Monday, September 12, 2005

Broadwater's Stacked Deck: Other Opinions

In the environmental review of the big LNG facility proposed for Long Island Sound, Broadwater is playing with a stacked deck. That was my assertion last week. Two readers responded with good insights and more information.

The first response, made as a comment to the original post, challenges my assertion outright:

I was one of the authors for the FERC EIS for the Iroquois Pipeline. I must respectfully challenge your implication that the contents of the EIS are determined by the applicant.

Preparation of the Iroquois EIS involved considerable consultation with numerous government agencies. A draft EIS was subject to intense scrutiny by federal, state, and local government agencies (besides FERC), NGOs, Civic Groups, and individuals. I personally addressed many of the comments made on the draft document.

Consider the last two sentences in your friend's explanation. The NEPA/SEQR process opens up the evaluation of a proposed project to people who might otherwise not be included. I remember reading and responding to a letter from a gentleman who was "considering" becoming a commerical shellfisher. This is the kind of inclusiveness that the process facilitates.

The EIS process doesn't stack the deck. Instead, it opens the process and prevents an applicant from being the sole source of input for the decision that the lead regulatory agency must make.

This is good news if true, and I have no particular reason to believe it isn't. One underlying problem is that the process is designed to mitigate environmental impacts (you'll notice, for example, that the environmental review did not result in the Iroquois Pipeline from crossing the Sound), not to determine if the project should be built or not. I wonder what would have resulted if they had started the Iroquois project with the question, "What should be built along the bottom of Long Island Sound between Milford, Northport and Hunts Point?" rather than "What are the environmental impacts of this pipeline and how should they be mitigated?"

In fact maybe that's how we should start the Broadwater process, with this question: What should be built on the publicly-owned waters of Long Island Sound between Branford and Shoreham?

Ask the question that way and the answer is not likely to be, "A huge liquefied natural gas facility."

The second reader sent me an e-mail explaining the environmental review process better than I did:

Broadwater's role in the NEPA process is not unique. The role you attribute to Broadwater also describes just about every applicant in every SEQRA process with which I've been involved (my involvement being on the public side, pushing for public scoping, raising community awareness, submitting comments, etc.).

Broadwater is no different than the local developer going before a town board or commission that is acting as the lead agency, like FERC. In fact, in many of those cases, the applicant was the one who wrote the EIS.

Yes, the way NEPA/SEQRA works, it certainly does give the applicant (be it Broadwater, Walmart or Joe Bloe Construction Company) the potential to exert much influence over what ends up in the EIS.

It's particularly troublesome when the applicant and the lead agency are even more entwined than Broadwater and FERC. One example is the way the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) has handled the SEQRA process for the siting of power plants on LI. LIPA is the lead agency and the merchant utilities are the applicants. LIPA already has a contractual relationship with the applicants. LIPA is looking for the power. You can see the tremendous conflict of interest that arises from that situation.

On the other hand, if a particular agency or community doesn't want a project, SEQRA becames a weapon. Whether the project is worthy (say, affordable but higher-density housing) or not (another big-box store) is almost immaterial. SEQRA can still be used to stall projects.

For these reasons, I very much agree with your friend as to the importance of meaningful community outreach, education and involvement. Facts (slanted or otherwise) must be addressed with facts and not propaganda or innuendo. They will become part of the record. Endless repetitions of "I oppose Broadwater because it endangers the health and safety of Long Island Sound" will have very little impact compared to a fact-based argument.

Having seen (read?) the NEPA process in action for the KeySpan Providence and Hess Weaver's Cove LNG applications, I have some peace of mind that a thorough review will be conducted of the environmental impacts of Broadwater. How FERC interprets the information developed in the EIS process is still the concern.

The Providence and Fall River applications demonstrated the level of participation available to governmental agencies and the public. The Massachusetts and Rhode Island Attorneys General developed very strong arguments against both applications, based on the testimony of local and national experts. ...

Based in part on the records developed by the AG's, FERC allowed KeySpan's application but on conditions that KeySpan feels thay cannot meet. FERC approved the Weaver's Cove application.

The NEPA/SEQRA process does not demand a totally independent arbiter of the enviromental impacts. It establishes the ground rules by which the impacts must be evaluated by the lead agencies. I certainly agree that the NEPA/SEQRA process has its limitations and could use some tweaking. For now, we have to work with what we have, which means making reasonable, fact-based arguments.

Both comments are much less cynical than mine and are cause, perhaps, for some small bit of optimism. The public hearings start this week, with meetings Tuesday and Wednesday on Long Island, and continue next week, with meetings in Connecticut.


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