Connecticut Public Radio WNPR aired this story yesterday during "Morning Edition." It concerned a letter from the the Executive Director of Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments to Gina McCarthy, the Commissioner of the CT Department of Environmental Protection, calling for her to intervene "to restore some semblance of credibility and fairness" to the process used by the State to select projects to fund under the Natural Resources Damages Fund, established back in 2000 to mitigate GE's contamination of the Housatonic River with PCBs. Thought to contain more than $9 million, none of these funds have been disbursed for projects to date.
The following is the text of Executive Director Dan McGuinness's letter, reproduced here as a public service with permission of the author. This may also be of interest to those of you who do not live in the Litchfield Hills or further downstream along the lower reaches of the Housatonic.
January 4, 2008
Dear Commissioner McCarthy:
My purpose in writing to you is to express my concerns regarding the "short list" of projects for the Housatonic River Natural Resources Restoration project.
I will state at the outset that my agency, the Northwestern Ct. Council of Governments, in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy submitted a proposal that did not make the "short list". My comments, therefore, can be - and undoubtedly will be by some - considered as "sour grapes". Nonetheless, having both watched, and been involved in, this process for more than seven years, I feel compelled to express my concerns.
Comment Period The applications, referred to as "requests for supplemental information", were due June 20, 2007. The schedule, at that time, was for the short list to be announced in mid-September 2007. Instead, the "short list" was announced by the Ct. Trustee Sub-Council on December 17, 2007. At that time, the Sub-Council stated that they would accept written comments only up until January 4th. Their contention was that to extend the time for written comments would delay the process.
Over a seventeen day period that included Christmas Day and New Years Day, the organizations involved were expected to meet and prepare written comments. For the Council to be three months late in developing the "short list" and then provide only seventeen days for written comments is an insult to all those who submitted applications as well [as] those who would like to comment on the proposed projects.
It should also be noted that, because of the short time period, the Ct. Trustee Advisory Group, that was set up by Ct. DEP, did not meet and comment on the projects or the process.
Scoring System Over a period of more than for months, the Sub-Council, working with consultants, developed a set of evaluation criteria to be used in reviewing projects. The adopted evaluation criteria contain five categories that are further subdivided into twenty-one subcategories. Seventeen of the subcategories are assigned specific numerical scores.
Given the time and expense that went into developing this elaborate scoring system, one would expect to see a final score sheet for each project showing how many points the project received in each of the seventeen sub-categories. Instead, the Sub-Council released a narrative "project evaluation summary" for the five major categories for each project and a conclusion of whether or not to "short list" the project. The narratives, while admirably succinct, do not provide much guidance to an applicant as to their application's shortcomings. The applicant, therefore, is left in a quandary as to how they should respond in the short period available for public comment.
Responding to comments made at the Sub-Council meeting on December 18th, I have received a "summary table" showing Trustee Ken Finkelstein's rankings. His table simply shows the total score he assigned to each project. I have also received Rick Jacobson's detailed raw scores for each project. No scoring information has been received from the third Trustee, Veronica Varela from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As far as I can tell, the scoring information has not been posted on the Sub-Council's website.
Results According to the eligibility criteria adopted by the Sub-Council, all projects had to enhance or restore the natural resources that were damaged by the release of the PCBs. More specifically, to be eligible for funding, a project had to either:
- restore or enhance aquatic natural resources,
- restore or enhance riparian and floodplain natural resources and/or
- restore or enhance recreational use of natural resources
At several meetings, Sub-Council Trustees and DEP employees stated that they expected the funds to be distributed fairly evenly between projects that addressed each of the three natural resources that were damaged.
Instead, 58.5% of these funds are to go to recreational projects, 26.1% to riparian and floodplain projects, and 15.4% to aquatic projects. this is hardly the distribution of funds that applicants were lead to believe would occur.
Of the fifty-three projects that were submitted in the second phase, seven were submitted by Ct. DEP. Of these seven, five are included on the short list. These five projects account for $5,610,893 - or 44.5% of the total project funds on the short list.
The NWCCOG and The Nature Conservancy's Project (P-10) resembles a project proposed by Ct. DEP (P-37). Both projects call for the acquisition of easements along the Housatonic River. The NWCCOG/ The Nature Conservancy Project would be solely for conservation easements. The Ct. DEP project would be primarily for easements to provide recreational access to the River. The NWCCOG/ The Nature Conservancy project requested $2,000,000; the entire $2,000,000 was to go to the purchase of easements. The Ct. DEP project requested $2,812,580 of which $1,440,000 (51.2%) is to go for the purchase of easements and the remaining $1,372,580 is to Ct. DEP for salaries, benefits, supplies, materials and travel.
Needless to say, the Ct. DEP project was included in the "short list".
The Project Evaluation Summary for the NWCCOG / The Nature Conservancy project contained some rather curious statements. The Applicant Implement Capacity section states: "The organizations and the representatives from them appear to be qualified and have the necessary technical and administrative experience." But, the Conclusion Section gives as a reason for not including the NWCCOG / The Nature Conservancy project the claim that other unnamed applicants have "substantial experience in this work". I sincerely doubt that Ct. DEP has more "substantial experience" in obtaining easements than The Nature Conservancy.
When the agency hires consultants, staffs the Sub-Council and has a vote on the Sub-Council makes decisions that heavily favor that agency, it is not surprising that people question the fairness of the outcomes. The failure to provide adequate time for written public comments and the failure to release the complete results of the elaborate scoring system only raises more questions.
I am requesting that you intervene in this process in order to restore some semblance of credibility and fairness to the entire Housatonic River Natural Resources Restoration Project. Thank you.
Dan McGuinness, Executive Director