|(#00185) New York, New York – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continued to raise an environmental red flag over the Meadowlands Mills project today, recommending that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) deny the permit request for the project. The Agency called three proposed scenarios for the mixed-use commercial development project for Bergen County "environmentally unacceptable," and raised objections and concerns about two others.
In a letter to ACE on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project, Jeanne M. Fox, EPA Regional Administrator wrote "...the alternatives analysis provided in the DEIS has been artificially constrained with respect to minimum parcel size, geographic scope, and criteria desired by the applicant...Moreover...it is clear that the applicant’s preferred alternative is not in compliance with (wetlands regulations) because alternatives with less adverse environmental impacts clearly exist."
Under the Clean Water Act, adverse impacts on aquatic resources must be avoided to the greatest extent practicable. Any unavoidable impacts must be minimized, then compensated for by replacing lost aquatic value and function. EPA is recommending that the ACE reject outright three of the alternatives for the project, which includes a super-regional retail/entertainment center, office space, hotel, mass transit facility, warehouse distribution facilities and associated parking structures and roadways. The alternatives, which EPA has rated "Environmentally Unacceptable," call for filling 206, 166 and 144 acres of wetlands respectively. The DEIS evaluated two other alternatives that call for the fill of 132 and 134 acres of wetlands. The EPA pointed out that because the applicant identified two alternatives that call for less wetland fill and are, therefore, less damaging to the aquatic ecosystem, the three larger alternatives clearly violate the Clean Water Act because the impacts to aquatic resources could clearly be avoided. EPA has informed ACE that it must deny permits for any of these three alternatives.
"Obviously, if even the applicant admits it can meet its project purpose while impacting fewer acres of wetlands, EPA is not going to allow larger impacts," Ms. Fox commented. "The whole point of our wetlands regulations is to preserve wetlands. Clearly, the alternatives in this DEIS would violate the regulations in both fact and spirit."
The mitigation plan proposed in the DEIS is totally unacceptable to EPA. None of the proposed alternatives contains a mitigation plan that provides adequate compensation for wetland functions expected to be lost as a result of the respective fills. The applicant proposes turning wetlands into flood detention basins. EPA does not consider stormwater detention basins to be mitigation for unavoidable impacts to wetlands, particularly when those basins are initially excavated from existing wetlands.
While two of the alternatives would have less adverse impact, the applicant did not properly explore further reductions to wetlands impacts. The DEIS did not clearly explain why all five major components of the project must be constructed together on a parcel of land at least 132 acres in size. These components may not have to be constructed together and it may be feasible to use some alternative uplands sites for portions of the project.
EPA also raises concerns about the lack of an alternatives analysis of any sort for the two roadway configurations proposed for the five Meadowlands Mills project scenarios. While the roadways would result in more than 40 acres of wetland loss, the DEIS does not look at alternatives such as making roadways smaller or elevating them. In particular, the Agency is asking the ACE to consider ways to reduce the impacts of Route 120B, which would bisect the entire area of the tract that is proposed to remain as wetlands. By bisecting the tract, the road would greatly reduce the value of the wetlands by blocking its hydrological functions and by acting as a barrier to the free movement of mammals, reptiles and amphibians across the wetland system.
In November 1996, EPA objected to the Meadowlands Mills project and recommended that ACE deny the permit. At EPA’s urging, ACE determined that the project would have a significant effect on wetlands and required a federal EIS, which is the subject of EPA’s letter today. Meadowlands Mills could potentially be included in a master plan being developed for the Meadowlands, called the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP). The SAMP, which is still in draft form, could allow up to 90 acres for the project, not including roads. The current DEIS for the project evaluates it as a individual wetlands permit application, separately and distinctly from the SAMP process.