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Potential progress on environmental front

December 29, 2018

There are no shortages of effective, innovative ideas for continuing to improve water quality in Long Island Sound and in its massive watershed, which includes at least five states and several Canadian provinces.

In addition to its physical scope, the LIS watershed is also one of the most densely populated regions in the nation; 23 million people, or 7.3 percent of the total US population, live within 50 miles of the Sound.

With an area that large and waterways that important, one would expect the state and federal government would take the dominant role in monitoring and improving the LIS ecosystem’s health. But the Trump Administration is determined to eliminate or substantially undermine clean water and clean air regulations, as well as reduce federal funding for vital LIS projects. Just this week we saw U.S. Rep. Jim Himes join a bi-partisan congressional effort to have the Trump administration allocate $20 million next year for Long Island Sound projects. That would represent an $8 million increase over this year, but is still woefully short of the $65 million annual allocations in earlier years.

As federal dollars prove harder to come by, local environmental action is more important than ever. Fortunately, there is no shortage of local ideas to improve water quality.

For example, several years ago, local designers and water experts proposed an ambitious flood plain restoration project and expanded recreational areas along the Byram River, which seems to flood at even the hint of a large rain storm. The Byram River plan proposed dredging a pond just south of the Merritt Parkway to its original depth of 75 feet; it also would have deepened Caroline Pond and removed the accumulated silt and dirt in the riverbed just north of the Post Road as it crosses into Port Chester. The plan also provided new paddle boat access points along the river and a walkway along one shore to make the entire river more available for recreational use. The plan never generated serious consideration by any town board or agency.

Another coastal resiliency plan came about when the town took the first steps toward dredging Greenwich Harbor several years ago. Tests of bottom sediments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed PCBs in the northern section of the harbor, near the Island Beach Ferry landing and Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. Disposing of dredged materials laced with PCBs is hugely expensive. With Hurricane Sandy fresh in people’s minds, some suggested using the dredged material to increase the size of several islands within the greater Greenwich Harbor and perhaps reinforcing the south shore of Tod’s Point. But again, these ideas were not taken seriously.

Greenwich did take a largely symbolic first step this year in fighting the growing environmental threat posed by plastics when the RTM and the Board of Selectman approved a far too weak ban on single-use plastic bags. The ban, which took effect this fall, only covers plastic bags distributed through grocery store checkout lines and at retail outlets. It exempted plastic bags used for newspapers, produce, dry cleaning and food delivery. But hey, a weak success is better than nothing.

That the town did not show any interest in the Byram River or harbor island plans is part of the problem. Town Hall has no sense of urgency even when confronted with seriously contaminated sites that are a direct threat to not only water quality, but public health as well. PCBs were discovered at Greenwich High School in 2011 during construction of the Performing Arts Center. Remediation of the carcinogen ladened soil has been a start and stop process. We are going on eight years now and there still is no final plan presented to the state for the site’s ultimate clean-up.

Greenwich has, by design, a fragmented government structure that makes it difficult to locate responsibility and accountability. It is difficult sometimes to know how to navigate an idea through this Byzantine system.

But there was a small governmental change earlier this year that might make it easier for residents with environmental concerns to be heard. In April, First Selectman Peter Tesei named Patricia Sesto the town’s first environmental affairs director. Sesto had been head of the Inland Wetlands and Waterways Agency, and her new title also gives her responsibility for the Conservation Commission. It is a small start, and there was no mention of increased environmental activism in the reason given for the new position. It seems to be more about making government more efficient. But it might also make government more responsive.

Perhaps the new grass roots organizations in town that have been so effective in changing its political dynamics will set their sights on some environmental action. And Ms. Sesto might be their logical point of entry to Town Hall. This great, great grandson of a Cos Cob oysterman certainly hopes so. Happy New Year!

Bob Horton can be reached at bobhorton@yahoo.com.

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