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Published in The Providence Journal (March 17, 1998)

To judge from the reaction of environmental groups such as Save the Bay, to the draft Quonset Point/Davisville Master Plan, you’d think that Governor Almond had proposed to pave the Bay.

What the administration’s draft plan would do, if adopted, is make Quonset Point/Davisville a major hub for international container cargo shipments. With an airstrip, a deep water port, and a freight rail line, the 3,000-acre industrial park has long been neglected and underutilized. A $72 million bond issue was approved in 1996 to upgrade freight lines and improve infrastructure within the industrial park.

Plans for development of a major port facility have riled environmentalists, who expressed particularly sharp opposition to the draft master plan. That opposition, however, may be more important for what it says about environmental activism than for what it says about the proposed port development.

Save the Bay was particularly critical of the proposal to fill up to 515 acres of the Bay to facilitate development of an expanded port. However, the master plan is a “draft” and the filling may be significantly less.

Nevertheless, while 515 acres seems like a large area, this must be kept in perspective. Narragansett Bay is 120.5 square miles, according to the Journal-Bulletin Rhode Island Almanac. This translates into 77,120 acres. The proposed filling would therefore represent about 7/10th of 1 percent of Narragansett Bay.

In a television interview with a Save the Bay spokesman, the proposed 515-acre fill area was translated into an equivalent number of football fields (390 football fields, including the end zones, by this writer’s calculation.) Perhaps a more relevant comparison is that if the same 7/10th of 1% of one football field were removed, it would be the equivalent of narrowing the field’s 160-foot width by slightly over one foot.

Clearly, from a relative point of view, the maximum area to be filled is not extreme. In fact, it is minor. That does not mean such filling could not have adverse environmental consequences, but no one will know that until the environmental studies are completed.

As for environmental studies, Save the Bay has taken an extraordinary position for an environmental organization. It has urged federal and state officials to reject any requests from the Economic Development Corporation to begin a federal environmental impact study.

Save the Bay characterizes the study as “expensive” and “not necessary” because it “is apparent on the face” that “this proposal cannot be permitted”.

Apparent to whom? Presumably Save the Bay. John Swen, director of the Economic Development Corporation, quite properly says no one will know until the studies are complete.

What is surprising about this position is that environmental groups fought for years for passage of laws requiring environmental impact statements to determine the possible environmental harm of development proposals. Now Save the Bay is telling government officials not to even bother with an environmental-impact statement. Curious.

If that is curious, Save the Bay’s desire to spare the expense of the environmental impact statement is baffling, since the projected $5 million to $8 million cost will be paid for by the private developers. While those developers may appreciate Save the Bay’s concern for their welfare, they are apparently still committed to spend the funds to determine whether the project would have any adverse environmental affects. Does Save the Bay really want to discourage this?

Save the Bay and the Sierra Club have complained about the lack of public involvement, and perhaps more to the point, the lack of their involvement, in the formulation of this draft policy.

Again, this is a little strange, given that 10 public hearings were held on this draft proposal, and at the tenth hearing the Almond administration announced even more public hearings. However, this apparently was not good enough, and environmental groups, as “stakeholders”, want more active participation in the initial process.

Again strange, since this is in fact only a draft proposal, and if adopted by the EDC, it would then go through the environmental permitting process, including further hearings.

Does anyone familiar with the rigors of receiving approvals for a major project from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council really believe that without more public hearings outside this process the interests of the environment will not be adequately protected?

In fact, the Army Corps has already raised concerns about the possibility of expanding the port by placing fill in the Bay.

Perhaps a short answer to the desire of environmental groups for more direct access to the process is that it is government’s responsibility to take the lead and formulate a draft proposal for public consideration, and Save the Bay and the Sierra Club are not a part of government. Moreover, as The Providence Journal editorialized, “it would be grossly inefficient – even chaotic – for stakeholders to inject themselves into the negotiations for a proposed development before an agreement in principle was completed. Would any business want to do business in Rhode Island if all such negotiations had to include every stakeholder – would-be or legitimate?”

Finally, the Sierra Club opposes the project in part because it believes a “megaport” has no business in Rhode Island. Although plans for a megaport may raise visions of a flotilla of supertankers in the Bay, the expectation is that an expanded port facility would host no more than three large freighters a week. The Sierra Club also finds that the “lack of public debate” and the EDC’s refusal to allow environmental groups to become actively involved in the negotiation is “undemocratic”. The Sierra Club believes that public hearings on the permitting process will not allow for a full public debate on the merits of whether a megaport belongs in Rhode Island.

While that may be true, such a debate is not precluded by the permitting process, either. In any event, Governor Almond will shortly be coming up for reelection, and if the voters aren’t interested in a megaport in Rhode Island, chances are they won’t be interested in a second Almond administration. That’s democracy.

The proposal for development of Quonset Point is an enormously important one, and deserves careful study and full debate. But it should be a process characterized by reason, objectivity, and thoughtfulness. Environmental activists may wish to keep these goals in mind as the debate proceeds.

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