2009-12-24 / News

Ocean Policy Task Force report proposes regional oversight

By Steven Stycos

Nine regional planning bodies would coordinate America’s oceans under an Obama administration task force recommendation released Dec. 14. The proposal mimics an ongoing state effort to zone Rhode Island’s coastal waters and has been praised by environmentalists.

“Solid,” said John Torgan, Narragansett Bay keeper for Save The Bay, describing the Ocean Policy Task Force report. “We need to do a better job effectively zoning coastal waters.”

A spokesperson for the R.I. Marine Trades Association, however, worries the process will lead to excessive regulation of marine business. Although he has not read the report, Michael Keyworth, the group’s legislative chairperson and general manager of Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, said, “We’re mired in enough regulation as it is.”

In June, Obama created the task force of 24 top policy administrators from the U.S. Department of Interior, the US Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and other federal agencies. In September, the group held its sole East Coast public hearing in Providence.

Although a functioning process is about five years away, according to the report, it could have broad implications for coastal communities. The task force report proposes regional planning bodies to coordinate oceans from the mean high tide mark to the 200-mile limit. The New England regional body would regulate area waters.

Much is undecided, however, including who will sit on the regional bodies, how disputes will be settled during the planning process and whether decisions will be binding or merely advisory. Torgan would like decisions to be binding, but the report states that coastal plans “would not be regulatory or necessarily constitute final decision making.”

Sandra Whitehouse, senior advisor to the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy, agrees with Torgan.

“We’d like to see more than just a guidance document, because guidance documents tend to just stay on the shelf,” she said.

The report states that the planning process should reduce bureaucratic delays for ocean-based businesses, noting that established “priority wind farm areas” in Germany and “preferred sand mining areas” in the Netherlands allow for cheaper and quicker project permitting.

Alteration of the shipping route for a Massachusetts Bay liquid natural gas port is another example of successful planning, the report says, because a minor change in the shipping lane reduced the risk of tanker collisions with baleen whales by 81%.

Environmentalists laud the report’s endorsement of “ecosystembased management” as a major step forward. Regional planning bodies would coordinate the many federal and state agencies involved with oceans, according to the report, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Use decisions would weigh the impact of activities like a wind farm or sewage discharges on the marine ecosystem.

Currently, coordination is poor, Torgan said, even within the same agency. Last year, for example, Nature Conservancy representatives and Torgan met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss plans to dredge Little Narragansett Bay and Quonochontaug Pond to improve navigation. While the expensive equipment was in the area, the conservationists suggested, why not do additional dredging to improve water flow and environmental conditions in the pond? The corps liked the idea, Torgan said, but declined, saying, “We’re not set up to do that.”

At the September hearing, Torgan gave another example of “tragically ineffective” and conflicting federal policy: To improve winter flounder habitat, the R.I. Attorney General and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced construction of cooling towers at the Brayton Point power plant near Fall River, Mass. Shortly thereafter, FERC, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard took steps to encourage a liquid natural gas terminal in the bay, a move that Torgan said could reverse the environmental progress won at Brayton Point.

The task force report cites the R.I. Coastal Resource Management Council’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) as one of a handful of successful interagency cooperation efforts. The CRMC is currently drafting a SAMP for the 1,467-square-mile section of ocean that extends south of the state about 30 miles.

Through a spokesperson, CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate declined comment, saying he is still reviewing the task force report.

The public has 60 days to comment on the Interim Framework for Effective Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning at www.whitehouse. gov/administration/eop/ceq.

Whitehouse and Torgan then hope President Barack Obama will create regional planning bodies with an executive order. Funds for staff and research, however, would require Congressional action, as would establishment of a binding process.

“The rub here is going to be enforceability and implementation,” Torgan said.

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