BY Mark Harrington
Newsday Staff Writer
September 1, 2006
Critics of the wind park proposed for Long Island’s South Shore say the online process for filing comments to federal regulators reviewing the environmental impact of the project was flawed, and they want the comment period reopened.
The two-month period for public comment ended Aug. 21. The federal Minerals Management Service is using the comments to shape a broad review of the environmental impact of the controversial project, which proposes erecting 40 windmills 443 feet tall in 8 square miles of ocean between Robert Moses and Jones Beach state parks. The turbines, from 3 1/2 to five miles off the beach, would be visible from land.
Members of the opposing Save Jones Beach group said they worry that significant numbers of comments filed with the Minerals Management Service may have vanished because of acknowledged problems with a computer system, called OSC Connect. The group handed out several thousand flyers urging beachgoers to comment, yet the agency says 106 online comments were received.
In an e-mail exchange between a Save Jones Beach member and the lead official at the service for the Long Island project, problems with the public comment system were acknowledged, as was a lack of staff. “It has become apparent that our electronic comment submission system has some weaknesses,” Doug Slitor, the top official on the wind park proposal, said Tuesday, noting the system sometimes fails to confirm messages received.
Slitor also noted a “manpower shortage” to explain a delay in getting some comments published online. He had suggested sending comments via U.S. mail.
A minerals service spokeswoman on Tuesday acknowledged other problems with the system.
“If there’s a lot of people trying to comment at the same time, it kind of blocks some people out,” Nicolette Nye said. But she said the agency believes all comments were captured, and it does not intend to reopen the comment period.
Nye said the service received 1,700 comments on the Long Island Power Authority project, including 106 taken online.
“I think 106 comments is very low, and I challenge it,” said Walter Arnold, a director of Save Jones Beach.
“If this is indicative of how they’re going to do the whole review, I think you have to look at a judicial review,” he added, suggesting that challenges to the process could end up in court.
Members of Save Jones Beach, which is made up of individuals and civic groups, said the computer glitch highlights their concern that a special fast-track status afforded the LIPA project by 2005 energy legislation could shortchange a proper environmental review. LIPA, the Minerals Management Service and some environmental groups have disputed the fast-track claim.
Tom Vanderberg, chairman of the Save Jones Beach legal committee, said he received an “error” message when he first sent his comments.
When he attempted a second time, he said, he never received confirmation from the service. He checked the Web site, www.mms.gov, yesterday and could not find his six-page comment letter.
The service knew of only one person who complained about the Web site, but his comments were later found to have been posted, Nye said.
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.
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