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Soundkeeper Fights Polluters in the Sound

NORWALK, Conn. — During his 25-year battle to clean up the sewage ravaged waters of Long Island Sound — and fight its polluters — Connecticut Soundkeeper Terry Backer's beard has literally turned white, as has the hair tucked under his seaman's cap.

Whether Backer is in his small Edgewater Place office near Norwalk Harbor, or his Jefferson Street home at the Sound's Russian Beach in Stratford, this seventh-generation oysterman looks every bit the crusty 57-year-old New England fisherman fighting to save the sea from pollution.

"As I've gotten older I suppose I look more and more like I fit the job title," said a smiling Backer, who has often taken his fight to the courts, state legislature and federal government. Alongside him have been some of the nation's most influential environmentalists — such as Robert Kennedy Jr. — battling to clean up the water along the Connecticut and New York coasts.

May to October is the busy time, when Backer and his small staff oversee a fleet of boats in an effort to rid the Sound of potential raw sewage from the private and commercial vessels in the waters.

"Doing whatever it takes to make these waters cleaner has been my life's work," said Backer, a Democrat who has also served in the state legislature as a representative from Stratford for more than a decade.

"I've learned that whatever progress we've made, making the Sound cleaner and ensuring we don't slip back is in an endless job," Backer said. He cited a study released last week that says it will take $6 billion in improvements to wastewater plants that discharge toxic materials into the Sound and nearby rivers — along with increased public support — to improve water quality over the next decade

"It takes constant vigilance by numerous watchdog groups and the fight never stops," he said.

Backer has been waging another fight since October, when he had surgery to remove two brain tumors. And while he undergoes chemotherapy and radiation therapy, Backer is taking part in lawsuits against towns and cities in Connecticut and New York to force compliance with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.

Backer's Soundkeeper group was established in 1987 after he successfully sued several Connecticut cities for sewage treatment plant violations. With $87,000 awarded in a court settlement he initiated against the city of Norwalk, Backer created the nonprofit Soundkeeper Fund Inc., which includes a 10-member board of directors.

Backer and the group then launched a vigorous campaign against the most notorious polluters — sewage treatment plants, companies and municipalities that had been dumping raw sewage into the Sound's waters for years.

Using a model created by the successful Hudson Riverkeeper program established in the 1980s by Kennedy – who is now president of Waterkeeper Alliance based in Westchester County — much of Backer's work has involved bringing lawsuits against municipalities such as New York City, Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk, Westport and Stamford.

Those lawsuits resulted in legal settlements requiring upgrades to aging sewage treatment plants, some of which were built in the 1930s.

Some critics have called Backer an opportunist and labeled him "an environmental bounty hunter," alleging he and his group have profited from numerous lawsuits by creating work to clean up the pollution. Some also believe Backer's dual role as soundkeeper and state representative is a conflict of interest.

But Kennedy, son of slain New York senator and 1968 presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, said, "The label of environmental bounty hunter is something Terry Backer should be proud of. The only thing is, there's not much of a bounty to collect."

As soundkeeper, Backer earns about $110,000 a year, in addition to about $30,000 he receives as a state representative.

"Terry has waged a relentless environmental campaign in Connecticut," Kennedy said in a recent phone interview. "I have worked closely with Terry, who has been involved in some of the most important environmental cases in history, such as stopping the garbage from going into the East River and Long Island Sound. He has also helped start waterkeeper and soundkeeper programs around the world, including in rural villages in India and Russia.”

With a lack of enforcement by Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Kennedy said Backer helped fill the "enormous void" created when government failed to take action. "Terry was the plaintiff in the initial lawsuits that brought about significant penalties against the plants and municipalities that were illegally dumping waste into the Sound."

The latest lawsuit was filed by a coalition of environmental groups in May 2010 – including Connecticut Soundkeeper – against Westchester County for allegedly issuing permits for municipal storm water systems that don't comply with current clean water standards.

"Even after all the legal actions we've won to modernize water treatment plants, here we have Westchester County issuing permits to plants not adhering to current federal regulations," said Backer, who grew up in Norwalk and has never strayed far from the sea. "Sometimes the only way to stop the polluters is through the courts."

This is the first of a two-part series. On Wednesday, read about the programs Backer has helped initiate to clean up Long Island Sound in Connecticut – including a Norwalk program that uses filters to prevent toxic storm water runoff into the water.

Speak out below: Do you think Long Island Sound is clean enough?

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