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The EPA's misguided stance on South Coast rail shows its outdated priorities

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  July 28, 2011 12:01 PM

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Extending MBTA commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River promises many environmental benefits, from less sprawl to reduced auto emissions. Yet the $1.4 billion South Coast rail plan, two decades in the making, now faces opposition from an unlikely source: the Environmental Protection Agency, which reserved the right to block the whole project in a letter to state officials last month.

The EPA’s letter — motivated by concern for the train’s potential impact on Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Pine Swamp in Raynham — is a misguided move that illustrates a profound disconnect between the EPA’s mindset and modern environmental priorities. Simply put, the EPA is stuck in the '70s. The agency is evaluating the South Coast plan based on an outdated, overly restrictive approach that doesn’t take into account the overriding challenge of climate change.

The agency’s stance is the product of its history. In the '70s, federal legislation empowered the newly created EPA to curb pollution coming from pipes, smokestacks, and rogue trucks. The results were immediate and dramatic. We were able to swim in our rivers and harbors without fear of sickness. Smog days were significantly lowered in major metropolitan areas. We largely halted the process of filling our wetlands.

Unfortunately, the more we’ve learned about our environment, the more bad news we’ve uncovered. We discovered the devastating trend of climate change, and the role of our policies in promoting sprawl and making our cities unsustainable. Plans like South Coast Rail help address those larger concerns.

Federal and state regulators, however, are still saddled with tools tailored to the threats of decades ago. Clean air and clean water laws written in the 1970s are still essential to the fight against climate change and continuing nitrogen pollution, but they also allow regulators to take a very narrow and myopic view of environmental problems.

EPA Regional Administrator H. Curtis Spalding, who wrote the letter raising concerns about the swamps, is a smart and committed environmentalist. In focusing on the swamps, he is doing his job as the law requires. But he is not protecting the environment. The EPA is fretting about impacts of electric trains passing through a wetland on an elevated right of way that carried far dirtier trains from 1842 to 1958. It is worrying about widening the present tree canopy over the right of way, and the potential impact of more sunlight on the swamp. It is raising concerns over the effects of vibration on nearby vernal pools, and extra noise in a quiet environment. The Clean Water Act of 1977 instructs the agency to do this, but it is applying the law inflexibly, without considering the broader need for global environmental solutions. In other words, it is missing the forest for the tree canopy.

In taking its position, the EPA is also ignoring the fact that that climate change is a much greater long-term threat to the Hockomock Swamp than MBTA trains. This, too, reflects a more systemic flaw in the way environmental laws are applied. Federally required environmental reviews often operate on the assumption that they are measuring the impact of a proposed project against some kind of blissful, unsullied status quo. But that is not reality. The status quo is rising temperatures, growing populations, and more vehicle miles travelled. In this case, doing nothing doesn’t protect the environment; inaction is the ecological threat.

By any measure, South Coast Rail is a big plus for the environment. It’s projected to bring 2,950 new riders into the system daily, eliminating thousands of vehicle trips that emit tons of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. It will help stem sprawl by creating new transit-oriented developments around its 11 stations. And the process of restoring the tracks for regular use will provide an opportunity to correct environmental damage of the past by improving water conditions in the swamp. That’s the big picture — and that’s what the EPA should be focusing on.

John Bullard is the former mayor of New Bedford, head of the first Office of Sustainable Development in the Clinton Administration, and chair of the Southeastern Massachusetts Commuter Rail Task Force. Stephen C. Smith is executive director of the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District (SRPEDD).

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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