No Dumping

Posted on 26. Oct, 2011 by in Features

Larry Smith turned the bow of his weathered, flat-bottomed skiff toward the Long Island Sound. More than forty other sailboats, motorboats, and kayaks were moving with him. July 10 was the kind of bright summer Sunday when sunlight shocks the seascape into a series of horizons from deck to sky. Before they reached the chop and swell of New Haven Harbor, the boats turned back across the shallower, calmer waters of Morris Cove. They swung close to the Pardee seawall, where more than a hundred protestors waved signs printed in crisp, simple black letters. They read, “No toxic sludge here!” and “Don’t dump in Morris Cove!” A kayaker flew the Jolly Roger off his stern, and hand-drawn “No Dumping” banners draped the flanks of many of the boats. Onshore, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., mugged for the press with a child from Morris Cove who wore a blue crab costume. U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro stood nearby, her back to the seawall, using a megaphone to express her support for the protestors in their fight against the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to dump contaminated material in the cove.

A tug in the New Haven Harbor.

A tug beside a pier in the New Haven Harbor.

The flotilla circumnavigated the cove twice, passing the soft gray beach, the seawall, the canted auburn cliffs, and then the sound’s great blue expanse. The boats ran along the outermost moorings of the New Haven Yacht Club, really more of a working man’s boating cooperative, where Smith is a senior member, and floated through where the sailors and their children swim. Their keels traced a sea-floor anomaly that the boaters could not see, a rectangular trench 2,450 by 650 feet, where the cove floor sinks more than a fathom below its surrounding bed. The edge of the trench is less than five hundred feet from shore. Decades earlier, Morris Cove had given a strip of its gravel and sand sea floor to the construction of Interstate 95, leaving a depression, or borrow pit, beneath its waters. And in February 2010, the Army Corps announced its intention to fill the borrow pit with toxic debris.

Smith and fellow Morris Cover Ben Northrup organized the floating protest, entreating neighbors and up-river yacht club members to bring their voices and their vessels. The boating community rallied, filling the cove on that midsummer day with members of more than five other boating clubs. These boaters, and Smith, felt that storing contaminated sludge in the inlet just didn’t make sense—not when they had been watching New Haven Harbor begin to get clean again, the fish return, and the cove’s waters brighten and clear.

The dumping in Morris Cove that Smith and his neighbors are fighting is a crucial component of the Army Corps’s plan for dredging Bridgeport’s shipping channels. The Army Corps proposes relocating 197,000 cubic yards of toxic mud to Morris Cove. The waste would travel the twenty-five miles by barge, descend in a plume into the pit, and then spend the next nine months settling into its new home. At that point the Corps would return to cap the refuse with a Confined Aquatic Disposal (CAD) cell seal, a scab of clean material. The entire $42 million project would generate ten times as much waste as would be stored in Morris Cove, but the rest would go into a new CAD cell in Bridgeport Harbor, with the material rated “suitable for open water disposal” released at a designated site in the sound.

The waste to be stored in Morris Cove contains high concentrations of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dangerous heavy metals. The metals can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal damage, but it is the PCBs that rile the Covers. These well-known carcinogens were banned in materials produced after 1979, but because they do not break down, PCBs leak from old waste and tend to accumulate in fish and sediment. The Army Corps has used CAD cell technology intended to contain these urban and industrial pollutants in other New England harbors. Boston, Norwich, and New London all have cells installed by the Army Corps, which is obligated to maintain federal navigation channels at the request of port agencies. When the Bridgeport Port Authority pushed for a dredging plan, they likely didn’t have the use of Morris Cove in mind.

Last fall, the protesters gathered 2,200 signatures for a petition against the dumping proposal, hoping to put pressure on public officials before the midterm election. By October 30, 2010, they had won the public support of DeStefano, DeLauro, and then-gubernatorial candidate Dannel Malloy, who all showed up to that Saturday’s shore-bound protest. But while Malloy condemned the Morris Cove disposal, he emphasized that he also thought dredging in Bridgeport was important for the state’s economy.

The Army Corps’s case for dumping in Morris Cove is threefold. First, it saves Bridgeport and the federal government millions of dollars. Second, it fills an unnatural hole that has very little biological activity. Third, the new CAD cell would create twenty-four more acres of oyster habitat in Morris Cove. The Covers, on the other hand, fear the pollution of their cove and their backyards. But more important, they worry that the Corps doesn’t entirely know what it is doing.

At the time of Christ’s birth, the largest city in the world after Rome was Ephesus, home to the Temple of Artemis. One thousand years later, Ephesus had become a small village, rendered insignificant to the world by the silting of its harbor. Contemporary Bridgeport is struggling with what could be its own demise by dirt.

Bridgeport is one of Connecticut’s three deep-sea ports (New Haven and New London are the other two), and its location at a nexus of highways and railroad lines makes it a desirable shipping destination. But Bridgeport Harbor has not been dredged since 1964, and when navigation channels grow too shallow, the large shipping vessels that bring petroleum and other goods must unload their cargo offshore. Many companies move on to new destination ports. Turbana, the banana importer, left Bridgeport for Philadelphia in 2008.

Bridgeport’s unemployment rate has been rising—it was around 13 percent this fall—and the city has passed anti-blight ordinances to prohibit the accumulation of debris like tires or abandoned cars on private property. While the city’s economic problems have other causes besides stagnant shipping, the restoration of old trade patterns and the construction of new might help the city achieve recovery.

The Panama Canal is currently in the middle of an expansion—its first ever—that is scheduled to be completed in three years. The canal is adding a new lane of traffic and locks on both its Atlantic and Pacific sides. The expansion could increase the number of massive shipping tankers passing from Asia to the eastern United States by 30 percent and would also admit tankers twice to three times as large as those that can currently pass through.

Water-born freight in the eastern United States will increase dramatically over the next ten years, says Judi Sheiffele, executive director of the New Haven Port Authority. “The trucks won’t be on I-95, they’ll come by water,” she says. Sheiffele predicts that a few ports, perhaps Virginia’s Norfolk, whose channels are fifty feet deep, and the New York and Newark harbor, where the Army Corps is in the middle of a major dredging project, will become hubs in a new marine highway system. Connecticut’s ports, however, aren’t in any condition to take advantage of the increase in maritime activity.

Traffic in all three of Connecticut’s deepwater ports—Bridgeport, New Haven, and New London—has decreased by 30 percent in recent years, largely as a result of siltification. Connecticut’s maritime industry generates $2.7 billion in economic activity every year and supports thirty thousand jobs. The decline of these harbors hurts the health of the state, not just individual cities.

At the end of September, the state of Connecticut began searching for a consultant to evaluate its current markets and transportation infrastructure and to strategize how it can best prepare for the expansion. Upon his election, Malloy proposed allocating fifty million dollars to the revitalization of the ports, but for now each port will have to work individually to improve its infrastructure. Part of the difficulty of re-establishing the ports is the absence of a governing body in charge of the state’s waterfront.

The New Haven Port Authority shares Morris Cove residents’ worry that the Army Corps’s plan puts Bridgeport’s interests ahead of New Haven’s. New Haven Harbor is due for its own decennial maintenance dredging, and the borrow pit may be needed for the city’s own dirt. Sheiffele says that New Haven’s dredge material is much less toxic than Bridgeport’s and has been deemed suitable for open water disposal. In a letter to the Army Corps last April, Sheiffele wrote that the current plan to use the Morris Cove borrow pit for Bridgeport’s waste could increase the cost of New Haven’s planned maintenance dredge. Rights to use the pit are particularly important in light of the imminent closing of the Central Long Island dump site, the open-water disposal location previously used by New Haven, scheduled for 2013.

The current Bridgeport plan is estimated to cost $42.1 million. The alternative, which would require building a second CAD cell in Bridgeport harbor, would cost $7.6 million more. The money comes straight from Congress, with the exception of a percentage that the Bridgeport Port Authority will have to raise itself. Use of the Morris Cove borrow pit would put two million dollars less stress on that organization (which has its own financial woes). As it states in its draft proposal, the Army Corps must find the least expensive, environmentally acceptable disposal option. And the Corps does make a case for the CAD cell improving the marine environment in Morris Cove.

The Army Corps classifies the Morris Cove dumping as a “beneficial use” disposal option. Project manager Michael Keegan argues that raising the sea floor (though pit won’t be filled entirely) would create twenty-four more acres of oyster habitat and end the seasonal formation of an oxygen-poor environment within the pit, which can hurt marine life.

Environmental advocates would prefer that neither the Morris Cove CAD cell nor a second Bridgeport CAD cell were built. The best place to move the mud would be inland, says Louis Burch, the Connecticut program coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit organization with eighty thousand members in New York and Connecticut. Yet this alternative, which would require constructing a treatment facility to clean the contaminated waste, would make the project fourteen times as expensive. Burch also likes the idea of using the material productively. The Army Corps is using some of New York’s dredging waste to restore marsh islands in Jamaica Bay off Brooklyn and Queens. Many alternatives to dumping may never be explored because of their cost. The Army Corps’s draft environmental assessment examines using the sludge to construct islands, blending it into cement, and turning the waste into landscaping soil after treatment, and they are all too expensive.

Barbara Blumeris, a planner for the Army Corps, is frustrated. “It’s just a hole,” she says. Blumeris and Keegan haven’t yet finished presenting their proposal to the residents of Morris Cove, but their audience refuses to cooperate. It is April 2010, and at the first of two required public hearings, the Covers have arrived with angry posters and pointed questions. Claudia Bosch, a Cover since 2003, has armed her daughter for the hearing with a sign nearly as large as the five-year-old that reads “No Toxic Carcinogenic Sludge in Morris Cove!”

A few weeks earlier, Bosch, a stay-at-home mom, took a call from a friend in her small, bright house on Townsend Avenue, two blocks from the ocean. Ward 18 Alderman Alyne Depino was going door-to-door, Bosch’s friend said, asking neighbors to attend a public hearing about a waste disposal project in the cove.

“Initially, I did not want to go,” Bosch says. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be all right.’” But then she read the proposal online. Bosch was alarmed not only by the long list of toxins in the sludge and the nine-month period for which it would lie uncovered, but also by the way the writers of the document seemed unaware of important details about Morris Cove. Though Morris Cove is in New Haven, it shares a zip code with East Haven, she explained, and the Army Corps’s proposal used East Haven demographic data. “When you don’t get right which community is where,” she wondered, “what else are you not getting right?”

She began trawling for more information online. First she pulled all the surveys and data related to the Bridgeport project. She found a chart with a skull printed by the materials to be placed in open water. “I just had to chuckle,” she says. She felt that if the waste deemed suitable for open water disposal got a single skull, the Morris Cove mud should get three. She found the Army Corps’s report on its use of Morris Cove’s pit for the disposal of materials from a comparatively small New Haven Coast Guard Station dredging in 2000. The report concludes, “It is recommended that the borrow pit continue to be used for the placement of small to moderate volumes of sediment deemed suitable for unconfined open water disposal.” Bosch sees the current plan as a reversal. “Now it’s the placement of a large volume of sediment deemed unsuitable and the question is, what made you change that?” she says, raising her voice. “When you haven’t even done your homework!”

That study also reveals that midwinter ice and high winds delayed the completion of the dumping from the Coast Guard station, suggesting that future contaminated waste may have to sit uncapped longer than anticipated. The Army Corps would have to abandon Morris Cove work in February, whether the dumping had been completed or not, because the cove is one of few places where the winter flounder spawns. If weather interferes with transport between Bridgeport and New Haven and the dumping is postponed, the waste may remain uncapped for another season in addition to the required nine-month settling period.

Bosch eventually collected reports on CAD cell use from as far afield as Rotterdam, yet of all the data she found, her favorite statistic is one provided by the Army Corps itself. During the nine-month settling period at least one percent of the contaminants will remain suspended in the water surrounding the waste deposit, even in the best-case scenario. Bosch worried about that one percent. Her children swim in that water.

At the April meeting, she and the other Covers ask Keegan and Blumeris: would the Army Corps inadvertently poison them? The Army Corps’s representatives answer as best they can, referring to their slides once more. The meeting ends. The Covers are left feeling uneasy and angry. But they know a second public hearing is still to come.

A year and a half later, Bosch explains her reaction to that night and the moment when Blumeris muttered, “It’s just a hole.” Bosch says, “That attitude, ‘We know how nature works, we have everything under control,’—that makes me very uneasy.” She speaks more quietly than normal, feeling her way through her thoughts. That confidence, which she calls “arrogance,” reminds her of the disastrous failure of the levees in New Orleans six years ago.

“We have everything under control because we did those little studies in the laboratory,” she says ironically.

Five months after the April meeting, Bosch’s friend and neighbor Ben Northrup asked her to drive to Bridgeport with him for that city’s public meeting with the Army Corps. It would be a tedious way to spend an evening, but it would prove they were serious, Northrup thought. So he and Bosch sat in a University of Bridgeport recital hall and watched the same presentation from a half a year earlier. The Army Corps had not revised it to address contaminant infiltration in Morris Cove. Afterward, Bosch approached Keegan and asked when the second required public hearing would take place. Keegan told her it just had.

Bosch decided then that she had been participating only in the illusion of public discourse. She says she saw that the Corps was fully committed to the Morris Cove version of the dredging plan and was not prepared to make changes in response to the citizens’ views. More force than a few pointed questions would be needed to stop the dumping. That was when the organization New Haven Protecting Our Water!, or NHPOWer!, was born.

“When I came home the same night I knew we had to do something—I started mobilizing friends,” Bosch says. Their first goal was to convince the Army Corps to return to the Cove for a proper hearing.

The Army Corps came back to New Haven in late October, armed with a slideshow to explain their reasoning to the 120 residents in attendance. The explanation of why PCBs wouldn’t contaminate the cove consisted of a single bullet point: “- contaminants largely remain on sediment.” The Army Corps presented a series of graphs illustrating how Bridgeport’s levels of PCBs were much lower than those of many other New England ports. The graphs also showed that Bridgeport’s harbor has a concentration of the toxic particles that, between 100 and 560 particles per billion, is three times as high as New Haven’s (which is less than 190 ppb) and is highly contaminated (fish sold over state lines aren’t allowed to have a concentration higher than 2 ppb).

Toward the end of his presentation, Keegan pulled up a two-tone graphic. It showed a house, a slope, the water line, and a trench, and, swooping down under them, an arrow, curled like the top half of a re-curved bow, to represent the downward flow of water into Morris Cove. No land infiltration of the toxic waste would occur, the Corps explained, because of gravity. “It’s a matter of physics… Water doesn’t flow uphill,” Keegan explains a year later. Bosch thought the image might make sense for Nathan Hale School, a mile up from the Cove on Forbes bluff, where the meeting was being held. But the houses in her neighborhood, down the hill, all collect sand in their backyards, and the residents use sump pumps to keep basements dry during heavy rains.

As Bosch recalls, the engineers dropped lead into a container of water to show that it would settle to the bottom. “Then a Cover asked, ‘Are you aware that your model might not be the reality here? Because there is the seawall.’” Seawalls reflect the energy of waves back into the sea, meaning each tide shifts more sediment.

“Which wall?” Barbara Blumeris asked in response. The Morris Cove residents were stunned. They felt as if they’d fallen off the map of sensible procedure. Some Covers laughed—had the engineers ever even visited the site? they wondered.

Bosch decided that they hadn’t. Indeed, the Army Corps’s 154-page assessment does not mention the seawall. The entire document addresses Morris Cove very little. A single sentence classifies the water quality of the cove as severely polluted, contradicting another Army Corps study from 2000 that states the cove is far cleaner than Bridgeport Harbor.

That was that. The Army Corps of Engineers, Bosch and NHPOWer! concluded, could not be trusted.

“What about a vigilante midnight hole-filling party?” A few people laugh, but the woman who spoke sounds maybe a bit too enthusiastic. Someone else suggests, sarcastically, inviting the Army Corps to an oyster bake with the CAD cell shellfish.

The eight attendees of a NHPOWer! meeting October 4 sit above the Morris Cove fire station’s garage, facing Bosch and Northrup, the group’s acting heads. The group is planning its next steps.

Last fall, NHPOWer! won both media and political attention. Bosch jokes that the only elected official whose support they’ve yet to win is President Barack Obama. But these pledges of support have yet to produce any new law that would block the Army Corps. Members of NHPOWer! fear that budgetary constraints may make these politicians’ promises brittle. Besides, it isn’t elected officials, but the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP, that will approve or reject the Army Corps’s plans.

The Army Corps only needs two things before proceeding with the dredging and disposal: funding from Congress and approval from DEEP. Funding, Keegan says, is two years away at best. Between the fiscal years of 2010 and 2012, the Army Corps’ overall budget will decrease by more than $900 million. Keegan does not seem concerned about receiving DEEP approval. The Army Corps and DEEP often work together, and state representatives attended the informational meetings. Sheiffele, though, is not as confident. DEEP remained silent as controversy built over the last year and a half, and she is inclined to think the department might ask the Army Corps to revise its plan.

“The only thing hard to gauge is how much latitude the Army Corps has,” Larry Smith, who is attending the meeting, concludes.

Bosch refuses to rely on last year’s good faith, particularly in light of the project’s delay. The residents have been relying on shock appeal to galvanize the surrounding community. Some members of NHPOWer! are concerned about losing popular following. “Their hope is that in a few years enough of us will forget so they can slip it through,” Northrup says of the Army Corps. By the end of the meeting, the residents have resolved to begin letter-writing campaigns to both this year’s incoming aldermen and Senators Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal.

Morris Cover Robert Castiglione had spoken up early in the meeting. That morning he’d watched, through binoculars, a large boat dragging a flat plate through the water and periodically raising and rinsing it for three hours in the section of cove facing his house.

Keegan explains that the Army Corps is conducting additional research into water current velocities, salinity, and quality within the pit, as measured by platforms installed in the cove bed for sixty days, because the public wants more information—not because the Army Corps feels any more is needed. “All of our data tells us there is no impact at all,” Keegan says. But he emphasizes that the engineers will evaluate the additional information. “I wouldn’t have done the surveys if I didn’t have an open mind,” he says. Even if Keegan has an open mind, it’s hard to imagine what could swing the Army Corps’s financially loaded decision.

It’s clear that the Army Corps is focused on minimizing its expenses. Keegan has never hidden that. The goals of NHPOWer!’s are even more transparent. But it’s not obvious how influence and legal authority will combine to determine whether the disposal goes through. So far, the conflict has consisted largely of drawing lines and recruiting troops. For now, the Morris Cove residents can only continue consolidating support among residents and elected officials.

Autumn on Morris Cove means it’s time to raise the sailboats out of the water and put them up on blocks. Only a few weeks remain until the oystermen arrive to harvest the bottom feeders. Kids bike up and down the sidewalks, rolling over pressed, wet leaves.

It’s October once more. Larry Smith circles the borrow pit in an 18-foot skiff. The air smells of healthy brine, the sea is calm, and the cove’s sailboats point their noses into a soft, dusk breeze. The engine is cut, and high pings mark the sound of halyards slapping the vessel’s metal masts. The hole stretches nearly a half-mile, centered under an imaginary line that runs from an outcropping on the southern edge of the cove to the auburn cliffs beneath Fort Nathan Hale. Smith can’t see it below the dark surface of the sea.

An airhorn wails from a few moorings away, and the skiff motors over to pick up two sailors and ferry them back to the dock. They look like Smith: sun-tanned and white-haired, of an age to have spent Vietnam avoiding the draft by service in the Peace Corps and then teaching in the New York City public school system, as Smith did. Smith then spent his career teaching special-needs students at their homes. The sailors’ faded jeans and dull white shirts match the worn shades of the cove and its boat hulls. Smith explains that he was checking out the hole and they tease him about his determination to keep the damn thing clean.

The moorings extend right up to the edge of the hole. “One member swears he’s in the pit every year,” Smith says. The man is convinced that his anchor drags in the pit and, Smith concedes, “He might be right.” Smith is sure that the resistance to the dumping plan won’t weaken, as the most vehement protestors live and sail from this spot. It was Nick Proctor, another senior club member, whose daughter first wore the Morris Cove protests’ blue crab costume five years ago for Halloween. Smith explains that the shock that all local boaters feel, Covers or not, when they hear the proposal, stems from their relationships with the waters they sail. They have all watched the Long Island Sound grow cleaner over the last two decades. “It doesn’t feel spiritually right to fill the pit with contaminants when the trend has been to improve,” he says.

Much of the fervor with which citizens have reacted to the plan to dump Bridgeport’s waste in the cove is powered by those feelings. Smith explains that people react primally, territorially, to the plan. Residents think things like, “‘They’re going to dump their shit in my harbor? No way!’” He gazes across the flat grey plain of sleeping sea and sky. The Army Corps engineers, Smith says, “don’t have any poetry.”

When the sun sets today, it is a slow, hazy descent. One of the houses a few rows back from the cove has been home to Robert Castiglione for more than sixty years. Castiglione is firmly opposed to the Army Corps’ disposal plan. “Not in my backyard,” he says emphatically.
Castiglione is no less self-interested than the other actors in this underwater drama. Keegan wants to finish the job, Bridgeport wants increased shipping access, and elected officials want to be re-elected. Though money and influence motivate them, they’re ultimately limited by the natural environment, which always has tended to resist the control of sailors and engineers alike.

Smith circles it in his skiff. The Army Corps proposal turns on it. So now do the lives of the other Covers.

There is a hole in Morris Cove.

Photography: Harry Simperingham

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