But Denies Fault; Avoids Re-opening Botched Environment Hearing.
In carefully separated actions on closely related topics, a Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) Committee agreed Wednesday to: pay millions of dollars in fines, remedial actions, and clean-up costs for fuel leaks after an investigation initiated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA); and, adjust an environmental hearing report to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) by admitting the report as filed was based on an erroneous record of testimony.
MAC's Deputy Director for Environment, Nigel Finney, said that fuel leaks less than five gallons didn‚t need to be reported, and as far as he knew major leaks were reported as soon as practicable. Chair Vicki Tigwell whined to an MPCA employee who happened to be attending that a civil fine for not reporting the fuel leaks promptly was unwarranted. MAC General Counsel Tom Anderson, however, advised that the fines were part of the agreement negotiated with MPCA. Commissioner John Lanners suggested that the head of MPCA be summoned to a full Commission meeting to explain why civil fines were imposed.
The Star-Tribune reported over 40,000 gallons of aviation fuel was lost in two major leaks last year. SMAAC President Jim Spensley observed that if the amount was correct and Finney was correct, reporting 8,000+ incidents was indeed impractical.
SMAAC raised questions about fuel leaks and other issues in written testimony submitted to a formal environmental assessments hearing at the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) on November 3, 2004. SMAAC asked that certain capital improvement program projects such as fuel-handling systems -- be reviewed via an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) because of their potentially significant environmental effects. An EAW provides both notice and an opportunity for the public to participate in considering possible environmental impacts of construction projects. An EAW may indicate an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) is in order or not, but, in either case, it can be appealed.
SMAAC asked for EAWs or EIS's when the public would be ordinarily be concerned about a project. For example, discharges in excess of NPDES permit limits occurring at MSP, because only meager information about causes is available to the general public, always well after the event. Or for new systems for handling inherently hazardous materials, e.g. aviation fuel.
After the environmental hearing but before MAC submitted the report, the Star-Tribune broke the story of an investigation of fuel leaks at MAC. SMAAC received numerous questions from worried citizens about pollution, safety, and security. SMAAC asked the MAC twice, December 9 and December 20, to address the fuel leaks in the environmental assessment report to the EQB. MAC refused to consider the request.. The report was advanced without discussion.
However, when the Report was released in full (a summary statement, a transcript of the Hearing proper, and two attachments) on December 22, 2004, SMAAC‚s testimony was not included. SMAAC protests fell on deaf ears at January 2005 MAC meetings. MAC staff initially denied receiving SMAAC‚s November 3rd communication until proven wrong, then they blamed SMAAC for not using the specific address given at the Hearing. However, MAC staff "responds" to comments from the public and prefers written testimony to dialog. The hearing transcript was not released with the instructions and deadline for written testimony until December 19, more than five weeks after the deadline.
After this, SMAAC wrote the EQB that MAC had submitted an incomplete record and apparently rushed the hearing and report to avoid including the regulatory issues, unreported fuel discharges, being "settled" with MPCA. Once the error was discovered, Chair Tigwell advised staff that she believed the testimony would not have led MAC to plan EAWs for fueling system projects. She directed Deputy Director Finney to prepare a response discounting SMAAC‚s opinion that the hearing was unfair, and to determine how to correct the hearing record without re-opening the hearing or reconsidering the MAC‚s approval of the hearing report on December 20th.
In remarks to the Committee, SMAAC‚s President Jim Spensley pleaded with the Committee not to trivialize the "only apparent opportunity for public environmental concerns to be aired formally." He said "It is an unfair burden for citizens that the single time, once a year, MAC denies assessment worksheets are warranted, dozens of capital projects, all with one line descriptions, are passed. To botch the hearing to this degree and amend the record later? That transforms the Report from incomplete to false." The Committee adopted the staff‚s (Chair‚s) recommendation.
SMAAC thinks that the issue will not even be discussed by the full Commission February 22 unless a politically courageous Commissioner reviews the situation in detail. "A factual review of the testimony, the documents exchanged since December 20, the Satff response, and our statements to the Committee will reveal MAC relied on misleading or plain wrong staff reports and poor legal interpretation." according to Spensley. "If MAC fails to correct itself, SMAAC will probably find the EQB receptive to EAW/EIS petitions. It is pretty hard to argue that work on or around the MSP fueling system Œlacks the potential for significant adverse environmental effects‚ as found by the MAC based on a record that was incomplete at the time of approval and amended later by a different body without proper notice or legal process."