Comments on Revised Draft EA for the Lease of Parcel ED-3
Prepared by Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation
We believe that the Oak Ridge Reservation as a whole has significant value for scientific research, for conservation, as a health and safety buffer, as an educational resource, as a recreational resource, and for its historical significance. Together, these values give the ORR significant public value. When proposed transfers of portions of the ORR are considered in isolation, these values -- and the public's overriding interest in this publicly owned land resource -- do not receive full consideration. Therefore, we ask that no decision be made to lease ED-3 or transfer other ORR parcels unless they are consistent with a comprehensive land use plan developed in full view of the public.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, agencies are supposed to assess connected actions together, and it is illegal to divide an action into small segments in order to avoid environmental scrutiny for the overall action. However, segmentation seems to be exactly what DOE is doing for decisions about ORR land use. We urge DOE to end this piecemeal decision-making pattern by initiating a public planning process for the Oak Ridge Reservation.
2. Little effort has been made to evaluate whether the proposed lease would be effective in meeting the stated objective of promoting economic development. Instead, it is simply assumed that the proposal would be effective, and the calculation of indirect economic benefits deliberately uses best-case assumptions.
The benefits of the proposed action are questionable. This proposal is based on a questionable premise -- that making more land available for development will create 1200 jobs to help offset the impacts of DOE downsizing. The EA does not critically assess the job-generating potential of the proposal, but simply assumes that there would be about 1200 direct jobs in businesses locating on the 450-acre site. Furthermore, the estimate of indirect jobs is based on an optimistic assumption regarding the nature of these jobs. The region has little to show in the way of benefits from several past transfers of ORR land, so we have good reason to question the validity of optimistic assumptions about the benefits of this lease.
Please revise the EA to include a more rigorous quantitative assessment of the benefits from this proposal, including realistic evaluation of the numbers of direct and indirect jobs generated under likely land uses (not just a "best case" industrial scenario). Also please include a more comprehensive evaluation of costs and benefits to the local governments as a result of this development, including (1) costs of providing public services such as police and fire protection outside the existing service areas, (2) losses due to diversion of business from other local commercial and industrial areas, and (3) realistic estimates of property and sales tax collections from "improvements" built on leased land that is not itself subject to property taxation. Without such an assessment, we think it is too early to conclude whether or not the proposed action would benefit the region economically. A realistic assessment of benefits should consider that the ED-3 site would be in competition with other industrial and commercial districts in Oak Ridge, Roane County, and the surrounding area.
The economic analysis also needs to evaluate the costs to potential tourism in the region that will result from altering the esthetic value and the historic character of the ED-3 area by the proposed commercial and industrial development. Current and potential areas of tourism interest include (1) the Secret City Excursion Train, (2) historic sites and buildings on the former K-25 site used for uranium enrichment during and after the Manhattan Project, and (3) pre-World War II historic buildings and sites connected with the Wheat Community, including the George Jones Memorial Baptist Church (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the adjacent Wheat cemetery, and the African Burial Ground.
Also, the taxability of the property should be discussed and evaluated realistically. Although we understand that local governments have authority to collect property taxes from businesses on leased federal land, the fact that no taxes have yet been collected from tenants at the former K-25 Site or Parcel ED-1 leads us to think that the community cannot count on this revenue source.
3. Would development of Parcel ED-3 divert resources from K-25 reindustrialization? At K-25 and parcel ED-1, the CROET controls large areas that are available for development and redevelopment right now. Progress at these sites is limited by lack of money to upgrade and extend utilities, clean up contamination, and demolish older buildings to make way for new construction. We are concerned that adding ED-3 to CROET's portfolio would divert CROET's limited resources away from reindustrializing K-25.
AFORR believes that reuse and redevelopment of the K-25 site, which is a brownfield, should be DOE's and CROET's highest priority in the area of community economic transition. Considerable brownfield land remains available north of Highway 58, "inside the fences" of the former K-25 site and around the old coal plant area. We particularly oppose any action that diverts resources from reindustrialization in order to open another greenfield area for development. The land proposed for development in the ED-3 EA should be considered a greenfield because it has substantially recovered from the disturbances that occurred more than 50 years ago.
4. The EA contains erroneous assertions and assumptions regarding the ecological impacts of the proposed development. Also, the EA largely ignores the presence of wetlands, floodplain, and stream habitats. The EA should evaluate how the development might impact these habitats and should discuss measures to avoid or otherwise mitigate adverse impacts, including the requirements of DOE regulation 10 CFR 1022. Aspects of this concern are discussed further in our specific comments.
5. Although it appears that commercial development would be likely for much of Parcel ED-3, there is little discussion of the possible impacts of commercial development, particularly on existing business districts in the community. Considering the location and configuration of the sites that would be leased, "highway-oriented" commercial businesses are the most likely tenants for much of the parcel. In some respects the adverse impacts of commercial development could be worse than the impacts of industry. The EA acknowledges potential effects on traffic volumes, but it does not address impacts on traffic patterns from strip malls and convenience stores along Highway 58 and Blair Road, such as from traffic entering and exiting the highway at numerous locations.
Esthetic impacts are another area of concern that needs to be addressed in connection with commercial strip development and/or industrial development. The portion of ED-3 that is adjacent to highway 58 currently forms an attractive entrance to the city of Oak Ridge, consisting of forested hill slopes and valleys, three ponds on either side of the road, and the ETTP Visitors' Overlook. The first impressions one receives upon entering the city limits of Oak Ridge are formed by the view presented along this section of highway. The impact on the image of the city of Oak Ridge and the surrounding area of changing this vista to a strip of commercial/industrial development has not been evaluated.
An additional concern is that this type of commercial development typically has no net positive impact on the local economy (because it simply diverts business from other commercial areas rather than generating new jobs). DOE needs to evaluate the adverse impacts and limited benefits of this type of development. AFORR believes that any lease or transfer of this land should be done with restrictions to prevent or strictly limit its use for these purposes.
6. Under "Cumulative Impacts," the EA should discuss the combined effect of the various development projects on hunting -- both on opportunities for hunting and on the ability to control wildlife populations through hunting. The cumulative effect on hunting is negative and may be substantial. In addition to the loss of hunting opportunities on ED-3, the development of ED-1 has already significantly reduced the area open to hunting, the SNS project is likely to result in large reductions in hunting areas, and planned highway projects will effectively further reduce the land area available for hunting. The inevitable result of the reduction in deer hunting will be increased numbers of collisions of deer with automobiles. The cost of this effect needs to be evaluated.
7. The revised draft EA notes that a lease could be to any one of several entities, but it does not discuss how impacts (both positive and negative) could differ between different alternative tenants and transfer mechanisms. In particular, the choice of a lessee could influence the socioeconomic benefits from the project (e.g., by affecting potential for local government revenues), and differences between lessees should be discussed in the EA.
If the land is leased or transferred, we question whether the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee (CROET) is the right entity to be put in charge. CROET has been entrusted with public lands and public funds in order to foster economic development of the region, but the organization has not won the public's confidence for its performance in the areas of public openness, accountability, and environmental responsibility. For example, members of our organization and others in the region have expressed their conviction that CROET's development of Parcel ED-1 has not been done in accordance with the mitigation requirements included in the NEPA Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for lease of that parcel.
8. The draft EA does not consider alternatives to the proposed action other than no action or different land-transfer actions. Other alternatives have the potential to achieve the stated objectives of offsetting potential economic losses from DOE downsizing and diversifying the economic base of the region, and probably would be more effective than this proposal. Therefore, alternatives that do not involve transferring additional land also need to be assessed. Examples include accelerated cleanup of K-25 to permit more rapid progress in reindustrialization, or financial assistance to the community to aid in upgrading and expanding infrastructure in the K-25 and ED-1 areas. The fact that DOE does not currently have funds or authority to implement such alternatives should not preclude DOE from considering them in the EA. A well-supported analysis of such alternatives could form the basis for making a case to Congress to authorize an action that is found to be in the community's best interest.
9. The EA should explain how this proposal would affect the ETTP Visitors' Overlook, which is within the lease area.
Of particular concern are wetlands in the riparian zone of Mitchell Branch and its tributaries in the Wheat Historic District on either side of Blair Road (see Fig. 3.3). Mit-7 and Mit-a2 (page 3-17) are particularly large wetlands along Mitchell Branch, encompassing several acres each. In addition the entire watershed of Mitchell Branch flows into wetland Mit 5, a "broad-leaved deciduous wetland"located directly adjacent to the proposed lease area" (p. 3-17). This area has been given a ranking of "High" biodiversity by The Nature Conservancy (Fig. 3.4) and has been designated as "sensitive aquatic habitat" in Fig. 3.5. The character of the Mitchell Branch watershed and upstream wetlands draining into this significant wetland will undoubtedly have a significant impact on its biological quality in the future. Construction activities, the introduction of parking lots and of other sources of runoff, and disturbances in the vicinity of riparian zones would no doubt degrade the quality of this wetland.
Hence we recommend that the entire watershed of Mitchell Branch (on both sides of Blair Road) be excluded from the zone of development. Coincidentally, much of this area recommended for development exclusion coincides with the area we are recommending as a buffer zone for the George Jones Memorial Church and cemetery (See comments below on Section 4.6.)
Also see comment regarding page 4-6, lines 13-15 and 34-38.
Page 4-5, lines 13-16. The EA states that the "greatest habitat loss would result from the removal of the hardwood forest south of the ETTP visitor's overlook." This area of approximately 95 acres is attached to a much larger tract of forested habitat on Pine Ridge (page 4-5, lines 30-31). Considering that (1) the loss of this tract would reduce the overall size of the forested area connected to that on Pine Ridge and increase forest fragmentation, (2) this tract is adjacent to the ETTP Visitors' Overlook and to the nearby pond on the south side of highway 58 just to its northeast, (3) this area contains the historic Wheat African Burial Ground and (4) situated along highway 58, the area forms part of the currently esthetically pleasing entrance to the City of Oak Ridge from Interstate 40 to the west, we recommend that this entire 95 acres be excluded from the boundaries of ED-3 designated for development.
Page 4-5, lines 17-20. This discussion of "displacement" of wildlife implies that there would be no net loss of wildlife, that the displaced animals would simply move somewhere else. This is erroneous. Displaced wildlife populations decline and are not replaced; they do not simply move to some other habitat.
Page 4-5, lines 20-22. This passage appears to suggest that the development would be positive for some wildlife species. This represents flawed thinking. When the local raccoon and skunk population increases from the "development" to the point that the raccoons become "dumpster-divers" and the skunks have to be relocated, it is not a positive impact for these species (much less for wildlife in general), even if the population of these species increases.
Page 4-5, lines 35-36. The discussion about loss of hunting area being mitigated by increasing the harvest quota or increasing the area open to hunters in other locations is grossly misleading. The number of animals killed by hunters is limited by the number of animals living in the areas where hunters have access, so there are inherent limits on the number of animals that can be harvested from a given land area. Many deer simply find refuge in areas off-limits to hunting. Also, it is very unlikely that any new ORR areas will be opened to hunting. Instead, land areas open to hunting continue to be reduced all over the ORR. The inevitable result of the reduction in deer hunting will be increased numbers of collisions of deer with automobiles. The cost of this effect needs to be evaluated.
Page 4-6, lines 13-15 and 34-38. The EA should reflect the fact that federal actions affecting floodplains and wetlands are subject not only to the regulatory permit process that applies to private activities, but also to requirements of executive orders that require all federal agencies to issue or amend existing procedures to ensure consideration of wetlands protection in decisionmaking. DOE regulation 10 CFR 1022 implements these executive orders. The DOE regulation prohibits activities affecting wetlands and floodplains and their functions unless no practicable alternative to locating in the floodplain/wetlands is available, in which case DOE must design or modify its action in order to minimize potential harm to or within the floodplain/wetlands. Floodplain and wetlands assessments required under 10 CFR 1022 are supposed to be combined with NEPA documents on the action. It is difficult to imagine that there would be "no practicable alternative" for furthering economic development other than destroying the wetlands on this parcel. Therefore, to comply with 10 CFR 1022, this EA should include a floodplain/wetlands assessment and should discuss (1) whether the mapped wetlands areas could be excluded from the lease and or deed, (2) if provisions would need to be included in the lease or deed to prohibit actions to damage wetlands, or (3) whether the requirements of DOE regulation 10 CFR 1022 and the Executive Orders on floodplains and wetlands would apply to development activities on leased federal land. (See also comments and recommendations above under Page 2-6, lines 7-10.)
Section 4.6, pages 4-7 and 4-8. An additional topic that needs to be analyzed relative to the Wheat Historic District is the potential for adverse impacts to the historic district's integrity due to proximity to new industrial and commercial facilities. Of particular concern would be esthetic and noise impacts experienced at the George Jones Memorial Church and cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Figures 3.6 and 3.7 indicate that the current boundary of parcel ED-3 comes within 50 feet of the Jones church and cemetery. On Page 4-8, lines 33-37, EA notes that "the originally proposed boundaries" were revised to minimize impacts on the Wheat Historic District." However, the EA does not describe where those revised boundaries would be. This section of the EA also alludes to meetings between the DOE-ORO Cultural Resources Coordinator and the President and Secretary of the Wheat Alumni Association, and the EA implies that the revision of boundaries have removed all objections by that group. Yet recent letters and statements from that organization indicate that they are not pleased with the current proposal. We recommend further discussions and negotiations with the Wheat Alumni Association.
Section 4.9.1 of the EA says the only impact on the area of the Bob Jones Memorial Church and cemetery will be some noise experienced during construction. In sharp conflict with this assessment is the fact that the current plan (see Table 2.1 on pages 2-3 to 2-5) allows in this location industries that may produce noise from blower fans or smoke stacks, and/or from distribution shipping centers that may produce noise from tractor- trailer and other vehicle traffic. In addition, industry impacts may include visual and air pollution from smoke stacks and the emission of "acid mists and particulates" from sources such as paints and petroleum distillates used by some of the potential industrial tenants specified in the EA (see potential tenants listed in Table 2.1). All of these potential impacts conflict directly with the statement on page 2-6 (Section 2.1) that the historical, archeological, and cultural resources "would be preserved and/or avoided."
Such potential visual and noise impacts of industrial facilities on the historic character of the Wheat district and the experience of church visitors should be analyzed as a basis for re-examining the boundaries of the ED-3 in the vicinity of the Jones church. In order to comply with the goal stated on page 2-6 of preserving these cultural resources, we suggest that a wide buffer zone be created in the vicinity of the church such that no development be allowed within at least 1000 feet of the church. This would preclude development on the northeast side of Blair Road between the church and that road. Such a restricted area would extend down along the northeast side of Blair Road approximately 1000 feet and would therefore remove approximately 20 acres of land from the 450 acres designated.
Other building restrictions should also be considered to avoid unacceptable impacts to the historic district. For example, it might be desirable to restrict building height to one story on sites that are near the buffer zone surrounding the church and within the church's viewshed. Former residents of Wheat are particularly concerned that their view of the church from the public highway not be obstructed, and we think that DOE should honor this request.
Page 49, lines 18-26 (last paragraph in Section 4.7.1). Lines 22-26 say that the analysis assumed that new jobs on ED-3 would be in manufacturing "because these industries would capture the largest share of indirect economic benefits" and that it was assumed that "all direct and indirect jobs would be filled from within the ROI, although some employees are likely to reside in other locations." These assumptions, which are described as representing "an upper bound on potential impacts," actually are designed to result in the rosiest possible picture of the benefits of the proposed action. When an environmental assessment is designed to present an upper bound on impacts, only adverse impacts should be bounded. Project benefits should be evaluated using realistic assumptions. Potential economic benefits should be reevaluated using a realistic mix of tenants.
Pages 4-10 to 4-11, Sections 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52. The assumption that new jobs would be in manufacturing substantially inflates the estimates of project benefits for area employment and income. As pointed out in lines 20-22 on page 4-10, the expectation is that some of the businesses locating on ED-3 would be commercial businesses that do not contribute new primary jobs. To provide a proper understanding of the potential relationship of adverse and beneficial impacts from this proposal, use more realistic estimates.
Page 4-17, line 44. This sentence is in error. No EA is being prepared for the proposed development on the Boeing property in west Oak Ridge. The referenced EA (which has been published as a draft EA, with the same comment deadline as the draft EA for the ED-3 lease) is for the transfer of the DOE-owned floodplain strip adjacent to the Boeing property.