Thursday, November 10, 2005

Connecticut Plans to Ease Up on its Part of the Long Island Sound Cleanup

Long Island Sound, as everyone interested in the issue should know, is still in bad shape. After a period of small but noticeable improvements, water quality in the western third of the Sound has deteriorated for the last three summers. Dissolved oxygen concentrations from roughly Greenwich west to Throgs Neck fell almost to zero. Long Island Sound is a lot of things to a lot of people, but one of the most important is that it is an extremely productive and vibrant ecosystem. Yet when dissolved oxygen levels fall toward zero, we don't have an ecosystem anymore. We have a dead zone.

I mention this now, two months after 2005’s hypoxia, as it is called, reached its low point and oxygen concentrations started to rebound, because Connecticut wants to take a serious step backward in its commitment to requiring local sewage treatment plants to reduce nitrogen, the Sound's key pollutant.

That's right. Water quality in the Sound has gotten worse over the last three summers and Connecticut's response is to ease up on its part of the Long Island Sound cleanup.

The issue has arisen because as part of the cleanup, Connecticut issued a permit that set nitrogen limits for the state's sewage treatment plants for 2002 through 2006. Each year, the overall amount of nitrogen discharged into the Sound was to fall, according to the permit. For nitrogen levels to fall, local communities had to upgrade their treatment plants to allow for nitrogen removal, which many of them did, using money from Connecticut's Clean Water Fund.

But the state Legislature has stopped putting money into the Clean Water Fund. In fact, not only have they stopped putting money into it, they took what was there and used it to balance the state budget. So with no money for treatment plant work, the DEP was stuck. If it insisted that the local communities meet the 2006 permit, few of them would be able to because there was no money for nitrogen removal, and most of the communities would be in violation of their permit.

The DEP's response was to draft a new five-year permit that overlapped the old one by one year -- in other words, for 2006 through 2010, rather than for 2007 through 2011. That means that back before 2002, when they were setting the nitrogen discharge levels for 2002 through 2006, they agreed upon a figure for 2006. Now they want to change it to a level that is much higher.

How much? The nitrogen discharge for 2005 was 4,947 tons. The old 2006 permit would have required a discharge of 4,110 tons; they new permit would allow a reduction to only 4,902 tons. In other words, instead of a nitrogen reduction of 837 tons or 17 percent for 2006, the DEP wants the reduction to be just 45 tons, or 0.9 percent.

Save the Sound/Connecticut Fund for the Environment has been on top of this (and may in fact be the only organization on top of it; I’d be interested in hearing what, if anything Soundkeeper Terry Backer, a member of the State Legislature, has said on the issue).

Leah Lopez Schmaltz, Save the Sound’s director of legislative and legal affairs, says the state is guilty of “backsliding” on the issue. Her organization wants the Clean Water Fund fully funded again - and rightly so.

Like New York, Connecticut has committed to an overall nitrogen removal goal of 58.5 percent by 2014. The DEP believes it can still meet that goal. But that of course depends on whether the politicians who write the budget decide the Sound is a priority again.

I should say here that the decision by Connecticut's politicians to stop funding the Clean Water Fund might be safe politically. Yes, it's true that Greenwich and to some extent Stamford is affected by hypoxia. But the worst hypoxia is a New York problem -- it hits the waters between Westchester and Nassau counties far harder than it does Fairfield County, and by the time the Sound broadens out near New Haven, hypoxia isn't an issue at all (at least not yet).

So why would a state senator from New London, say, care that much about water conditions 100 miles away? And in particular, why would that state senator care now when for years Connecticut has been ahead of New York inmaking a commitment to cleaning up the Sound?

That might be a politically safe attitude, but it shouldn't be. Yet the only way for it to be safe is if Save the Sound, Soundkeeper, Audubon New York, Audubon New York and the other advocates who have been so important to the Sound in the past take up the issue again, and forcefully.


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