Monday, July 31, 2006

Environmental Disasters and Room Service

There are days when newspapers and the web seem to spit out more scary stories than I can deal with – about relentless heat waves in Europe, plans for more coal-burning power plants (as if it’s our goal to make the climate worse), weird “solutions” to global warming, etcetera (not to mention wars without end). On days like this I’m tempted to consider the quote from Woody Allen at the top of this page to be not a joke but the truth.

How bad, for example, are conditions in coastal waters? Consider this story, about dying marine animals, from the Los Angeles Times:

They pick up the acid by eating anchovies and sardines that have fed on toxic algae. Although the algae have been around for eons, they have bloomed with extraordinary intensity along the Pacific coast for the last eight years.

The blooms are part of a worldwide pattern of oceanic changes that scientists attribute to warming waters, excessive fishing, and a torrent of nutrients unleashed by farming, deforestation and urban development.

The explosion of harmful algae has caused toxins to move through the food chain and concentrate in the dietary staples of marine mammals.

For the last 25 years, the federal government has tracked a steady upswing in beach strandings and mass die-offs of whales, dolphins and other ocean mammals on U.S. coasts.

More than 14,000 seals, sea lions and dolphins have landed sick or dead along the California shoreline in the last decade. So have more than 650 gray whales along the West Coast.

In Maine two years ago, 800 harbor seals, all adults with no obvious injuries, washed up dead, and in Florida the carcasses of hundreds of manatees have been found in mangrove forests and on beaches.

The surge in mortality has coincided with what Florida wildlife pathologist Greg Bossart calls a "pandemic" of algae and bacteria. Although some of the deaths defy easy explanation, telltale biotoxins have turned up in urine, blood, brains and other tissue.

On the other hand, at night lately we’ve been listening to a family of barred owls as they keep in touch with each other by whistling wheezily back and forth. The noise of cicadas during the day and katydids at night have replaced the songs of bluebirds and red-eyed vireos. Yesterday morning was beautiful at home, the sky deep blue and the clouds wispy and wind-blown, as if we were at the beach. My son, who is 8, was getting ready for his baseball game and asked me to make him an omelet, and he specified that I cook it in lots of butter. I was sitting in a chair on the deck, drinking coffee and reading the Times, and before I got up to start cooking, the phone rang.

My daughter, who is 13, was calling on her cellphone. From her room upstairs.

“Dad," she said, “can you make me some hot cocoa and bring it up to me?”

I had the wisdom to chose correctly, cooking the omelet the way he likes it and taking the cocoa off the stove before it got too hot.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Automatic Backyard Pesticide Sprinkers: A Really Bad Idea Takes Hold In Massachusetts

Here’s one of the worst new ideas I’ve ever heard about: an automatic sprinkler system that douses your yard twice a day with a pesticide to kill mosquitoes.

This Boston Globe story, written by a reporter named Thomas Caywood, presents an embarrassingly uncritical account of the sprinkler system and how wonderful it is. The sprinkler system company and its public relations consultants must be gleeful; if they had managed to get a press release published verbatim it could hardly have been better.

For example -- Would you like to hear an objective opinion of how good the system is? Who better to ask than the man who stands to make money from it:

``I know it's an aggressive way to get rid of mosquitoes, but, in my eyes, it's become necessary," said Anthony Santoro, whose Waltham company, Mistguard Mosquito Control Systems LLC, installed the sprayers at the Smith and Vottola homes. ``You feel safer, and you can sit out in your yard again."

Would you like to hear an objective opinion of the health risks of mosquitoes? Who better to ask than a well-known expert like the woman who just had a system installed because she’s worried about West Nile virus:

Smith said she much prefers to have pyrethroids sprayed twice a day to slathering her sons down with bug sprays containing DEET and other chemicals or, worse, taking the chance that they might be bitten by a mosquito infected with a potentially deadly virus.

Caywood manages to avoid mentioning that last year in all of Massachusetts there were six human cases of West Nile and four of eastern equine encephalitis (and three fatalities in all); in 2004 there were no human cases of West Nile and four of EEE. Massachusetts, by the way, has a population of 6.3 million, which means the odds that you’d get a mosquito-borne virus in Massachusetts last tear were roughly one in 630,000 (students of probability and statistics, start e-mailing to tell me how wrong I am about this, please).

This poison-spraying system uses one of a class of synthetic pesticides called pyrethroids, which aren’t particularly harmful to humans but which kill insects indiscriminately. I don’t like mosquitoes any more than the next guy (and I happen to live in an area that doesn’t have many mosquitoes), but I like bees and butterflies and moths. I also detest the attitude that poisons will solve all our little annoyances with impunity.

I used to hold out hope that people had more sense than to use fossil fuels to power leaf blowers for frivolous pursuits such as removing bits of grass and leaves from lawns and driveways, especially in an era when it’s well-accepted that burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

Now I acknowledge that it was idiotic on my part to think that.

I’d like to hope that people will realize it’s insane to spray pesticides like they’re water.

But I’m sure than in a decade automatic pesticide sprinklers will be commonplace.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Trying to Avoid Death Or Excruciating Pain From A Portuguese Man-of-War While Also Figuring Out What The Plural Of Man-of-War Is

Because my family and I will be in Rhode Island in a couple of weeks, and because I have an aversion to suffering pain while on vacation, I’ve been following the Portuguese man-of-war invasion of southern New England with more than usual interest.

One thing I gather is that when guidebooks and web sites describe the animal’s long tentacles, which can extend as much as 50 feet under the surface of the water, they’re describing an extreme. A typical man-of-war is much smaller Although how much smaller isn’t clear to me yet, it’s like describing humans by saying they can reach heights of 7 and a half feet. That’s true but of limited use.

A Field Guide to North Atlantic Wildlife, by Noble Proctor and Patrick Lynch, says of the Portuguese man-of war (which is a siphonophore, not a jelly fish):

Powder blue, balloon-like transparent float visible at the water’s surface. Elongate tentacle-like processes and curtain-like folds hang below inflated float and may extend more than 50 ft … Beware of tentacles, which can sting long after animal’s death. Float size: To 1 ft.

Siphonophores are hydrozoans, which have an attached, tree-like (hyrda) stage and a free-floating (medusa) stage. Siphonophores exhibit an extreme form of this combination: they are complex colonies of medusae and polyps. The Portuguese Man-Of-War is an excellent example.

Wikipedia adds, somewhat helpfully:

The sting from the tentacles is potentially dangerous to humans; these stings have been responsible for several deaths, but usually only cause excruciating pain.

That’s good to know because I’ll substitute excruciating pain for death every time, if I have a choice.

The Providence Journal has more coverage today, here. One problem with everything I’ve read though is that I get no real sense of how many Portuguese men-of-war are in the region, whether this is is a real emergency, what the approximate chances are of encountering a man-of-war if you’re swimming in Rhode Island (or Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, for that matter). Newspapers and TV are known, after all, for exaggerating crises.

You’ll note, by the way, that I used the correct plural form of “crisis.” I mention it because of a debate about the plural of man-of-war. Sam Wells, a loyal Sphere reader from Texas (by way of Connecticut), insists that the plural of man-of-war is man-of-war. Some newspaper reports say “men-of-war,” which is what I’ve been using. The Providence Journal is actually asking readers what they think the plural is.

My favorite answers from the survey:

Do you have anyone on your staff that have graduated from the eighth grade? Maybe they can settle it for you. [Note that the author of this witty comment failed to get his noun and verb to agree; “anyone” is singular and requires “has graduated,” not “have graduated.”]

The plural of man-of-war is "Republican Party."

If you looked in the dictionary it tells you

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Water Quality in the Sound Seems To Be Not Quite As Bad This Year As In Recent Years

Don’t ask why because nobody knows, but water quality in Long Island Sound, as measured by dissolved oxygen concentrations, seems to be better this year than at similar times in the previous four years, and conditions actually improved in mid July when compared to the first 10 days of the month.

I wouldn’t be performing in character if I didn’t look at the bad side of this, so let me say that there’s still plenty of time left this summer for conditions to degrade significantly, and just because water quality is better does not mean it’s good. Nevertheless, here’s what the Connecticut DEP, which checks dissolved oxygen (and lots of other criteria) twice a month, has to say:

During the month’s first research cruise, on July 6, 7 and 10, dissolved oxygen concentrations in the bottom waters of the Sound ranged from 2.5 to 8.8 milligram per liter. The latter figure is excellent, and the former indicates that fish and other marine life will have a hard time living there; 3.5 milligrams per liter is considered to be the threshold of hypoxia, and it’s as low as regulators ever want the Sound to get (although obviously conditions are frequently worse). During those three days, 141 kilometers, or 54 square miles, had dissolved oxygen concentrations below 3.5; the map that accompanied the DEP’s written discussion indicates that the vast majority of those 54 squares miles had DO concentrations between 2 and 3 milligrams per liter.

During the second research cruise, on July 18 and 19, bottom water concentrations ranged from 2.8 to 9.5. The area below 3.5 milligrams per liter is slightly smaller (50 square miles) and the area between 2 and 3 is noticeably smaller, as shown here in orange and yellow.

Katie O-Brien-Clayton, the DEP analyst who sent the report out yesterday, wrote that results from the survey of July 18 and 19

seem to be atypical when compared to data from 2002-2005 …, with much of the sound having bottom water DO concentrations greater than 4.8 mg/L. …

In 2005, 690.7 km2 of bottom water had dissolved oxygen concentrations between 4.0 and 4.99 mg/L, 502.6 km2 had concentrations between 3 and 3.99 mg/L, 107.9 km2 had concentrations between 2 and 2.99 mg/L, and 49.5 km2 had concentrations between 1 and 1.99 mg/L.

In 2004, concentrations were not less than 3.0 mg/L at any station (975 km2 had concentrations between 4.99 and 4.0 mg/L; 428 km2 between 3.99 and 3.0 mg/L).

In 2003, DO concentrations only dropped to 2.0 mg/L; the area with concentrations between 2 and 2.99 mg/L was 175 km2, 3.0 and 3.99 mg/L was 163 km2 and 783 km2 had concentrations between 4.0 and 4.99 mg/L.

Data collected in 2002 indicated dissolved oxygen concentrations dropped below 2.0 mg/L over 92 km2. Concentrations were between 2.0 and 2.99 mg/L over 67 km2, between 3.0 and 3.99 mg/L over 34 km2, and between 4.0 and 4.99 mg/L over 809 km2.

So this year thing conditions in the Sound are a bit better, so far. Recall that last year, in mid-August, the DEP got a reading on 0.5 milligrams per liter, in the Greenwich-Rye area, in mid-August. When DO is that low, it means there are no fish in the area. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t bottom out like that again.

More About the Men of War, Which Haven't Reached the Sound Yet

The Portuguese men-of-war that have been drawing so much attention from swimmers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts arrive in the area by riding the Gulf Stream north and then moving west in big eddies of water that spin off the Stream. This is the same method of conveyance that sea turtles – loggerheads, greens, Kemp’s ridleys – use to reach the area.

The sea turtles often make it into Long Island Sound. As far as I can tell no Portuguese men-of-war have made it into the Sound yet, but if the sea turtles ride the currents in, why can’t the men-of-war? Maybe the difference is that the sea turtle ride the Gulf Stream and the eddies as far as they will take them, and then swim the rest of the way. The Portuguese men-of-war are planktonic and can go only where they’re taken by the currents.

In any case, here’s a couple more good new stories about the situation, from the Providence Journal and the New London Day.

New Law Changes the Way New York Will Protect and Regulate its Waterways

There’s a new law in New York that will attempt to coordinate the way various agencies regulate and protect the state’s waterways, including Long Island Sound. I hadn’t heard about it til I read this story in today’s Newsday. Unfortunately the story is about as sketchy as can be. If I learn more, I’ll tell.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Portuguese-Men-of-War Are Still Bothering Swimmers to the East

It's almost like a passive version of Jaws. More Portuguese-men-of-war are floating around and menacing swimmers to the east of Long Island Sound. From the Hartford Courant:

From Westerly in Rhode Island to Nantucket in Massachusetts, the summer has seen an unusual number of Portuguese men-of-war off southern New England. Scientists say a change in the pattern of the Gulf Stream, warmer waters, a northern wind and recent storms are probably all to blame.

Rhode Island state officials said the creatures had been seen at beaches in Jamestown, Newport, South Kingstown, Narragansett, Block Island, Charlestown and Westerly this summer.

Needless to say, that does not make those of us who will soon spend inordinate sums renting on Block Island happy. Men-of-war are essentially large plankton -- they float where the currents take them, rather than swimming where they want to go -- and so maybe the winds will change and blow them out beyond Cape Cod.

I don’t quite have the attitude though of Julie Coburn, a Massachusetts woman who told a reporter: “They’re not supposed to be here. We are.”

Monday, July 24, 2006

Greenwich Can Pick Up Its Own Trash

I’ve participated in one organized beach cleanup (at Sandy Point, in West Haven) and although I complained about how hard it was and about the general unpleasantness of pickup up garbage that other people feel free to impose on the public, I still think beach cleanups are a good idea.

Save the Sound/Connecticut Fund for the Environment is organizing another cleanup, for September 16. Save the Sound’s Emily Schaller ( for more info) sent out an e-mail with the details this morning:

If you are looking for an area that needs attention, I have a list of beaches we have cleaned in the past which no one has spoken for yet. I also have included a couple that Save the Sound has performed restoration projects on. These locations include:

- Stonington: Dodge Pond, Sandy Point
- Groton: Avery Point Beach
- East Lyme: Rocky Neck
- Waterford: Harkness
- West Haven: Sandy Point
- Bridgeport: St. Mary’s by the Sea
- Norwalk: Veteran’s Park
- Stamford: West Beach, Cummings Beach
- Greenwich: Greenwich Town Beach

Restoration Sites:
- Wilson Cove (Norwalk)
- 5 Mile River (Darien)
- Branford Supply Pond (Branford)

Now, having said above that beach cleanups are a good idea, I’d like to remind anyone who might be considering helping Connecticut’s westernmost town about that town’s attitude toward letting non-residents use their facilities: basically Greenwich doesn’t want you anywhere near its beaches. And although I might participate elsewhere, you couldn’t pay me enough money to pick up garbage at Greenwich Point or anywhere else on its shore.

Narragansett Bay's Long Island Sound Problem

Like Connecticut and New York do for Long Island Sound, Rhode Island has a good plan for reducing the amount of nitrogen that enters Narragansett Bay, as a way to ending the hypoxia and the resulting loss of habitat and fish kills that go with it.

Rhode Island’s plan is to cut nitrogen in half by 2008. The problem for Narragansett Bay, though, is that half the bay’s watershed is in Massachusetts. And Massachusetts apparently has thus far done nothing to reduce nitrogen from cities such a Worcester and Attleboro. Not surprisingly, Rhode Island isn’t all that happy about it, according to this story, which quotes W. Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

``It's unconscionable that we should silently sit by and let them flush their nutrients into Narragansett Bay for us to deal with the consequences," Sullivan said.

I can’t say why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t required nitrogen reduction in the Massachusetts part of the watershed. For whatever reason, neither EPA not Massachusetts officials responded to the reporter’s inquiries about it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Tucker Crawford and the Hudson River

I remember a few things about Tucker Crawford, who I interviewed a few times in Verplanck, on the Hudson River, in the 1990s and who died the other day at age 80.

I remember that for a Hudson River fishermen, of which he was among the last, he seemed surprisingly small and scrawny.

I remember sitting in his living room on a beautiful spring day with all the windows closed and being awed equally by (1) the view of the Hudson from his picture window, (2) the photograph of him in a rowboat with a huge sturgeon slung across the gunwhales, and (3) the amount of cigarette smoke he managed to produce during the interview.

I remember that he looked much older than he was and that he had a sense of humor about it. When, on a visit in the early ‘90s, I asked him his age, he told me he was 64. My eyes opened wide and my eyebrows arched up. “Really,” I said, “you don’t look a day over 80.” He laughed.

I remember that he, liked all the Hudson River fishermen I’ve met, pronounced the name of the Hudson’s most commercially important fish “stripe-id bass,” instead of “striped bass.” I’ve asked around but no one I’ve asked can explain this pronunciation oddity.

I remember that he was extremely skeptical and distrustful of the government, which had closed the striped bass fishery because of PCB contamination, but wasn’t at all distrustful of General Electric, which had dumped a million pounds of PCBs into the river.

I remember that after the striped bass fishing ban, he got nailed by the law for illegally selling striped bass at Fulton Market.

I remember that he was fond of an amusing but ultimately irresponsible quote that he came up with: “The only PCBs in this river are Perch, Catfish and Bass.”

Commercial fishermen on the Hudson have been mythologized for decades by John Cronin, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Bob Boyle and others. I liked visiting and interviewing the fishermen both because it made it easy to see past the myth and because it made me realize that the part of the myth that was based on the fishermen’s mastery of near-ancient skills and immense knowledge of the river was true. They all did things and knew things that no one knows or can do anymore.

Crawford was one of the last. Here’s his obituary.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Red-Necked Stint

There are thousands of tiny sandpipers on the beach and sandbars at Milford Point. All of them are one species, semipalmated sandpipers, and virtually identical, except somehow someone with mind-boggling powers of concentration (in this case a birder named Nick Bonomo) looks long and hard enough to determine that one of them is a bit different. In fact it turns out to be a red-necked stint, a sandpiper from Siberia that almost never shows up on the east coast.

Five minutes after the report came in, it went out on the “Ct Bird Report” e-mail list:

7/16 - Milford, Milford Point -- adult RED-NECKED STINT in worn alternate plumage.

The bird was first found around 2:45pm, seen on the bar to the right with many Semipalmated Sandpipers. The tide covered the bar after that, driving away all the birds. It was relocated - after 5:00 PM if memory serves - on the back (east) side of the large bar on the left, where it was seen by many more birders and seen quite well at times. It was still present just before 8pm, but not continously seen.

The Semipalmated flock is now over 1000 birds.

The report triggered a memory of 1983, when a little stint showed up at Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge (it had first been misidentified as a rufous-necked stint, which I think was the old name for red-necked stint, but was later proved to be a little stint). I was just starting to be interested in birds, so I drove down at dawn one July day and wandered around with a throng of birders hoping to see it. We were apparently a day late, because no one saw it again, which left a lot of people disappointed, although not me particularly because I saw two dozen birds I had never seen before – birds with names themselves were a delight: black skimmer and ruddy turnstone, greater yellowlegs, stilt sandpiper and pectoral sandpiper, and short-billed and long-billed dowitchers, which were my favorites because, until I got home and looked the name up, I thought were “dowagers” and I wondered what could possibly be the etymology of that.

The other day I asked my friends at Audubon Connecticut about stints and their rarity. Here’s what Patrick Comins, Audubon Connecticut’s director of bird conservation, responded:

They are pretty rare, but it seems that with more people out looking in July, which is when they are most likely, and more people knowing how to pick one out, that they are more regular on the east coast than was once thought. It seems like there has been at least one report somewhere on the coast every couple of years. This is the third one that I remember hearing about in CT in the last few years. Of course, it is still a pretty hard ID, so not all of the reports we hear about are really stints. The ones in CT in recent years are pretty well documented though and Nick Bonomo is pretty careful about his ID, so this one is probably legit. I still have never seen one.

And then a few minutes later he added:

From what I have been able to glean about accepted records, as of 2004, Delaware had 4 Red-necked Stint Records and Mass has seven, most of which have been in recent years. California has the most records for the lower 48 with 9, so it is still a big deal. I do think that with more people looking and more people knowing how to pick them out that there will be more records than in the past.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Hazards and Indignities of Summer

I went to the pool at our town park late on Friday afternoon, for an after-work swim before watching my son’s baseball game at the same park. In the changing room I pulled up my bathing suit and felt a quick, sharp pain. I reflexively reached back with my left hand and scratched, and when I did it was as if the pain got deeper. I knew instantly what had happened. In a cartoon-character panic I took the bathing suit off and, with the pain starting to sear, turned it inside out and whacked at it with my hand.

A bumble bee fell onto the floor, buzzing. It had stung me on the left butt cheek.

It really hurt. Outside, near the pool, my daughter, who is 13, was in a lounge chair.

“I’m going to tell you what just happened to me,” I said, “but under no circumstances are you allowed to laugh – I absolutely forbid it.”

I told her. She laughed so hard she fell off the chair. When I told her it would be her job to see if the stinger was still in there, she laughed harder.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Where To Go To The Beach in Connecticut

Here's a good roundup, in today's Connecticut Post, of where to go to the beach in Connecticut, including entrance fees and parking fees. For some reason, though, the reporter insists on referring to Long Island Sound as "the ocean." Nevertheless, it's got all the details.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Long Island's Beaches Are Unsafe for Swimming

If you live on Long Island, don’t bother going to the beach for a swim over the next couple of days. Almost all the beaches are closed, which is what health departments are forced to do after a big rain storm, because our streets are so dirty and our sewers are so riddled with holes that stormwater is too dangerous to swim in.

In some summers, heavy rains have washed enough organic material into Long Island Sound that is blamed for unusually severe hypoxia (that is, low concentrations of dissolved oxygen) in late July and August, so we might have that to look forward to as well.

Meanwhile, Bryan Brown (who along with Texan Sam Wells is among Sphere’s most loyal readers and commenters) asked some pertinent questions regarding a post I wrote after beaches were shut down in Westport the other day because a treatment plant’s ultra violet disinfection system malfunction:

Our local STP in Glen Cove recently installed a UV system to replace the chlorine-based system, but your post begs the question: what are the contingencies in the event of a UV malfunction? The back-up generator they have addresses power failures, but what about a "computer software glitch"? In the interest of removing any potential hazards from the storage of sodium hypochlorite, perhaps they've cut it too close. It's something we'll be looking into.

The timing of the tests results for the beaches mentioned in the article is curious. If it takes 24h to get a result, how did they test Sherwood Island so quickly? The timing for Compo Beach sounds about right.

Finally, your comment re: the shellfish beds brings up another issue. USEPA now requires testing for enterococci at marine beaches, instead of fecal coliforms. According to USEPA, their studies show it's a better indicator for disease-causing organisms, at least in marine environments. What I can't understand is that water quality monitoring for shellfish beds is still based on fecal coliform, as is the monitoring done by STPs discharging to marine environments (as I understand it). Shellfishing is the highest form of use a waterbody can have (higher than recreational uses), yet it doesn't merit the so-called gold standard for bacteria monitoring. It seems like an inconsistent approach to WQ monitoring.

Naturally I couldn't answer these but I thought they were good enough to merit a response from someone in the Connecticut government. John Wiltse, of Governor Rell’s PR staff, sent them on to the Health Department and the DEP. If they respond (and I have to hope they’re better than Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s staff is in that regard), I’ll let you know.

Wind Power Off Plum Island

All the attention being paid on Long Island to LIPA’s proposal to put 40 400-foot high wind turbines 3-1/2 to 5 miles off Jones Beach reminded me that a company called Winergy wants to build a demonstration wind power project off Plum Island. Newsday has mentioned it in passing a couple of times, and I wrote about it very briefly once.

I don’t think they were on the Web back then but they are now. Their proposal is to put three turbines off the south shore of Plum Island (where the U.S. Department of Agriculture has an animal-disease research center), to test a technology that might be suitable for far offshore, where nobody can see it. Here’s a summary, from Winergy’s site, which includes some good maps:

The proposed project will provide a model to test an innovative technology that will make it possible to locate wind farms 12-20 miles offshore. This will eliminate the primary objection raised by those concerned that wind turbines will diminish ocean views. The company is proposing to erect three wind turbines: two on traditional monopile bases, and one using a new “lift-boat” technology that will allow wind turbines to be located in water depths of 150 feet. Current monopile technology only allows wind turbines to be built in 60 feet of water or less.

The Wind Park will be located about two and a half miles east of Orient Point, just south of Plum Island within a 200-acre leased area that is currently being used for a commercial fish farming operation. The site was selected because of its remoteness from population and marine traffic. The area has wind speeds of class 6, which are economically viable for wind development.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

No Dumping

It’s getting harder and harder to find a place in Connecticut where you can empty your boat’s head into the water. Yesterday the state formally extended the no-discharge area so that it now covers the entire length of Long Island Sound from the Rhode Island border to Guilford. Here’s the Courant’s report. It’s long been illegal to dump untreated waste from boats; the no-discharge designation means it’s now illegal to dump treated waste as well.

Mel Cote, who heads the Ocean and Coastal Protection Unit for EPA's New England region (which includes the Connecticut portion of Long Island Sound), explained the no-discharge designations to me last year. He said it is the states' responsibility to establish no-discharge areas, but that a state can do so only if EPA determines that there are enough alternatives for boaters (the Soundkeeper provides one of the alternatives and is looking to improve its program). Here’s how Mel explained it:

EPA's primary role in designating no discharge areas is determining whether there are enough sewage pump-out facilities to serve the boats (with holding tanks) that use the area in question -- it is the state, often working with local governments, that determines whether they want the additional water quality protection and develops and submits to EPA the application stating the case for why those waters should be designated no discharge. For Long Island Sound, Connecticut has designated its coastal waters from the Rhode Island border to Groton as no discharge, has a pending application into EPA Region 1 to extend that designation to Guilford, and plans to submit an application next year for the remaining coastline from Guilford to Greenwich, completing the designation of all its coastal waters as a no discharge area. No discharge areas on New York's side of the Sound include Mamaroneck Harbor, Huntington Harbor, and Peconic Bay.

How the Birds Are Doing

A couple of months ago Denise Jernigan of the Connecticut Ornithological Society sent me a link to the Connecticut Audubon Society’s 2006 report, “State of the Birds: Conserving Birds & Their Habitats.” I read a lot of it but it was too daunting to try to summarize, so I put off blogging about it.

I’m happy to say though that the Hartford Courant seems to have done the job for me:

In a year in which scientists and conservation interests have taken a close look at the status of 290 bird species typically found in Connecticut all or part of the year, the overall picture is mixed, though perhaps more gloomy than encouraging.

To be sure, some species are flourishing. "I hate to just paint everything black; it's not," said Milan G. Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society, which this spring issued its "Connecticut State of the Birds," an assessment of the overall health of bird populations in the state.

Bald eagles have rebounded nicely the past two decades, as have ospreys. Wild turkeys, unseen as recently as the 1960s, are now abundant. Birds comfortable with human habitation, like robins and chickadees, do well. Many hawks are stable or increasing.

But for various reasons other species are suffering, and scientists and conservationists say that ought to be a concern to everyone, not just bird-watchers.

The whole story is worth a read. And here’s the report itself, in PDF form.

A Treatment Plant's Ultraviolet Disinfection System Breaks Down and Westport Beaches Are Closed As A Result

Sewage treatment plants are switching to ultraviolet disinfection of wastewater instead of chlorination because it’s safer. Chlorine is a poison that poses a threat to the workers at the sewage plants and, in residual amounts after it is discharged in wastewater, to organisms in Long Island Sound and its tributaries.

But just as chlorination systems sometime break down, so do ultraviolet disinfection systems. Health officials closed Sherwood Island State Park and Compo Beach in Westport yesterday after a malfunction at a treatment plant on the Saugatuck River.

The area is one of the richest in the Sound for shellfish, which this Stamford Advocate story mentions only in passing. If the beaches were closed, I assume shellfish beds were too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Oyster Bay Said 'Go Away,' So Avalon Says Good Bye

Avalon Bay has formally withdrawn its proposal to build 300 rental units in Oyster Bay, which, considering that Town officials told them two weeks ago that they wouldn’t approve the development, means that if nothing else the Avalon people have the sense to know when they’re licked.

Friends of the Bay had opposed the development from the beginning, fearing that it would damage Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor, which has some interesting and valuable natural resources, including the Frank M. Flower & Sons oyster company, the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and a terrific population of diamondback terrapins.

Here, in part, is what the East Norwich Civic Association and Friends of the Bay said in a press release:

In a July 6th letter from their attorneys, AvalonBay advised the Town of Oyster Bay of their ".formal withdrawal of all aspects of the pending application." in regards to their proposed 'Avalon at Oyster Bay' project. The Town Board is expected to officially accept AvalonBay's withdrawal at an upcoming Board meeting. In a community where 43% of the housing is already rentals, Avalon's application had sought a 300-unit luxury rental complex on a site well outside the Hamlet's downtown, and creation of a brand new zoning category that would establish the basis for other applicable 5-acre sites to be developed at a density of 60 units/acre throughout the entire Town of Oyster Bay, nearly 4 times the Town's maximum density of 16 units/acre (other than senior housing). Avalon's application did not contain a component for senior or next generation housing, or any similar component.

"We are, of course, pleased by AvalonBay's decision," says Kyle Rabin, Friends of the Bay Executive Director and founding member of the Coalition to Stop Avalon. "Avalon's proposed complex would have been the tipping point for the local environment and this community. The project's precedent-setting nature and growth-inducing impacts would have had an adverse cumulative impact on the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Estuary and the surrounding watershed. We applaud Supervisor Venditto and the Town of Oyster Bay for sending such a strong and clear message. With the application off the table, now is an appropriate time to discuss alternative uses for this site in a forum that is respectful to the best interests of the property owner, Island Properties, and the community. As important, this project reinforces the clear need for a true Smart Growth strategy rooted in comprehensive watershed-based planning for the communities surrounding the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor Estuary."

Going to the Beach at Greenwich Point Park? Don't Expect a Warm Welcome

"They don't really want you here," she said, kindly.

With those words a clerk at the Old Greenwich Civic Center summed up the attitude of Greenwich officials, and probably a lot of residents too, toward out-of-towners who have the audacity to want to use Greenwich’s Long Island Sound beaches.

Rick Green, a columnist for the Hartford Courant, decided to follow in the bike tracks of Greenwich’s royal-pain-in-chief (aka Paul Kempner, of Stamford) and ride his bicycle into Greenwich Point Park. His plan was to pedaL past the entrance booth without paying the $10 daily fee, as Kempner has made a point of doing in protest. But when he got to the booth, he chickened out – which was smart. My recollection of working for a newspaper is that editors do not love it when you tangle with the law. But it was smart for another reason too. When Green tried to pay, the booth attendant declined to take his sawbuck.

"You have to go to the civic center, in town," she said. That's a couple of miles back into Old Greenwich to an obscure building where they sell the one-day access passes. How convenient.

His column, published today, continues:

I rode back into town and eventually found the "civic center." A young clerk explained reality to me.

"They used to not let you in if you didn't live here. But then they got sued," she said as I forked over $10 for a small red ticket. No charge for the bike, she said, but it will cost another $20 for a car.

"They don't really want you here," she said, kindly.

Just as Green followed Kempner, Kempner is following Brenden Leydon, the Stamford resident whose lawsuit forced the town to let outsiders in (albeit for a fee paid at an inconvenient location). Kempner has gone to court to get the entrance fee for bicyclists and pedestrians abolished.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On the Sound, Birds are Moving, Dissolved Oxygen is Falling

Anything going on on Long Island Sound lately? Beaches in Westport (and probably elsewhere) were closed last Thursday because of last week’s heavy rains, but they reopened Friday. Today, water temperatures in the Sound range from 70.4 at the surface to 62 near the bottom. Dissolved oxygen concentrations range from good to bad, depending on location and depth.

Here are some mid-morning DO readings from the MYSound gauges (the higher the DO, the better; the lower it gets, the harder it is for marine life to survive):

Execution Rock: 3.8 milligrams per liter (or 48 percent of saturation) at the top; 8.2 (88 percent) 15-feet down; 2.6 (31 percent) at the bottom.

Western Sound: 4 milligrams per liter (51 percent) at the top; 3.8 (48 percent) 15-feet down; no bottom reading.

Norwalk Harbor: 7.2 milligrams per liter (88 percent) at the top, which is the only reading from there.

Central Sound: 4.7 milligrams per liter (62 percent) at the top; 3 (about 40 percent) 15 feet down; 4.8 (61 percent) at the bottom.

And just as summer is settling in, fall bird migration is starting. The Connecticut Bird Report noted that short-billed dowitchers, least sandpipers, greater yellowlegs and lesser yellowlegs have been seen on Sound beaches and marshes over the past couple of days.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Tour the Glass House

The last I’d heard, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was delaying the opening of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in New Canaan, because it had yet to figure out how to handle access for the handicapped. They must have figured something out though because today’s Times reports that the house will be open for tours next spring.

The house is on Ponus Ridge Road, across from Johnson’s Hodgson House, and not far from five or six other knockout moderns. I’ve peered over the wall at it but I haven’t been inside. My wife has, though, twice, and reports that it’s stunning.

Here's Why It's a Bad Idea to Oppose Broadwater Based on Safety Risks

An interesting column in the New Haven Advocate, a weekly, takes on the question of how much of a safety risk Broadwater’s LNG terminal poses. The answer it comes up with, based on recent testimony from a Coast Guard official, is “not much.”

Here’s an excerpt:

If a barge storing eight billion cubic feet of LNG goes up in flames--a highly uncommon scenario--it's a big problem indeed. But it's not the nightmare scenario you might imagine.

Last week, the Coast Guard's Peter Boynton, captain of the port for all of Long Island Sound, set straight an aldermanic committee that was considering a mayoral resolution opposing the barge. In testimony that Alderman Al Paolillo hailed for its relentless objectivity, Boynton explained that LNG is not flammable unless it turns into a gas--and even then, to explode, it must constitute a very specific percentage of air in an enclosed space. In open air, the gas burns rather than explodes.

It does, however, burn like hell. Using the absolute worst-case scenario--an attack on an LNG tanker--the heat radiation from the fire could pose a high hazard to anything within a third of a mile. "That basically means you can't be there," says Boynton. The next zone, up to a mile away, poses a "moderate hazard"--without shelter, you could get second-degree burns. Beyond a mile, the threat is very low.

The barge would be nine miles from Long Island and 10 miles from the nearest point in Connecticut (11 miles from New Haven). "From the perspective of safety, that's an advantage," said Boynton, who would be responsible for enforcing the exclusion zone around the barge and LNG tankers.

An LNG fire, while intense, would also be relatively brief, lasting perhaps an hour. Ignited oil spills, by comparison, can burn for days and befoul the air, while unburned oil can have a catastrophic, decades-long impact on the marine environment. LNG, if spilled in water, simply evaporates. "It does not persist in the environment," said Boynton.

If you really want to worry about safety, Boynton says, worry about the port of New Haven, which has 205 gas and oil tanks, each of which poses a risk of explosion. I think it’s a bad idea to concentrate of the safety issue, and I said so here and here.

The problem with the Advocate’s piece, which was written by Ryan Kearney, is that it continues to argue that the Broadwater terminal is a bad idea. But its argument is amazingly lazy and lame:

There are reasons aplenty to oppose Broadwater's plan, from anger at Bush and Big Energy to concerns for blackfish and Billy the Boater. Terrorism's just not one of them.

That’s not the summary of the argument, by the way. It’s the entire thing. To stop Broadwater, though, we’re going to have to do better than that.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality Says It Is Keeping A Close Eye on Connecticut's Clean Water Funding

Karl Wagener, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality, left a worthwhile comment to my recent post about how his agency’s recent report missed the boat on the important story of the Connecticut Legislature’s decision to stop putting money into the Clean Water Fund. Here are his main points:

We made a deliberate decision years ago to minimize reporting of "paper trends," including the appropriation of funds and the adoption of new laws. We do not ignore such developments, but we think they have the potential to distract readers from actual trends in air, water, land and health. Budgets and legislative activity tend to fluctuate, and one-year events are not as important as long-term efforts, a point we tried to emphasize in the report.

Regarding the funding of the state Clean Water Fund: We are watching this closely. I would not say the legislature made a decision to refuse funds; it was more a case of no action. The prospects for the Sound are good if funding shortfalls are made up in future years. In our report, we identify adequate funding of the state Clean Water Fund as a very important challenge for the coming year. If progress in cleaning up the Sound slows down, please be assured that we will report it, just as we did for other resources covered in the report.

For more complete stories than mine about the report, you can read the work of an old acquaintance (Robert Miller, in the Danbury News Times) and a new acquaintance (David Funkhouser, in the Hartford Courant, who makes note of the funding cuts).

Coast Guard and FERC Await More Information from Broadwater

There hasn’t been much news lately about Broadwater’s plan to put a liquefied natural gas terminal in the middle of Long Island Sound, but that’s probably because Broadwater itself has been slow in getting information to FERC and the U.S. Coast Guard, the two agencies that have to say yes before the terminal is built. Judy Benson, of the New London Day, reports:

Broadwater Energy Inc., which applied for permits in January to park a liquefied natural gas terminal in New York waters 11 miles south of Branford, has been told it must fulfill the requests for additional information before the analysis by federal regulators can proceed. The requests came in a June 14 letter from the Coast Guard, which is conducting a safety and security analysis of the plan, and in a June 20 letter from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will have final say over whether a permit is granted.

Both letters said the agencies were reiterating requests made repeatedly, most recently at a June 6 meeting. The Coast Guard said it first made its request May 5, while FERC said it was making its fourth request since Nov. 23 for the engineering and design information.

The Coast Guard is interested in studying the possibility of a freak shipping accident:

… the Coast Guard asked for an analysis of what would happen if the yoke mooring system that would hold the floating LNG terminal in place were hit by a bulk carrier or tanker weighing 90,000 tons. While such an event is unlikely, he said, the Coast Guard wants to ensure that proper backup systems are in place if the terminal were to break free of the yoke mooring.

Except for Broadwater’s delay in getting the information, the Coast Guard’s report would have been finished already; and FERC is holding up the release of the project’s environmental impact statement because of the delay.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Diamondback Terrapins in Rye and in Oyster Bay

I cut out of work early on Friday to drive to Marshlands Conservancy, in Rye, where I and several others were to meet Matt Draud, a biologist at LIU/C.W. Post, and a colleague of his named Barbara. Matt has been studying diamondback terrapins in Oyster Bay for almost a decade and, because terrapins occasionally show up at Marshlands, Alison Beall, Marshlands’ curator, invited Matt and Barbara over to hear their opinion of the preserve as terrapin nesting habitat. It was about 4 p.m. and marsh wrens were singing. Snowy egrets and great egrets were foraging, and Alison said a yellow-crowned night heron had been there as well, although it was gone by the time we arrived. Mosquitoes swarmed us and in particular zoned in on Matt, who was wearing khaki cargo shorts and flip-flops and who stepped into the shallows up to his knees to seek relief.

We walked along the shore and the edge of the marsh looking for terrapin habitat. Matt gestured toward the flats of Spartina patens.

He said, “If they’re nesting near here, that’s going to be chock full of baby turtles right now, and when I say baby, I mean one to four years.”

Alison said she occasionally sees terrapins swimming in the creeks, and Matt said that’s the best way to find them – paddle about in a canoe or small boat, in April and May, and look for their heads above the water. They’ll venture into Long Island Sound proper, but the Sound, with a salinity that can range as high as 32 parts per thousand, is too salty. They like tidal creeks with a steady flow of fresh water. Eleven parts per thousand is ideal.

Matt and Barbara, who is an adjunct professor at C.W. Post but whose last name I didn’t catch, poked around along the preserve’s beaches. They dug with their hands in a couple of spots, but judged that it did not seem sandy enough for nesting; and the places where the sand seemed right were below the storm tide line, which is a risky place for terrapin nests.

But, Matt said, the absence of prime nesting areas at Marshlands does not mean there are no terrapins. Other parts of Milton Harbor, as well as the embayments near by, might have good nesting habitat. In Oyster Bay, he has tracked terrapins nesting as far as two and a half miles from their marshes and creeks.

Matt said he came to C.W. Post as a fisheries biologist but chose to concentrate on diamondback terrapins when he realized that not much research had been done on them. In his years on Oyster Bay, he has marked and tracked 800 terrapins and, because the females return to the same beaches year after year, he knows where most of them nest. Yet who knows what portion of the population 800 terrapins represents. Not long ago, he caught 102 terrapins of various sizes and ages in one pull of a net. And although he has marked hundreds over the years, there were still a lot of turtles in the net he did not know.
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