Thursday, July 26, 2007

Who's looking out for us?

"I don't think I could stand to read another article about Broadwater," said a newspaper staff member the other day.

It stopped me cold, since lately I've been the person doing the Broadwater reporting in our newsroom. What was she saying? Am I boring her to death? It must be bad, to inspire a staff member to tell her, er, boss that she can't stand reading what said boss is writing.

If newsroom staff feel that way, what about our readers?

What about you? Are you sick of Broadwater?

I hope not, because there's plenty yet to come. There has to be. This issue is the biggest and most important issue we've seen in decades. Broadwater, if built, will have irreversible impacts on what is arguably our region's most unique and precious natural resource: Long Island Sound. We will be living with the consequences of Broadwater for generations to come, and those consequences are not small.

Broadwater will pollute the Sound, a designated estuary of national significance, a fragile ecosystem already under stress (thanks to existing industrial and municipal discharges) into which the federal and state governments have poured tens of millions of dollars for cleanup and restoration. Broadwater will take in sea water, killing marine life caught up in the process, then discharge wastewater treated with a chlorine derivative that's harmful to aquatic life.

It will pollute the air with its smokestacks. Broadwater has asked to be exempt from air-emission standards, arguing that the air at the site is not "ambient air" because the entire area surrounding the facility — 1.5 square miles — will be a designated security zone from which the public is barred. Last I heard, air travels. What will those of us downwind from the facility be breathing in? We are already living with the dirtiest air in the state outside of New York City.

As we've reported, Broadwater will wreak havoc on the commercial and recreational fishing industries in the Sound. The floating security zones required by the Coast Guard will create a nightmare for commercial and recreational fishermen and boaters from the Race off Orient Point to Port Jefferson.

And unless the Coast Guard rules otherwise, ferry operations out of Orient will be disrupted every time a liquefied natural gas carrier crosses the ferry routes — four to six times a week, at least.

Broadwater's impacts are not limited to the environment. The annual economic value of the Sound to New York State is in excess of $250 billion.

Broadwater creates significant safety risks for our community. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement the farthest reach of an ignitable vapor cloud in the event of a carrier accident in the eastern Sound encompasses most of the North Fork, from mid-Southold to Orient Point. That's a vapor cloud that will burn if it comes into contact with any ignition source — any flame or spark. If there's a carrier accident in the eastern Sound, a cloud of liquefied natural gas — which won't yet be "odorized," by the way — can encompass most of the North Fork and, if ignited, scorch everything it comes into contact with.

But, hey, don't worry. This is, we're told, "very unlikely."

How confident can we be that the public and the environment are going to be protected by federal regulators — versus the interests of the rich and powerful multinational corporations proposing Broadwater?

Joseph Kelliher, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that decides if Broadwater gets approved, was previously a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm representing Broadwater before FERC: LeBeouf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae. According to the firm's Web site, it's been "intimately involved" in representing clients before FERC for 30 years.

Intimately, indeed. "Many of our specialist attorneys have held leadership positions at the FERC," the LeBeouf site boasts. Yes. For instance, Lawrence Acker, the LeBeouf partner who lists Broadwater among his clients and who "concentrates his practice" on FERC cases. Three other partners in the firm were previously attorneys at FERC — including its former general counsel and an assistant deputy general counsel — where they worked on natural gas projects and regulations.

LeBeouf, Lamb has 11 lawyers who practice regularly, if not exclusively, before FERC. That comes in handy for the firm's clients, since they have to work closely with FERC to get projects like Broadwater approved.

Here's how FERC describes the review process on its Web site: "Prior to a company filing an LNG-related application, company representatives commonly meet ... staff to explain the proposal and solicit advice. These meetings provide prospective applicants the opportunity for staff to offer suggestions related to the environmental, engineering and safety features of the proposal. In this manner, staff learns about future projects which may be filed at the Commission and help direct companies in their application preparation."

This sure sounds pretty cozy — like our "public servants" are serving as consultants to the attorneys they used to work with, who are now representing companies seeking FERC approvals.

These are the folks looking out for the public interest? And if not them, then who?

It's up to us to look out for ourselves on this one.

Which is why there will be plenty more about Broadwater on the pages of this newspaper in the weeks and months to come.

Copyright 2007 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.