Massachusetts Admits to 'Regularly' Allowing Companies to Edit Draft Pollution Permits

Protesters hold signs in the parking lot outside the Massachusetts DEP office

Officials from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) acknowledged they regularly allow energy companies to exclusively preview and revise draft permits as a matter of common practice.

This admission follows DeSmog’s reporting on emails showing the state had quietly provided Spectra Energy (now Enbridge) several opportunities to edit a draft pollution approval permit for a compressor station in the town of Weymouth as part of its Atlantic Bridge gas project.

Following these revelations, concerned citizens and activists from around the state converged earlier this week on the DEP’s offices for two separate protests. Among their demands, protesters want the DEP to revoke the draft pollution permit and redo the application process using an independent body.

Officials agreed to see the protesters for ad hoc discussions. During the Tuesday protest, DEP’s Chief of Staff Stephanie Cooper acknowledged that the state environmental agency regularly sends draft approvals to the applicants for advance review and comment. Cooper defended the practice, claiming it assists the agency in receiving all the relevant information from the applicant. 

Cooper said:

The practice of allowing the applicant to review and provide us feedback [i.e., on the draft approval permit] is one that we regularly undertake. We do that to make sure we have accurate information from them about their operation. It in no way means that they get to decide what is in the permit. We take their information, they make suggestions, as you saw happen in this instance. Sometimes we might take those suggestions, many times we don’t. So in no way is it collusion; it’s our regular business practice.” 

Yet as DeSmog has shown, Spectra and its consultants not only edited the permit’s descriptive and technical sections, but also changed the state’s conditions and requirements for the operation of the gas compressor station.

For instance, Spectra increased the threshold of what should be considered a leak from a pipe seal — a revision which remained in the published draft permit. The draft in which Spectra made this change was already written on the state’s official letterhead and addressed to Spectra’s Houston headquarters.

The emails also suggest DEP informed Spectra that this review was not a privilege granted to the public or other stakeholders in the project. 

Asked by DeSmog whether allowing the applicant to exclusively edit the draft permit before it is made public compromises the independence of the DEP as a regulatory body, Cooper replied: 

We have experience doing this for over 40 years. As you all are learning, this is incredibly complex, and, hopefully, you want to make sure you’re getting it right. That you did not misunderstand some aspect of the application, what it’s referring to, or its context. So we do find it helpful to provide a draft to the applicant to make suggestions. Like I said, we can say yes to them — and we can say no. Our folks maintain that independence and we make the final decision.”

It should be noted that DEP’s own regulations regarding the permitting process do not include this de facto practice of allowing applicants to revise draft permits. According to these regulations, DEP may communicate with an applicant until it determines the application to be technically and administratively sound. Once that determination is made, the DEP moves to make an independent decision on whether to approve, approve with conditions, or reject the application.  

Protester holds a sign and confronts a state official over permitting practices.
A protester in the offices of the Massachusetts DEP confronting state environmental officials. Credit: Curt Nordgaard, used with permission

Protesters at the meeting blasted the DEP for what they claim is a bias toward Spectra. 

I can understand that sometimes the DEP would follow up with an applicant to make sure the scope of the project hasn’t changed, etc.,” said Weymouth resident Andrea Honore. “What I cannot fathom is the DEP handing over the draft to Spectra and its lawyer saying ‘have at it.’ Right now, Spectra is running your house and I have to say that serving Spectra is not the function of your agency.”

Massachusetts state Senator Patrick O'Connor, who represents the residents of Weymouth, stated the following in response to the developments with the DEP:

“As we continue to fight this project on the South Shore I hope that our regulatory agencies take into account the health of citizens and the impact to our environment. I have been encouraged by the ever-growing opposition to the compressor station having fought this project since the beginning. I feel we have more momentum than we ever have before to convince state and federal regulators that this is the wrong location for this gas compressor station.”

A request for comment from the office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went unanswered. 

Main image: Protesters arriving at the Massachusetts DEP office on Monday, May 22. Credit:  James O. Michel, used with permission