the Council’s comments are meant to support the independent environmental review process in light of the fact that DEEP also supports clean energy development and the Candlewood Solar project was selected during a tri-state request for proposals (RFP). There was additional discussion regarding the timing for the submittal of the comments and other suggested wording changes to the Council’s draft comments.
Catherine Rawson noted that her organization is relieved by NDDB’s recent determination and they support the Council’s comments to DEEP’s Commissioner because the proposed project would adversely affect core forests and could result in the extirpation of this species in Connecticut. Mr. Elconin also encouraged the Council to provide the comments to DEEP’s Commissioner as soon as possible and noted that the Petitioner’s request for a general permit for stormwater has been denied three times by DEEP. He added that DEEP suggested that the Petitioner file for an individual permit rather than a general permit in order to better protect water resources in the area given the slope and soil characteristics on the proposed site.
After additional discussion regarding suggested changes to the draft comments, Kalafa made a motion to revise the draft comments as follows:
- remove the sentence “It is widely accepted that interior forest species require a minimum of 500 acres to maintain health and sustainability of their populations”;
- modify the second sentence in the last paragraph to “Based on the evidence above, this project, as initially conceived, appears not to be properly located”; and
- modify the last sentence in the last paragraph to “CEQ calls on DEEP to uphold the integrity of the State’s Endangered Species Act as it applies to this location and stand behind the scientific determination of its staff, unless there is conclusive and overwhelming contrary evidence”.
The motion was seconded by Hilding. The motion passed with Ainsworth abstaining.
5. Chair’s Report
Ainsworth resumed as Acting Chair and noted that he and Hearn will serve on the working group for the development of regulations for the Release-Based Remediation Program that will replace the Transfer Act. He encouraged other members of the Council that want to participate on the working group to do so.
6. Citizen Complaints and Inquiries Received
Hearn stated that he received a few complaints and inquiries from citizens in Connecticut including:
- A person requested that the Council revive the monitoring of wetlands in the Annual Report;
- Additional inquiries regarding environmental issues associated with contamination found around the Harbor Point area; and
- A press inquiry about the Council’s expectations regarding environmental matters for the Biden administration. Hearn added that the only public position the Council had regarding recent federal actions relates to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and that he provided the reporter with a copy of the Council’s letter to the Federal Council on Environmental Quality.
7. Adoption of meeting schedule for 2021
Hearn noted that the proposed dates for Council meetings in 2021 will mostly be on the fourth Wednesday of the month with the exception of the November and December meetings, which will be on the third Wednesday of the month because of major holidays in those months. Kolesinskas made a motion to approve the proposed meeting dates; seconded by Hilding. The motion passed.
8. Executive Director’s Report
Beverage Container Redemption Program – Update
Hearn indicated that the Council’s report, Low Deposit, Low Return, was distributed to interested parties and that he received some positive feedback from a few people. Hearn indicated that a staff person at DEEP indicated that the Council’s recommendations are consistent with other efforts to modernize the Bottle Bill and also added that several states in the region are collaborating on a program for post-consumer recyclable materials. He added that DEEP is also very interested in expanded producer responsibility programs, which may address other containers/materials that are suitable for redemption or recycling.
Annual Report – Draft Charts
As noted earlier, Hearn indicated that a person requested that the Council revive the wetlands indicator in the Annual Report. Hearn noted that both tidal wetlands and inland wetlands were tracked in prior years’ Annual Reports; however, the data for tracking wetlands was found to be incomplete and/or inaccurate. Hearn indicated that the Council is considering using data from the Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR), which uses aerial imagery to classify land uses, to track the amount of wetlands in the state. Hearn acknowledged that using aerial imagery to identify wetlands is different than the soil based approach for classifying wetlands in the state. Kolesinskas asked about Army Corps of Engineers wetlands data and suggested that it may be possible to use geographic information systems (GIS) to integrate the aerial imagery with soils data to identify wetlands. Hilding suggested pointing out in the Annual Report the problems with the availability and accuracy of the wetlands data available through DEEP. She said that correcting this issue could be one of the Council’s priorities for the next legislative session. Hearn added that existing law requires DEEP to have training for municipal officials; however, DEEP does not offer that right now.
Hearn also indicated that staff has followed-up on the Council’s request to add content about electricity conservation to the Annual Report. Aresta discussed a graph that depicts the estimated annual electricity saved through conservation measures and the resultant displacement of carbon dioxide emissions. Kalafa and Vidich supported the tracking of electricity conservation and Vidich suggested also tracking energy use on a per capita basis in the Annual Report.
Hilding noted that one or more Council members may need to leave the meeting soon and asked if it would be possible to take up the draft comments for the Siting Council as the next item for discussion.
9. Connecticut Siting Council
- Petition 1437 (comments recommended)
Aresta noted that Petition 1437 is for the proposed construction, maintenance and operation of a 3.5-megawatt solar facility in Burlington. Aresta added that the Council has concerns regarding the presence of eastern box turtle on the proposed site and the destruction of approximately seven acres of core forest. The Council’s comments recommends restrictions on construction activities during the turtle’s hibernation period and an assessment of the viability of relocating the proposed project to the south, where there is an existing gravel area, in order to protect core forest habitat. Kolesinskas made a motion to submit the comments for Petition 1437 to the Siting Council; seconded by Hilding. The motion passed.
Hearn resumed the Executive Director’s report and reminded Council members that he presented information to the Water Planning Council Advisory Group (WPCAG) in October regarding the development of certain solar facilities on watershed lands in Connecticut. He said that he was able to show where solar energy facilities had been located with respect to aquifer protection zones, but did not have information on the watersheds where they were located. He said that the WPCAG is considering requesting that information regarding watersheds be included in Siting Council applications and petitions.
Hearn reviewed details of the Release-Based Clean-up Program working group and noted that a website has been established with information and the ability to nominate individuals that want to participate on the working group.
Hearn stated that many residents in the Harbor Point area of Stamford have raised many questions regarding the environmental conditions in the area. He has begun summarizing those questions and answers. He added that, most recently, there have been concerns raised regarding historic preservation issues at the site. He said that the State Historic Preservation Council has asked the State Attorney General to intervene to stop the destruction of certain historic buildings in the area. He reported that beneath one structure there is PCB contamination, which may require the building to be partially demolished to allow for the remediation. Ainsworth noted that the Council’s statutory responsibility is to refer complaints and inquiries to the appropriate agency, and that since the Attorney General is involved, there may not be a role for the Council for that issue.
10. Other Business
Hilding asked if there are any areas of the state that are losing wetlands more than other areas; if the wetland losses are the result of numerous small losses or a few large losses; and whether the wetland losses are in a specific land use sector (residential or commercial). Hearn replied that the data from previous years indicated that the majority of wetland losses were attributed to residential activities and that it is likely the result of numerous small wetland losses. He added that most of the recent wetland losses occurred in suburban and rural areas. Kolesinskas noted that areas of the state that have more wetland soils and increased development pressure would likely see more wetland losses than other areas.
Ainsworth asked if Council members wanted to discuss any other business. Hearing none, he asked for a motion to adjourn. Kalafa made a motion to adjourn the meeting at 11:39 AM; seconded by Kolesinskas. The motion passed.
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