04 October 2010

Policy by Ignorance, Surgery by Bulldozer

What happens when the regulations of one federal agency lead to decisions that violate the policies of another? Depending on the agencies, often the purpose and need supported by the one agency are considered more "valuable" in some way that those of the other. When no-one wants to rock the boat, bad decisions are propagated through the bureaucratic system, and mistakes are allowed to go forward.

Of course, on this blog, I'm referring to an issue in which water and nature come out on the losing end of the bargain. This is, in fact, one of the very issues that led me to name my blog as such: it's just defies my sense of logic when the causes of natural conservation and water preservation lose out so easily to regulatory inconsistency, bureaucratic inflexibility, and territorial stubbornness. Since I, myself, am not a lawyer, the blog is my outlet. Most often I present the facts, and sometimes I actually have an opinion. There is one case in particular in which I served as an expert witness in a court setting, but that's a story still to be told in this forum. In the meantime, let's see where this one goes...

In the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, an absolutely beautiful area that I have had the pleasure of touring more than once in my youth (college-interview trips with sisters, and Appalachian Trail Conferences with parents), are the headwater streams and lakes of the Housatonic River. The Housatonic forms at the convergence of three tributaries in the vicinity of the City of Pittsfield and flows southward through Massachusetts and Connecticut. The Housatonic is constrained by the coastal and upland Appalachian geology, flowing roughly parallel to the Hudson River to the west in New York and, along its lower reaches, the Connecticut River to the east. The Housatonic River eventually empties into Long Island Sound between Stratford and Milford, Connecticut. Five hydroelectric dams regulate the Housatonic River in Connecticut, and several more regulation and control structures are found along the Housatonic and its tributaries within Massachusetts. A map of the watershed, shown in light blue on a background of the region's counties, is reproduced at right from the website of the Housatonic Valley Association. Pittsfield, our location of interest, is located in the upper portion of the figure where the Southwest, West and East Branches of the Housatonic headwaters merge.

Pittsfield is a bit of a troubled community, but it hasn't always been that way. Its Wikipedia page characterizes an early entry in the Industrial Revolution, with numerous well-know residents over time. Of particular interest was one of the first American factories to produce electrical transformers, established as the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company in 1890. This plant was bought by General Electric in 1903, and divisions of GE in military ordnance and plastics were also established there over time. Well-known former CEO Jack Welch originally joined GE as a chemical engineer in the Pittsfield plastics division in 1960 and moved to the C-level in 1972, eventually taking over as CEO from 1981 to 2001. Unfortunately, it was during Mr. Welch's tenure that the company was brought before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for massive contamination of the nearby North and East Branches of the Housatonic River, among numerous other locations, with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an organic component and byproduct of electrical equipment and device manufacturing with unprecedented environmental persistence. The sole market producer of PCBs for industrial use in the U.S. was Monsanto from their development by a smaller company in the 1920s. Though PCBs were finally banned in the U.S. in 1979, it wasn't until 2000 that GE entered into an agreement with the EPA to begin remediation on several miles of the Housatonic River in and downstream of Pittsfield in order to remove PCB-contaminated sediments and shoreline soils, a sensitive and intensive project. By 2009, according to GE's website, the company had spent more than $1.7B on PCB-removal projects at more than 89 locations across the country, with more than 85% of that cost (including EPA-shared projects) taken up at GE's three largest Superfund (CERCLA) sites: along the Hudson River in New York, at the Pittsfield location in Massachusetts, and at another manufacturing facility in Georgia. These projects are all ongoing. In the process, GE ceased manufacturing electrical equipment at the Pittsfield facility and spun off its plastics division (also known as GE Advanced Materials) there to become SABIC Innovative Plastics. Now, after a long-term decline and hints at a revitalization of the area's industries and commercial viability, Pittsfield is touted as a commercial center for western Massachusetts and hosts the GE-SABIC facility, an office of General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, and several other industrial- and information-based companies. Still, during the commercial evolution of the city over the past 40 years in order to maintain competitiveness, Pittsfield's population has declined slowly since approximately the time of the 1970 census and is predicted to fall below 40,000 before 2020.

It those were all of Pittsfield's problems, there wouldn't be such concern right now. The upper headwaters of the Housatonic provide plenty of fresh, uncontaminated resources, and the area is dotted with clean and fresh lakes upstream of GE's contamination sites. In fact, only two of the three Branches constituting the principal Housatonic headwater streams that meet in Pittsfield were directly impacted by PCB dumping and remediation activities. The Southwest Branch of the Housatonic remained outside GE's area of activity, but it has problems and special considerations in its own right. More specifically, in the vicinity of Pittsfield and because of direct actions by that City, rare ponds and wetlands along several streams and tributaries of the Southwest Branch are under immediate threat. The problem is development and expansion, under the guise of FAA regulatory compliance for public safety, at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport (PSF). I was contacted by an interested party last week, in the wake of a recent permitting decision (that I will get to below), regarding the impacts of this expansion. I present here some of the background information that was provided to me; in future posts I will present more information that I have started to gather on the topics at issue. Overall, it's beginning to form a compelling story on the willful blindness of bureaucracy and the leverage that money seems to hold over natural treasures.

PSF serves the private, corporate and general aviation sectors in northwestern Massachusetts, but its main runway is not currently up-to-code with proper safety areas on the runway ends. For smaller, single-engine and light aircraft, this is not so much an issue. PSF was built in 1941 and has been serving the region and local users continually since then. An aerial photo of the airport, taken from southeast of the facility, is provided at AirNav.com and shown on the right. The main runway is just over 5,000 feet long and runs from the upper left (generally, from the west) to lower right (east) in the photo. The problem with the runway, according to FAA regulations, is that the ends of the runway do not have proper safety areas. At the western end, only 150 feet of off-runway safety area is provided for possible aircraft over-shoot and braking before a relatively steep drop to a road that abuts the airport property. At the eastern end, about 200 feet of runway safety area (RSA) is provided. For the aircraft that PSF is expected to serve, which is reported to extend up to the Gulfstream V corporate class, the FAA regulations mandate 1000 feet at each end of the runway. In addition, the City of Pittsfield (which owns the airport) has elected to use the construction required for bringing the runway up to these FAA standards to add another 790 feet of runway length. For many small airports, these would seem reasonable actions to meet safety requirements and to expand the class of service, or at least make existing service safer, in an effort to boost economic development in the area. For PSF, however, the environment stands in the way.

Specifically, and despite many considered alternative development plans, the City of Pittsfield has elected to "relocate" the main runway about 650 feet to the east, extend the runway overall, and construct the RSAs at each end to meet FAA requirements. Overall, this will ensure continued FAA support and funding for operations and maintenance at PSF. Essentially, this means several things. First, 650 feet of runway at the western end will be removed, and an additional 200 feet of field will be regraded, in order to meet the FAA requirement for a 1000-foot RSA. This 650 feet will be subtracted from the western end and added to the eastern end of the runway, where an additional 790 feet of runway will also be constructed, and then the required area for the 1000-foot RSA would be developed. The construction probably would not proceed in this order, to ensure continued use of the airport, but those are the basics.

You'll notice in the photo, however, that the airport is surrounded on its east and south sides by wetlands. Because of their chemistry these are actually classified as "fens" in the professional literature, but in more general terms I'll stick with "wetlands" as a more widely recognized term. A look at the airport in Google Maps gives an even better idea on the extent and proximity of these wetlands around PSF.

View Larger Map

Overall, the development plan proposes to fill 5.72 acres of wetlands and 0.10 acres of streams that are designated "waters of the United States." These are all essential environmental systems that are protected from development impacts in Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. That legislation designates impact review and permitting authority to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), while the remainder of the Clean Water Act is administered by the U.S. EPA. The focus here of the USACE is primarily on "dredge and fill" activities, and not necessarily on the science of surface waters or groundwater, their origin and behavior, and the determination of impacts on their ecosystem services through rigorous scientific analysis.

What bothers me here, in addition to the narrow focus of the USACE in Section 404 Permit decisions, is the relative dearth of public information about this project. When wetlands and water resources are to be altered, there ought to be an overflow of information regarding the existing function of the environment, including both hydrology and ecology, on which an impact study would be based. In this case, there seems to be very little volume of related information, reports, submitted studies, etc. Instead what I have found is woefully insufficient and out-of-date. The City of Pittsfield maintains a web page with information about the Municipal Airport, but links to detailed information and reports on the development and expansion project are incomplete. Of the Final Environmental Impact Report, only the City's responses to citizen comments (pdf), the FEIR chapter on the project "Purpose and Need" (pdf) and a report on stormwater management from the contracted design engineering company (pdf) are made available. The stormwater management report essentially comprises a part of the required Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) for the project as well a portion of the design requirements for site construction. The last Fiscal Annual Report for the airport that is listed by the City on their website is from 2006 (pdf). Of reports or other information on the details of site hydrology, the long-term potential impact of fill and construction on the surrounding wetlands, the viability of constructed and "enhanced" wetlands in mitigation efforts, the impact of straightened stream channel segments in the vicinity of the runway construction, or the essential role of groundwater in the ecological and environmental system and potential impacts on that resource, there is no useful information at all put forward by the City. To wit, on the city's FAQ webpage regarding the airport expansion and development project, there is this:
"What are the environmental impacts of the project?

"The project will comply with all applicable federal and state environmental laws. The Environmental Assessment/Environmental Impact Report (EA/EIR), publically developed and prepared by the Pittsfield Muncipal Aiport Commission and its consultants, has complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA). During the course of developing these assessments and reports the Airport Commission proposed adding up to five acres at Wild Acres for every acre of land acquired at the preserve. Moreover, the commission has said that the fishing pond at Wild Acres will not be altered by the renovations. In July 2005, a project milestone was reached when certificates were received from federal and state environmental agencies stating that the project was consistent with NEPA and with MEPA environmental regulations."
That didn't even answer the question! This FAQ response is, essentially, an effort at misdirection. My paraphrase: "The government has issued for us the permits and certificates that will allow the environmental impacts that we simply cannot or will not avoid. You don't need to know all the details. Just let us handle the technical stuff."

The New England District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Public Notice on 2 February 2010 regarding some of the project details and requesting comments, though those were due to the Corps by 4 March. Though some details of the proposed project were given in that Notice, as well as some indication of the efforts to mitigate environmental impacts of the project, numerous comments were received from the public. The Corps Decision to issue the Section 404 Permit, on 7 September 2010 and made available to me last week, reads as a simple (and highly simplified) review of earlier documentation and decisions made by other permitting authorities. Specifically, those have been the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the lead federal agency, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission (MAC), the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Variances from regulatory standards have been issued along the way, by the FAA (regarding part of the safety area) and most notably by the Massachusetts DEP, who issued a variance permit and then tacked on an additional project (more on that below) in the process of issuing a Water Quality Certification for the project. Above all, it seems as if the Final Environmental Impact Report was seen in its entirety only by the FAA and MAC. The contents of such a report should have been evaluated instead by subject-matter experts that the DEP and USACE could provide. It seems, from my perspective, that the latter agencies took the decisions of the former and simply passed those through the chain of decision-makers who asked no questions. This is bureaucracy at work, and the failure of due diligence is readily apparent.

Look again at the map of the airport. It looks to me like the original runways and terminal were built in a wetlands area in the first place, back in 1940-41. What were the impacts of that construction? We see now the seemingly healthy wetlands, but we can't know now what their conditions before the airport ever were. Further airport development will fill in almost six more acres of the wetlands, primarily on the east side of the airport. It is stated that the fill will consist entirely of local materials, that additional areas will be constructed to mitigate overall wetland loss, that transplanting of native plants will help the establishment of new "constructed" wetlands in the mitigation process, and that other procedures are incorporated in the construction plans to mitigate stormwater impacts. Essential topics that are not addressed in any of the available document are the basic scientific functioning of these wetland areas, their origin in calcareous outcrops on the margins of the Taconic Range where geochemical contributions have made a seemingly invaluable groundwater resource out of glacial deposits and more recent recharge from natural processes. These wetlands, along with similar areas to the south that are just recently being recognized for their rarity and quality along the border between New York and Massachusetts, are representative of what is arguably the next great source of freshwater for the northeastern U.S. megalopolitan region. The geology and chemistry of such calcareous deposits produce what many consider "hard" water, that is high in calcium and magnesium content, but that is also chemically buffered such that it does not hold metals in solution and is, essentially, pollution-free. What we don't yet know about this area of the country is how exactly that happens, and this development at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport threatens any effort at understanding the quality and interactions of groundwater and surface water in the area before it is destroyed, and for more than the local users and wildlife. A groundwater reservoir, once contaminated or depleted, is essentially lost forever; its remediation and recharge is unlikely to happen within one human generation or the next. The environmental assessment for this project, as reported to the FAA, seemingly contained little or no information on the science of these wetlands, just a rudimentary assessment of their capacity for modification by preferred development alternatives. Either that, or the FAA sees "safety" in ways different from the rest of us. I guess both can be true.

Finally, there is the side-project that the State of Massachusetts added as a condition to the Water Quality Certification granted to the project at Pittsfield Municipal Airport. This additional work involves the removal of the Sackett Brook Dam, a structure on a tributary of the East Branch of the Housatonic River in the Pittsfield State Watershed Area, not on the Southwest Branch in the vicinity of the Airport, which is actually about 5 miles to the west. How these two projects could be interpreted as connected, I don't know. How is it possible that the Environmental Assessment and Review for the Airport development can be in any way applied to the Sackett Reservoirs? Yes, that's plural, there are two; the documents that I have do not specify which dam is to be removed, but the Final Decision issued by the USACE does somehow list the removal of one of the dams on Sackett Brook as an element of stream bank restoration and enhancement as well as an element of open-water enhancement. Wait...when a dam is removed (which is getting to be a big, though delicate and controversial, business now) the impounded water is released, right? Doesn't that mean less open water after the removal of the dam and reservoir, not more? Where is the Environmental Impact Report for that activity?

So in that case, the USACE just issued a permit for an activity with unknown purpose and unknown potential impact, seemingly as a mitigating activity for wetlands loss elsewhere, with no supporting documentation or scientific (or even engineering) investigation, and with no intended oversight on the demolition activity or its effects on the surrounding environment, either the forested region surrounding the reservoir or the groundwater beneath it. Never mind that this reservoir is in the area affected by PCB contamination decades earlier, downstream in the groundwater flow patterns from the GE clean-up sites. If the reservoir does in fact receive any of the surrounding groundwater, the concentration of PCBs in lake sediments is likely higher than in the free-flowing downstream areas. Does the public get to see the study on that project and its impacts, or will it be allowed to go forward without a public hearing, just as a public hearing for the Airport project was denied as well?


tradtimbo said...

Thanks for the great blog! Fantastic resource! I occasionally have some things to say about water:

Blog said...

I was very impressed with the depth and background or your writing. I find it very interesting how government agencies will adjust their stance on the rules based on the importance of the project. Why does the protection of the wetlands exist if these same wetlands can be encroached upon when someone with deep pockets thinks it is a good idea.

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