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GSA review process for expansion called deficient

WASHINGTON – Less than three months after considering a plan that would have removed cargo trucks from the Peace Bridge because of the air pollution they produce, the U.S. General Services Administration approved expanded customs facilities at the bridge following the most cursory environmental review available under federal law.

What’s more, some critics say that federal law requires a much more thorough look at the project’s environmental impact.

The GSA issued a “Categorical Exclusion” for the customs house on Nov. 15, 2012. That’s the lowest level of environmental review for federal projects, reserved for those that “do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment.”

Asked why the agency did such a low-level environmental review, GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said the agency determined that the agency’s renewal of a lease for customs facilities at the bridge did not present “extraordinary circumstances” that would have forced completion of either an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Statement.

“The project that GSA evaluated does not significantly affect the traffic transiting the border station or significantly affect the emissions from that traffic and hence there are no significant impacts or extraordinary circumstances,” Cruz said.

But Arthur J. Giacalone, a Buffalo environmental attorney who’s been closely following the Peace Bridge saga, noted that the National Environmental Policy Act makes clear that projects have to be reviewed so that their “cumulative impact” is considered.

A “cumulative impact” of a federal decision to continue processing truck traffic at the Peace Bridge would be the pollution those trucks produce, Giacalone said.

“Given the fact that this affects human health, the agency should have the moral obligation to do a more thorough study,” he said.

What’s more, Denise L. Pease, the GSA official whose objections prompted the agency to kill its plan to consider removing trucks from the bridge, herself raised the possibility of a more thorough environmental review in a June 2012 letter to Sam Hoyt, then chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority.

“GSA’s understanding is that the only project currently planned for the Peace Bridge Plaza is the renovation/expansion of the commercial warehouse currently under lease (by GSA),” Pease wrote in the letter, which The Buffalo News received via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Pease goes on to say: “It is GSA’s position that a larger project would require a full and open environmental review which affords interested agencies, stakeholders, and the public the opportunity to learn about, comment, and influence decision making.”

Hoyt mentions the new access ramps and other state-sponsored projects at the Peace Bridge plaza in his reply to Pease – but the GSA never expanded the scope of its environmental inquiry.

Cruz, in the GSA’s emailed response, said the agency did not see any need for an environmental review that examined the customs house along with the new ramps because they are “separate, stand-alone projects.”

But Giacalone said federal law requires projects to be reviewed in total, not in a piecemeal fashion. He said doing separate environmental reviews on the customs house and the new ramps leading to and from the Peace Bridge appears to be what state and federal regulations call the “segmenting” of projects. According to federal environmental guidelines, that sort of segmenting of projects is “strictly prohibited.”

The state and the Federal Highway Administration are currently drawing up a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement on those new Peace Bridge ramps – and the deadline for public comment on that project is Tuesday.

North Common Council Member Joseph Golombek last week won approval for a measure calling on the state to extend that comment period through Feb. 28. But the Council tabled another Golombek measure seeking a federal investigation into whether environmental laws were being broken in the approval process for the new Peace Bridge projects.