Minutes of the November 16, 2016 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 Brooks (by telephone), Alicea Charamut, Karyl Lee Hall, Alison Hilding, Kip Kolesinskas, Matt Reiser, Charles Vidich, Karl Wagener (Executive Director), Peter Hearn (Environmental Analyst), Kyle Hall (Intern).

At 9:33 AM, Chair Merrow convened the meeting, noting a quorum.   

Chair Merrow invited a motion to add to the agenda the Four Corners Sewer Project, which had been requested by multiple members prior to the meeting. Kolesinskas made a motion to add the item and to approve the agenda with that addition. The motion was seconded by Hall and approved unanimously.

Chair Merrow asked if there were any revisions to the minutes of October 19, 2016. There was none. Charamut made a motion to approve the October minutes which was seconded by Reiser and approved by all.

Chair’s Report

Chair Merrow announced that the Council had a new member, Charles Vidich. She welcomed him and asked if he would say a few words about himself. Vidich said he has lived in Ashford since 1976; he has worked in regional planning in Connecticut and in various capacities with the U.S. Postal Service, most recently as head of corporate sustainability nationwide. Having retired from that, he is working as a private consultant for environmental improvement. 

Citizen Comment Period

Rebecca Shafer and Joann Duda, two residents of Mansfield, spoke to the Council as representatives of the Mansfield Neighborhood Preservation Group, which is an organization of 400 residents and families. They spoke about the rise in off-campus housing and related environmental problems in Mansfield. They provided the Council with a number of handouts documenting enrollment trends and the escalating percentage of residential housing stock that was being converted to student rentals. They showed a ranking that listed the University of Connecticut (UConn) as having one of the highest percentages of students housed off campus of the major public universities in the nation. The consequences of UConn’s apparent unwillingness to create more on-campus housing include a high level of unnecessary vehicle traffic to and from campus with resulting air pollution, dangerous and disruptive student parties in residential neighborhoods, stress on septic systems and wells, and increased risk of injuries from vehicle accidents. Ms. Shafer and Ms. Duda answered many questions from Council members. Kolesinskas asked if the town attempts to reduce the environmental impacts of the change in use from single family to rental housing by requiring low-flow water appliances; they answered no, but added that it would be a good idea. Chair Merrow explained to Ms. Shafer and Ms. Duda that the Council can consider environmental issues and that many of the problems they described intersected with social problems. She asked members to give consideration to the environmental aspects and consequences of the enrollment and housing trends at UConn, and asked staff to report at a future meeting as to how the Council could address them. She thanked both women for bringing their concern to the Council.

Chair Merrow introduced Kyle Hall, one of the Council’s two interns for this semester. She asked him to introduce himself and speak about his role at the Council. He said he is a student at UConn with a major in Environmental Science and has been working on the Council’s report on energy sprawl.

Executive Director’s Report

Wagener said that the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge had been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal of the refuge is to preserve and manage early successional forest habitat to the benefit of the New England Cottontail and other species that depend on it. The refuge will span six states and up to 15,000 acres, of which perhaps 4,000 could be in Connecticut, mostly along the New York border and in southeastern Connecticut. Land could be acquired from willing landowners only.

Wagener next updated the Council on New Britain’s proposal to allow mining on its reservoir’s watershed lands. He referred the Council to the consultant’s monthly report to New Britain and the Water Planning Council, which had been distributed prior to the meeting. He will continue to distribute the reports to the Council as they arrive but expects no further action will be required of the Council until the study is completed.

Wagener said that staff had begun work on the annual report. He said that the state had launched a new version of its website earlier in the week, but it appears that the Council will be using the old platform for some time, meaning the annual report template will not change. He displayed a possible new indicator. Staff created a new category for indicator species that inhabit large mosaic habitats, or areas that contain a combination different habitat types. As of now, the category includes Ruffed Grouse, turtles and bats. Kolesinskas concurred with the concept of using indicator species to represent the trends in habitats, and grouse and turtles are good because they do not migrate out of state. Wagener said that staff is still awaiting responses from wildlife experts on the statistical validity of the proposed grouse index. Charamut said she knew of a biostatistician who might be available to review it. Discussion turned to indicators of human health which had been discontinued in the 2015 report. Vidich and Hall endorsed the concept of restoring a measure of human health in the report. Brooks reminded the Council that the cancer indicators were discontinued because there was excessive “noise” in the cancer data due to varying genetic backgrounds of the population. Wagener added that now there are numerous sources online that present the cancer data. Other possible health indicators were discussed, including COPD because of its link to air pollution. Chair Merrow said she is glad for the input of Hall and Vidich on this topic and invited any suggestions members might have on possible human health indicators that have an environmental connection. Hilding said there needs to be more air monitoring locations in the state and also suggested staff look at the presence of pharmaceuticals and antibacterial cleansers in the state’s waters.

Approval of 2017 Meeting Schedule

Wagener referred the Council to the draft meeting schedule for 2017. There were no objections to the dates proposed. Charamut proposed that the schedule be adopted as proposed. The motion was seconded by Hall and approved unanimously.

Citizen Complaints

Wagener reminded the Council that Margaret Miner, of the Rivers Alliance, at a prior meeting had mentioned a problem regarding a sand and gravel operation in Plainfield. He said staff had been aware of the situation, which was very complicated, and had communicated with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) about it. He said that DEEP staff visited the location recently and issued a Notice of Violation (NOV).

Wagener said he had received an inquiry about the East Haven leg of the Shoreline Greenway Trail. Specifically, the individual was inquiring whether the entire trail is a project that should be subject to the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act (CEPA), or whether CEPA was being circumvented by segmenting its construction. He said he questioned both DEEP and the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) about the level of review for the project, which has received state and federal funding. The DOT reported to him that it did an internal review that determined the project was not subject to CEPA. The trail segments had been submitted to DEEP’s Natural Diversity Database for review, and the trail construction had been through the necessary permits. Wagener said that the trail construction does not fit into any of the project types of either agency’s “environmental classification document,” which is the guideline for what projects require CEPA review. If the project did not trigger the need for review under CEPA, then segmentation would not be an issue. Discussion followed on the history of support and opposition along the shoreline communities for the trail and what type of trail was preferred by various proponents and opponents. Wagener said that staff can continue to keep an eye on the trail construction for possible environmental concerns; members concurred.

Hearn updated the Council on staff’s investigation into allegations regarding improper disposal of polluted soil and said he is awaiting additional information which was promised by one of the complainants.

Review of state agency actions

a. State energy policies that lead to loss of agricultural land and forest (staff update; potential action item)

Wagener reviewed the history of the bidding process established by the state for allocation of renewable energy contracts to entities interested in providing renewable energy to the electric distribution companies (EDCs). Using charts from the draft report circulated prior to the meeting, he showed that the three-state process resulted in a disproportionate number of solar projects on farmland and forest in Connecticut.

He referred to the flow chart from previous meetings that illustrated the two major decision points that result in the siting of solar facilities on farmland and forest: DEEP’s selection of providers and the Siting Council’s approval. Considerations other than price are given so little weight in DEEP’s selection criteria that they are negligible; the selection process was designed to make price the dominant and virtually exclusive factor. Flat, undeveloped areas are the least expensive to build upon and consequently the choice for developers looking to deliver low-cost electricity.

Wagener said that the petition process leaves the Siting Council little choice but to approve petitions, unless they are incomplete, seriously deficient or impinge on wetlands. The possible negative impacts of a proposed solar facility on forests or farms are not grounds to deny a petition.

Wagener reviewed the potential in the state for other types of locations, including non-conservation state lands, landfill, brownfields and industrial lands. Vidich asked about the potential of the many closed municipal landfills as sites for solar installations. Wagener said that some towns have installed solar energy projects and others have expressed interest, for which DEEP maintains a list, but agreed with Vidich that there is some potential there.

Wagener described an effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to identify areas in each state where there are brownfields or industrial sites with potential for solar installations. Wagener said that the agency overestimates the available acreage because it includes sites that are active commercial enterprises that had an historical contamination issue and are not true brownfields. The USEPA ‘Repowering America” project estimates that across Connecticut there is brownfield/industrial land capable of hosting 2000 MW of solar photovoltaic generation. Wagener said that astounding figure is unrealistic, and that only an unknown fraction of that acreage could be available, but the potential should be explored and encouraged through incentives. He added that the potential for large scale rooftop solar also needs to be examined.

Kolesinskas said that he needs to disclose that he has consulted with the state’s Department Of Agriculture and with DEEP, and would not comment on any site. He agreed that the state needs to re-examine its energy policy. Lands that are providing multiple ecosystem services should not be sacrificed for energy production. Connecticut is one of the most densely populated states, and loss of open space and farmland has a disproportionate per-capita impact. Consequently greater attention needs to be paid to social and cultural considerations like scenic impacts and the effect on tourism, which can have economic effects as well. He said that the economics of distribution have put farms and forests that are proximate to transmission lines at a premium and that is why they are being selected. Vidich asked about locating the facilities along the gas and electricity rights of way, since they have to be kept clear and are already a dedicated use. Kolesinskas added that gravel pits could be used, and noted that in England every new building with the correct exposure must have solar capability.

Other aspects of the issue were discussed. Hilding had some questions about micro-climate effects, waterfowl issues and efficiency of roof-mounted panels contrasted with field mounted ones, which were answered by Hearn. Wagener clarified for Kolesinskas that the proposal, as drafted would not affect what people could do with their own property; it is only focused on where state incentives can be allocated. Wagener asked if it was the consensus that solar photovoltaic was incompatible with long-term farming potential; members concurred that it was. With regard to cost being virtually the sole determinant among the proposals, Hall said that agencies have discretion on what goes into a request for proposals and the statute needs to be examined with an eye to how much discretion is possible.

Wagener asked if the Council would like to invite DEEP and the Siting Council to comment on the draft report. The Council supported such a meeting, ideally in December, with the inclusion of the Department of Agriculture.

b. Environmental Impact Evaluations: Three by Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA):  1) Off Airport Tree Obstruction Removal, Waterbury-Oxford Airport (no comments proposed), 2) Off Airport Tree Obstruction Removal, Bradley Airport (no comments proposed), 3) Off Airport Tree Obstruction Removal, Groton-New London Airport (draft comments)

With regard to the first two projects, Wagener said that no comments were recommended. The project for the Groton-New London Airport involves tree clearing on Bluff Point State Park and within the Bluff Point Coastal Reserve, which was established by a special act of the legislature and is subject to its own regulations. It is not clear that the regulations allow the clearing of trees, regardless of the purpose or merit of the proposed cutting. The proposed clearing also appears to extend to the Bluff Point Natural Area Preserve; that preserve is subject to regulations that prohibit vegetation removal other than what is described in its management plan. Reiser asked how many trees are at issue; Wagener said that there are alternatives that depend on the slope of the approach; it could be few or it could be many dozen. Hilding made a motion to approve the comments as written which was seconded by Charamut and approved unanimously.

c. Extended Comments for the Mansfield Sewer Project Record of Decision (ROD)

Wagener said that some members had asked that the Council’s prior comments on the ROD be discussed. Wagener briefly reviewed the project and its relationship to CEPA and the Council’s role. He said that the sponsoring agency submits an ROD, which includes any comments received about the project and the agency’s response to the comments, to the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) for review and approval. By tradition, Wagener said, OPM confers with DEEP and the Council as to whether the requirements of CEPA have been met and the comments have been answered. The Council commented on the ROD in September and identified several deficiencies. At the Council’s request, OPM is allowing additional time for the Council to clarify its comments on the shortcomings of the ROD.

The Council discussed each point made in its comments. Charamut made a motion to communicate the following to the Office of Policy and Management regarding the Four Corners Sanitary Sewer Project Record of Decision (ROD), with the Chair to approve the final language:

  1. The Council appreciates the opportunity to amplify and clarify its previous comments on the ROD.
  2. The EIE/ROD should include a clear statement of the project’s purpose and need, specifically that it will serve certain areas with septic system problems but that much of the project is intended for economic development.
  3. The information regarding capacity of the UConn sewage treatment plant should be described as accurately as possible.
  4. Indirect effects, which must be analyzed in any EIE, include traffic, potential for leapfrog development and impacts to watersheds.
  5. The Council is concerned that the response to comments about the sewer service area misinterprets or incorrectly applies the town code when it states that entire properties, including large wetlands, must be included in the service areas, and recommends that a legal opinion be sought to determine the accuracy of that interpretation.

The motion was seconded by Vidich and approved unanimously.

There being no further business, Chair Merrow asked for a motion to adjourn. This was made by Charamut and seconded by Vidich. Adjournment was at 12:34.