Thursday, December 22, 2011

SRBC Approvals, Procedure Questioned

Last week (Thursday, Dec. 15) the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) held its quarterly business meeting in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Read the official press release (link) and it looks like business as usual: “SRBC concluded all scheduled actions including voting on water withdrawal and consumptive use applications…”

However, read press accounts and it’s pretty clear that the meeting was anything but. Several people disrupted the meeting with mic checks and questions about just who the water belongs to. In the noise and confusion SRBC chair Kelly Heffner tried to maintain control, but failed.

According to one reporter the meeting was “… interrupted by protesters, and SRBC commissioners completed their voting in private."

Another reported that Heffner threatened to clear the room and the commission hastily adopted the recommendations and adjourned the meeting early.

Some people who attended that meeting contend that the SRBC chair adjourned the meeting when the disruptions occurred. Commissioners filed out of the room, then returned a few minutes later to vote on the items.
SRBC 12/15/11 Wilkes Barre -- Meeting Adjourned Before the Vote from Shaleshock Media on Vimeo.

It’s pretty hard to make out what’s happening because of the chaos, but someone had a recorder running during that meeting – a Tascam DR-07 sitting on top of a speaker cabinet about 10 feet from the table where the commissioners were seated. In this excerpt you can hear Heffner saying “Adjourn! Adjourn! Clear the room.”

But, says SRBC spokesperson Susan Obleski, the meeting was not officially adjourned at that time. In a telephone conversation earlier today, Obleski admitted that, yes, Heffner did indeed say “adjourn”.

However, that call was out of order. “When the commissioners stepped out of the room, they were advised by SRBC counsel that the meeting was still in session,” Obleski said. “The meeting was never officially adjourned.”  So when the commissioners returned, they didn’t need to reconvene, as they were still in session. They just had to bring up the docket for a vote. “Which,” Obleski said, “they did according to Commission procedures” prior to officially adjourning the meeting.

While there are some questions about how the meeting was conducted, Obleski is firm that as far as approving the dockets goes, SRBC is on solid legal ground. They conducted that portion correctly, she said. As for Heffner’s call to adjourn – that was in response to people crowding up against the commissioners. Obleski noted that the SRBC is reviewing video and audio recordings and should have a public statement soon. “But the dockets stand approved,” she emphasized.

“SRBC meetings often don’t generate much public turnout,” says Nadia Steinzor, the Marcellus Shale regional organizer for Earthworks. The oppositional turnout last week should, at the very least, make the SRBC aware of the strong views of the public.  “Gas development is so controversial because of its many negative impacts, in particular to water resources. The SRBC must uphold comment periods and manage meetings so that the public can openly and respectfully share their views and knowledge—which will hopefully in turn encourage the Commissioners to make decisions that truly protect the Basin.”

Thomas Au, Conservation Chair for Sierra Club PA agrees and called for the SRBC to reconvene to consider the docket they so hastily dealt with on the 15th.  “Commission decisions need to be made in an open, public forum,” he said.

Yesterday Steinzor and Au signed on with five other environmental organizations in a letter to the SRBC that asks the Commissioners to reconvene for the purposes of completing its meeting held on December 15. The letter states that when the disruptive behavior made the proceedings unintelligible, and the Commission chair failed to control the meeting, she adjourned it.  “… some attendees in the audience left the meeting at that point. The Commissioners and Commission staff then excused themselves only to return minutes later where they voted and approved 22 of the projects at issue, off-the-record and without having formally reconvened. None of the remaining individuals wishing to provide public comment were able to exercise that right.”

Steinzor and the six other signatories have reviewed the videos and listened to reports from people who attended the meeting. Whether legally adjourned by Roberts Rules or other rules, for all intents and purposes it appears that SRBC did indeed adjourn prior to voting on the water withdrawal projects, they say. “Because the majority of the proposed water withdrawals concerned shale gas operations that entail potentially significant direct, indirect and cumulative impacts, those approvals demand the utmost transparency and accountability.”

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