Thursday, June 01, 2006

Fishers Island Ferry: Mark Easter Gets Out of Jail and Keeps His Job, Ferry Directors Testify to Grand Jury, Worker Thinks Feds Exaggerated The Case

The Fishers Island Ferry District apparently has a rather tolerant employment policy. And its employees seem to think that dumping raw sewage into Long Island Sound and the Thames River is not quite as bad an offense as the Coast Guard and the U.S. Attorney do.

Those are the conclusions I draw from today’s New London Day story about the case against Mark Easter, the ferry district’s operations manager who has just finished serving time in federal prison for dumping untreated sewage into the Sound and the Thames.

When he got out of the pen, Easter gave up his Coast Guard license to captain commercial vessels.

But a felony conviction and the loss of his license aren’t enough to make him lose his job. He’s still the ferry district’s operations manager.

The ferry district provides the only public transportation to and from Fishers Island, which is near Groton and New London but is in New York State. It is part of the government of the Town of Southold, on Long Island, and is run by a five-member board of Fishers Island residents.

Here’s the gist of the case against Easter:

Easter was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits the dumping of untreated sewage. After an investigation prompted by a call to the Coast Guard from a recreational boater, the Coast Guard concluded that the valves on the holding tanks of the toilets on the ferry's two vessels were routinely left in an open position, causing an estimated 472,000 gallons of raw sewage to be released while the ferries were making the 5-mile crossing several times daily between docks in downtown New London and Fishers Island.

Perhaps the board of the ferry district is letting let Easter keep his job because its members are distracted by other issues. Judy Benson of the New London Day reported:

… the Coast Guard's investigation of Easter is closed, but its investigation of the ferry district is continuing.

As part of the investigation, the five island residents who make up the ferry district's Board of Commissioners have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in New Haven, according to minutes from the February meeting of the Island Community Board. The board is a municipal government panel in which various groups on the island report about their activities and answer residents' questions.

Which brings us to the issue of how seriously the ferry district thinks the crime is. The employee who gave that report, for one, apparently thinks the concern about untreated sewage going into the Sound and the river isn’t quite the big deal that the feds say it is.

First, he says, the Coast Guard overestimated the amount of sewage that was dumped. Second, he thinks it’s “ironic” that the ferries now send their sewage to the New London treatment plant, which he says discharges into the Thames after a heavy rain. He said these things, mind you, in his report to the people of Fishers Island, where concern with the environment runs rather deep, or at least so I’ve been told.

Dawn Kallen, the Coast Guard investigator who discovered and then pursued the sewage dumping, sounded slightly annoyed at Doherty’s comments. Here’s how the New London Day quoted her:

“We ended up getting almost a year's worth of receipts from the tanker trucks of all the amount pumped out for that time,” she said. “The numbers I came up with were nearly identical to the original estimate. I don't care how big or how small their bladders are. Mr. Doherty can go back and look at his own receipts.”

She also took umbrage at his statements pointing out that the New London plant could legally discharge during an emergency.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” she said. “Those boats were operating illegally. It's a shameful practice. For folks to downplay the effects on the environment and on the communities ... . It's definitely frustrating that they're still trying to minimize the effects they've had.”


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