Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Newhall Advisory Committee's Letter to Governor Rell

At long last, Newhall is finally seeing a little bit of public involvement...

Make no mistake. We're not talking about the kind of "public involvement" that the DEP has been trying to buy with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bond funds that they have spent on PR. The DEP's own efforts to organize public participation in the past month continue to be an utter failure and a waste of our state bond funds: In the DEP's four hour open house at the Keefe Center only 30 people showed up over the entire course of the evening, which meant that the members of the community were nearly outnumbered by DEP staff and contractors.

The NAC Steps Up

No, we're talking about genuine participation, the kind where people from the neighborhood actually participate. The kind which comes at no cost to the taxpayer. In fact, the Community has gotten more involved in order to prevent further waste of the state bond funds, as reflected in the Op-Ed article in the Hartford Courant last week by one of the NAC members. Indeed, the Newhall Advisory Committee, our volunteer community board, has finally stepped out from under the DEP's tutelage and has taken some critical steps forward.

Much has happened on the Newhall Advisory Committee in the last month, but here are the highlights:

1. In a vote of 10-1, with one abstention, the Newhall Advisory Committee voted to reject the DEP's plan unconditionally and in its entirety. With a total rejection of the DEP's plan by the community it was ostensibly intended to serve, the DEP's plan is now off the table.

2. In a unanimous vote, the Newhall Advisory Committee voted to end the services of its "facilitator", Ms. Kathleen Conway, a subcontractor of Loureiro Engineering Associates. We also learned that Community Mediation, a corporation in which Ms. Conway serves as the Vice President, was partnering up on an EPA grant application for Newhall without informing the community or the NAC. More on this later...

3. After many hours spent drafting, discussing, and refining the letter, the Newhall Advisory Committee sent a letter to Governor Jodi Rell informing her of our community's rejection of the DEP's plan "and the failure of the flawed process that created it -- a process in which we were given only the illusion of involvement." The letter is printed in its entirety below.

It speaks for itself.

September 18, 2006

Honorable M. Jodi Rell
Governor of Connecticut
State Capitol
Hartford, Connecticut 06106

Dear Governor Rell:

On August 17, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released its proposed cleanup plan for our neighborhood, the Newhall Remediation site in Southern Hamden. On August 31, we, the members of the Newhall Advisory Committee, a body formed by the DEP as a pillar of the State-mandated public involvement campaign, voted with near unanimity to reject the DEP’s proposed plan unconditionally, and in its entirety. We are writing to you at this time to explain why, after waiting patiently for many years for the DEP to put forward its proposed plan, we have taken this course of action.

First and foremost, as a body created to represent our community, we had a responsibility to act on the evident wish of the vast majority of residents in the neighborhood. As was readily apparent to all in attendance, the DEP’s proposed plan was broadly rejected by our neighbors at the August 17 meeting; not one voice was raised in support of the plan. The sense of dismay with what the DEP put forward was also expressed to us by the many unable to attend the Commissioner’s staged meeting. In summary, our community has made it quite clear that the proposed plan was unacceptable, and we would have been remiss in our duties if we had not rejected it.

Moreover, as residents who have studied the matter carefully over the years, we also felt our own impetus to put an end to a plan that, if implemented, would have done permanent damage to our community and would not have addressed the problems it was intended to solve. What the DEP has offered is at best a temporary solution to a small part of the problem, one that would disrupt our lives tremendously and is likely to permanently lower the value of the homes in our area.

It is absolutely essential that following the implementation of any remedy, each one of us will be living in a home that is safe, and on a property that is clean and has been legally cleared of any environmental restrictions on its purchase, sale, and use. The current proposed plan does not achieve this outcome. We have many concerns, but several stood out in our decision to reject the DEP’s proposed plan.

Our community has consistently asked for full cleanup, and the DEP has repeatedly committed to providing a complete and final resolution, yet the DEP’s proposed plan will not provide a full and permanent solution. Instead, Commissioner McCarthy’s plan proposes to replace the top four feet of soil in our yards and to put legal restrictions on how 137 of our neighbors can use their properties (an environmental land use restriction/ELUR). In this respect, the DEP’s proposed plan is the worst of all possible options. According to this plan, many homes with significant contamination at a depth of greater than four feet will not have this matter resolved and will permanently bear the scarlet letter and lingering fear and stigma of contamination (ELURs).

We cannot accept a plan that leaves significant contamination below four feet in place, destroying the value of our properties and potentially putting our health and homes at risk.

In addition, after promising for many years to address the problem, and after allocating substantial state funds to study and assess it, the DEP’s plan was silent on the pressing issue of how to deal with the steady and impending collapse of many of our homes. There are several people in this neighborhood who currently live in homes that have suffered severe settlement from the instability of the underlying landfill. Some of these homes are now in a state of collapse. Commissioner McCarthy, in her ceremonial walk through the neighborhood over a year ago, visited many of these homes and promised to make matters right. Yet when the time has come to act, she now claims that the problem is not her responsibility. For a community that has invested great time and effort on this issue, the Commissioner’s reversal was taken as a betrayal and an affront. Any remedy must solve this problem as its first order of business. In some cases, immediate action must be taken, even before the development of a plan.

Given how long we had to wait for its arrival, we were not eager to reject the proposed plan when it finally appeared, but Commissioner McCarthy left us no choice. After an unjustifiably long delay since the Department wrote its preliminary assessment of the Newhall site, they have failed to deliver a workable plan.

The Process

The failure of the proposed plan is also a failure of the flawed process that created it—a process in which we were given only the illusion of involvement.

In principle, and by State mandate, our community was to play an important role in resolving the problems stemming from the fact that large parts of our neighborhood were built on a landfill. Indeed, according to the “modifying” criteria set out by State and Federal guidelines, no plan can move forward without our support. With our participation in mind, the State Bond Commission, under your guidance and direction, allocated close to four million dollars to the Newhall remediation, with much of it earmarked for “public involvement.” Since 2003 alone, the DEP has spent more than $600,000 on public relations at Newhall, approximately $2000 per property. We, as members of the NAC, have devoted countless hours to meetings and reviews of documents. We have written letters and provided suggestions and recommendations. In short, without any compensation whatsoever, we have devoted a substantial portion of our lives to act as citizens in the service of our community.

With the development and release of its proposed plan, however, the DEP confirmed that it sees our community’s role as nothing more than empty ceremony, a mere formality. The proposed plan was put forward without any consideration given to the required modifying criteria. As they developed the plan, the Department’s staff refused to share even the broadest outlines of what they were considering. The proposed plan itself was only delivered to our homes just hours before the meeting took place, allowing us no time whatsoever to review it in advance of a meeting that was initially intended to be an opportunity to answer questions on a plan that could have been distributed weeks in advance. And despite the fact that we requested that the community be given several weeks advanced notice of the meeting, residents in our area received word of the meeting in the mail only a few days before it was scheduled to take place, allowing us little time to adjust our schedules so that we could attend.

It is disheartening to think of how easily the valid concerns with the central elements of the proposed plan could have been aired early on, and the plan revised, if there had been a genuine process of engagement with the community. Instead, the DEP chose to cloister themselves with their contractors up in Hartford, and to unveil a proposal that was not only patently flawed, but which disregarded virtually every recommendation or request made over the past years by our community. In this respect, the plan bore the marks of its creators. Like so much in DEP’s management of the Newhall site, it benefits their contractors but not our community.

For our part, we have continually strived to make our participation in the process more active and meaningful, only to be rebuffed. On the grounds that funds are not available, Commissioner McCarthy has repeatedly denied our requests for an independent scientific advisor to help us to make more informed decisions, and yet she has insisted on subcontracting $74,420 for a highly-paid lawyer to “facilitate” the monthly meetings of our small community board.

Moreover, when we learned of significant problems with the management, contracting, and misallocation of state funds at the site, we brought this to the attention of the appropriate authorities. Many millions of dollars in State Bond funds earmarked for this community have found their way into the hands of a few select state contractors, generally using uncompetitive contracts, a matter that is now being pursued by the Attorney General’s office. We believe that the current environmental consultants are entirely inappropriate for the largest residential remediation in Connecticut’s history, and hope that this can be resolved before any more remediation funds are spent needlessly.

In the past, we have also been gracious and patient with the DEP’s patronizing and, at times, contemptuous attitude towards our community. Unfortunately, our patience appears to have been perceived as passivity, and has met with no good ends. It has become clear that the DEP has never felt that they needed any input or information from this community, or that we had anything valuable to add to the process. Sadly, yet predictably, the process has been impoverished by our exclusion from it.

Moving Forward: A Community Plan

Given the failure of the DEP’s proposed plan to find support from the community it was ostensibly intended to aid, or from the taxpayers and elected representatives who are expected to fund it, our community has taken matters into our own hands and, with the help of independent consultants, is in the process of building consensus on an alternative plan. The DEP has had many years to resolve the problem, and they have failed. We hope that you will give us an opportunity to have our turn at the wheel and to put forward our own solution. If our community succeeds in the endeavor, as we expect to, we hope that we will find you among our strongest supporters.

Sincerely yours,

The Members of the Newhall Advisory Committee