Under pressure from the Ohio EPA to come up with an area wide plan for sewer development and water quality, the City of Columbus designated a large area of the Darby watershed to be an Environmentally Sensitive Development Area (ESDA). To formulate special standards for development in this pristine area, Columbus agreed to create an External Advisory Group (EAG).

The Sierra Club’s position is that water quality of the Darby Creeks will be preserved only by following the best scientific guidelines available. The process currently being used to determine protection standards for the ESDA is fatally flawed for several reasons.

The process is controlled by the City of Columbus. Don Armour of Fuller, Mossbarger, Scott & May, an engineering firm working for the City of Columbus, was designated by the city as the facilitator. As facilitator, Armour has the ability to control the agenda and the discussion.

The process is political, rather than scientific. Columbus chose the organizations to send representatives to the EAG. The Sierra Club was given a position on the committee, and Jeff Cox volunteered to be our representative. Choosing among a variety of stakeholders is a difficult process at best. A glaring omission from the committee is Progress with Economic and Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the organization that collected signatures resulting in a moratorium on development in the Darby watershed. Although the committee has several representatives who have excellent scientific backgrounds, any such body of area stakeholders will have conflicting interests. This makes the body political, rather than scientific. Organizations such as the Building Industry Association and local jurisdictions may lack scientific information and may have considerations other than environmental protection to bring to the table.

The consensus process will result in an inconclusive report. Columbus, a city notorious for top-down decisions, chose consensus as a decision-making process for the EAG. A process that depends on the consensus of all parties is inappropriate for use in bodies where values, principles or desired outcomes are vastly different. Basic values of individuals are not going to be changed, and this by definition will undermine agreement. The result will be that the Ohio EPA (the agency responsible for helping develop and approving a Central Ohio areawide plan) will not be given binding guidelines by the EAG.

The parameters and methods of watershed protection brought to the agenda are arbitrary. Dan Dudley of OEPA argued for protection of wetlands and Kokomo (hydric) soils, but whether this will be considered is not certain. This is but one small example of entering into a process that was not thoroughly planned ahead of time.

The meeting process is cumbersome. With lack of a scientific approach, decisions and “votes” are being asked for without benefit of thorough study. Meeting time is too short for thorough deliberation on this vast subject.

Because of these shortcomings, the Sierra Club has recommended that Ohio EPA ask for the formation of subcommittees of the EAG. The subcommittees would be directed to study various parameters of watershed protection and bring to the table the best scientific recommendations for protection of the ESDA and the water quality of the entirety of the Darby Creeks and their tributaries. The Sierra Club has told OEPA that the consensus process is the biggest shortcoming of the EAG and asks that “majority approved” be substituted for “consensus not reached” in the EAG report.

Dan Dudley, manager at OEPA’s Division of Surface Water, responded to our requests by writing to us that “…a purely scientific process is overly simplistic…all regulations reflect social and political influences of the society in which they are created.” We know very well the truth of his statement. However, the OEPA is charged with protecting the water quality of the creek, not with putting its finger in the air to test the political waters. The political waters may not suffice to protect the physical waters. Dudley goes on to say, “The EAG was given 18 months to complete this work…This very forceful measure was taken because water quality and ecological health of the Hellbranch Run and Big Darby Creek could be permanently harmed by the “secondary impacts” of providing central sewers….” OEPA needs to push harder for solutions that would prevent the permanent harm they are talking about.

Appears in Issue: