Minutes of the June 26, 2013 meeting of the Council on Environmental Quality, held in the Russell Conference Room on the third floor of 79 Elm Street in Hartford.

PRESENT: Susan Merrow (Chair), Janet Brooks, Lee Dunbar, Michael Klemens, Karyl Lee Hall, James O’Donnell, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst).

At 9:04 AM, Chair Merrow called the meeting to order, noting the presence of a quorum. Chair Merrow said she is honored and pleased to have been appointed Chairperson and that she would do her best to run the meetings in a manner that will facilitate discussion and advance the goals of the Council.

Environmental Indicators and the Measurement of Environmental Conditions

Chair Merrow said that the agenda would be rearranged to take up first the discussion of environmental metrics with Commissioner Daniel Esty of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), and welcomed Commissioner Esty to the meeting. Members introduced themselves.

Commissioner Esty began by thanking the Council members for their important service to the state. He said the role of an uncensored, independent cross-check on agencies is in some ways comparable to the peer-review process in science, and can help to keep an agency doing what works and making changes where needed. He said that the metrics used should reflect best practices and accurately identify trends. Changing societal norms and expectations also need to be incorporated into analyses. He said he hopes to see the Council’s report continue and that DEEP also is committed to use of metrics as an agency priority. He said the use of metrics to shape policy enhances legitimacy and credibility, and discussed several of the tools needed to create effective, scientific measures: normalization of data, statistical analysis using multivariate regression to isolate causal factors, and choice of appropriate timeframes for averaging or reporting data. Failure to apply these tools can result in 1) a distortion that can lead a suggestion of causation where none exists, 2) a causative factor being overlooked, 3) failure to determine which variable(s) control the result and 4) distorted conclusions due to an overly narrow analysis. He said he prefers measures of outputs (results) to measures of inputs (effort and treasure) to assess effectiveness of policies.

In response to a question about normailzation, Commissioner Esty offered the example that hypoxia in Long Island Sound is best reported when normalized (adjusted) to reflect weather which adds to the Sound’s nutrient load. 

Dunbar and Hall said the role of the Council is not to perform scientific analyses, but to report data to a non-scientific community in an understandable manner. Commissioner Esty said the challenge of rigorous analysis in the future will be to present results in a fashion that is readily understood as a simple message by the general public. He cites as an example of this the concept of the “ozone hole” which was a simple way of depicting complex atmospheric chemistry, which the public grasped, resulting in a ban on chlorofluorocarbons.

Commissioner Esty agreed that judgment is required and that it is not possible to mathematically arrive at best policy choices but that rigorous metrics can narrow the zone of uncertainty for policy makers. He noted that both Betsey Wingfield and Bob Kaliszewski are in the audience and they are heading up DEEPs efforts to improve use of metrics in DEEP decision making.

Klemens said, as a scientist, he likes the use of rolling averages to screen out the “noise” due to annual spikes in factors that are not significant variables. He said that policy makers often must make decisions based on imperfect data. He cited his testimony in hearings regarding the national Endangered Species Act. When being pressed for certainty regarding the probability of pending extinction of specific species, he realized the only 100 percent certainty is actual extinction. Policy makers must make determinations based on trends and projections that might not be wholly provable. Commissioner Esty agreed.

Commissioner Esty said the setting of targets or goals is extremely important and the best measure sometimes is distance from the target. He gave the example of calories; both too few and too many endanger health. What matters to the individual is distance from the optimal intake. He said that both trends and absolute values are important. The trend in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years is down, which looks good, but the levels remain well above the levels that are desirable.

O’Donnell said that the metrics used by the Council are designed to inform the public and those used by DEEP are to evaluate policy. They are not always the same. Metrics like those used by the Council sustain public interest and funding for those used by DEEP. Commissioner Esty agreed and emphasized the importance of being modest about what conclusions can be drawn from data presented. Sometimes the causative drivers cannot be identified. He said it is important to state what could not be measured that might be contributive, and to state the assumptions made in the analysis. He urged a detailed appendix to the Council’s report and offered access to DEEP staff and to the metrics being developed by DEEP.  O’Donnell agreed that putting a team together to enhance the value of an environmental indicator could be of value and said these would be excellent tasks for graduate students and their professors. Commissioner Esty agreed.

Klemens observed that the Council’s indicators divide into two categories: some can be affected by what happens in the state, others reflect regional or global trends. He said there are other in-state metrics that should be added, such as nongame wildlife. Commissioner Esty said that there is a need, nationally, for common definitions of benchmarks in some areas. He cited recycling rates as an indicator that varies greatly across states, in part because of a lack of a common definition. He said there are areas where better data is needed. O’Donnell said that what is measured can reflect a society’s values. Commissioner Esty agreed and noted that the absences of measurements can be included in a metric.

Hall said that air pollution is one of the most complex areas in law and in science; to address the problem sometimes policy has to leap past science. Esty said that simply showing a condition is not good enough; it is important to show causal connections.

He added it is important to celebrate successes, such as nitrogen reduction due to nitrogen trading. He said failure to do this has allowed opponents of environmental regulation to misrepresent advocacy for improvement as evidence of a failure of earlier attempts to correct pollution.

Wagener said that the Council had in the past reported exclusively on indicators for which there were specific goals set. Over time demand from the public and from Council members led to inclusion of indicators that showed trends but lacked specific targets. Commissioner Esty said that when he had encountered the same problem in his research he used the most appropriate national, international or academic standards as targets and explained the rationale for their use.

Wagener said that the rolling averages used in some federal reports on air pollution are viewed skeptically by a public which knows that in the most recent summer the number of bad air days increased; this is especially true for those who suffer from pulmonary problems or have other sensitivities to pollution. Consequently, the Council moved away from rolling averages for air pollution and other data in favor of annual data. Wagener noted that this year’s annual report celebrated the victory over atmospheric lead and dropped it from the air indicator. He noted that the Council produces more detailed reports when indicators in the annual report show an apparent problem. He mentioned the special report on inland wetlands (Swamped) which used multivariate regression to analyze the factors that accounted for the differences in wetlands loss among towns. It determined that the most significant variable associated with those differences was participation in the training offered by DEEP to town wetland commissions. Wagener said the analysis was important, but the complex statistics would not be featured in the annual report because the charts would not communicate to a lay audience; he agreed that appendices are appropriate. Chair Merrow thanked Commissioner Esty for his openness and willingness to give of his time by coming to the meeting. Commissioner Esty offered to be available for any questions the Council has on metrics and methods.

After Commissioner Esty departed, Chair Merrow asked the Council members how they wished to follow up on the Commissioner’s visit. Discussion followed on how some metrics could be improved by a collaborative effort among experts in the field. O’Donnell said that hypoxia amelioration in LI Sound is in need of a better assessment of inputs and outputs. Klemens said some current indicators in the report could be dropped and replaced with new ones, and would like to have a major discussion of the indicator set. He repeated that he would like to see measures of the health of nongame wildlife populations. Chair Merrow asked the members to consider and put their thoughts on paper for the next meeting.

Approval of Minutes

Chair Merrow asked if there were any suggested additions or modifications to the minutes of the May 22, 2013 meeting. There being none, O’Donnell motioned to approve them as written. This was seconded by Dunbar and approved by the Council. Brooks and Klemens, who did not attend the May meeting, abstained from the vote.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener reported that the Council’s budget remained unchanged, with funding for two positions. He referred the Council to the document he had circulated prior to the meeting that included summaries and perspectives of most of the important environmental legislation from four sources: DEEP, the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the Connecticut Audubon Society. Wagener said that one of the most important but under-reported outcomes was the capital budget, which included significant authorizations for the Clean Water Fund, farmland preservation and open space acquisition. O’Donnell noted that with all the money that is going to improve sewage treatment, no additional money is being allocated to monitor the effectiveness of the pollution reduction efforts in the Sound. He added that funds to track policy results are being cut back worldwide. Dunbar said that monitoring, such as stream monitoring, always seems to be among the first budget reductions.

Wagener said the bill to update laws on the sale and operation of outdoor woodburning furnaces failed. A bill was adopted at the last minute that requires DEEP to implement its 2002 policy on ATV trails on state land. He said the policy is posted on the DEEP website; it requires groups interested in creating an ATV trail on state land to submit a proposal, including an analysis of impacts. Sandy Breslin, Director of Government Affairs of Audubon Connecticut, spoke from the audience to say that the policy states that it would not be fully implemented until the General assembly adopts legislation for universal registration of ATVs, which has not happened. Any expectation that registration revenues would offset the cost of ATV trails is unrealistic. Regarding other legislation, O’Donnell asked if the retroactive permitting amnesty for preexisting coastal structures passed; Wagener said that it passed in a version modified from the original.

Indicator of the Month

After a brief discussion, the Council agreed to update the existing electricity indicators in the 2012 annual report, which will be the final update. The larger question of additional or modified energy indicators will be taken up at a future meeting. Klemens asked if it could be determined if the frequent power outages of the last few years affected the electricity efficiency measurements. Dunbar said the trend evident in households choosing renewable energy providers follows a classic sociological model: subscription rates taper off as novelty wanes.

Review of State Agency Actions

Discussion of the letter from DEEP regarding hydraulic fracturing regulations was postponed until the July meeting.

Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) consultation re: telecommunications tower in Voluntown – Wagener said the staff recommended no comments on this proposal.

Citizen Complaints

Wagener reported that four separate issues involving the common theme of biological resources were the subject of inquiries or complaints. One involved the planned release of butterflies. Staff determined that there is no state rule governing butterfly releases. There are federal regulations regarding interstate shipping of butterflies that restrict them by species and by region. No regulation was being violated in the proposed release.

The second inquiry was about DEEP’s stocking of channel catfish into Uncas Lake, which is part of the Eight Mile River Wild and Scenic watershed. Wagener said he had only begun to look into it, but he did note that nearly half of the fish species in that lake were nonnative, a typical situation that is a much broader issue. Several members offered preliminary questions and comments on the wisdom of stocking nonnative species; Sandy Breslin, speaking from the audience, said her organization had received questions about the potential impacts to aquatic insects which in turn could affect aerial insectivores, which are plummeting in population. The council asked staff to follow up on this further.

Wagener reported that the Council had received a letter from the Friends of Connecticut State Parks about the General Assembly’s decision to transfer several acres of Hammonasset State Park land to the town of Madison. Both that organization and the Friends of Hammonasset objected to the conveyance. Wagener gave a brief overview of the land and the recent conveyance legislation. Eileen Grant, President of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks, spoke from the audience. In his overview, Wagener recounted the Council’s 2007 correspondence to DEEP that was highly critical of an earlier conveyance of an easement across the lands in question. That action prompted then-Commissioner Gina McCarthy to issue a firm directive policy to guide potential exchanges of DEEP-managed lands. The General Assembly is of course not bound by such policies, Wagener said. Discussion followed among the Council and the members of the audience about how the state can dispose of valuable assets – in this case, land that happens to be assessed at a value close to the amount raised by the Friends organization for park improvements – without consideration of potential impacts. There was also considerable discussion of the need for better ways to protect public land from such alienation. Amy Paterson, Executive Director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council said there have been many meetings of a working group to discuss the best methods to achieve better protection. O’Donnell said the pressure to allow more such transfers will grow if the state restricts redevelopment along the immediate coast in the coming decades. Chair Merrow said that it is evident that the Council wishes to shine a light on the chronic problem of the state reassigning conservation lands before the natural resources of the lands are fully understood. Members agreed that some manner of a report would be appropriate. On the immediate question of the Madison conveyance, members discussed what conditions, if any, DEEP would be authorized to attach, and if it would be useful for the Council to communicate with DEEP on this. The Council directed staff to draft a letter asking DEEP to conduct an inventory of the natural resources of the parcel and to retain such conservation rights as authorized in the conveyance legislation. Klemens said the town should do a survey as would any developer before coming up with a use plan for the site. It was the consensus of the Council that a report on the practice of legislative and agency land transfers is needed, and the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the state parks system might be an auspicious time for such a report.

Wagener reported that the Council had, in the last few days, received several complaints from state residents about the filling of the intermittent pools in the Meigs Point parking area at Hammonasset State Park. These pools had been a well-known attraction to birds, and in turn to birders. The entire park is one of 27 designated Important Bird Areas in Connecticut and is reported to host the largest number of bird species of any land in the state, Wagener said. DEEP staff filled the pools this year to allow for safer walking to the beach from the parking area. Ms. Breslin spoke from the audience and distributed a recent photograph of the new pedestrian path where the pools used to be, noting the presence of parked cars and not pedestrians on the path. She also recounted an incident from earlier in the year when a nest of great horned owls was reportedly disturbed by park maintenance activities. There was considerable discussion of the questions of how parks staff could have known or not have known about the wildlife resources present in the park and the importance of the pools, and what needs to be done to prevent similar occurrences. Wagener said that he had spoken with DEEP staff and that meetings with ornithological groups were scheduled. Chair Merrow asked if it was the consensus that a letter to the Commissioner would be in order recommending procedures be developed to use metrics and related information to guide maintenance on state lands important to wildlife. By consensus, the Council directed staff to draft such a letter.

There being no further business, Chair Merrow asked for a motion to adjourn. Brooks made the motion. It was seconded by Hall and the meeting was adjourned at 12:05 PM.