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Soundkeeper's Filters Make a Difference in Norwalk

NORWALK, Conn. – Terry Backer is never more animated than when describing what it was like when he started his crusade to make Long Island Sound a cleaner waterway more than two decades ago.

"Massive barges of human waste would routinely go floating by," Backer, Connecticut's Long Island Soundkeeper, said during an interview while walking along Russian Beach where he lives in Stratford. "But our campaign to ensure compliance of federal and state regulations by polluters like towns and cities that allowed faulty sewer treatment plants to dump incredible amounts of toxic materials into the waters has made a big difference."

State, local and national advocates for the environment agree. But Backer concedes there's more work to be done that "won't be finished in my lifetime."

A combination of local, state and federal programs – including some administered by the Norwalk-based nonprofit Soundkeeper Fund Inc. that Backer formed in 1987 – has made Connecticut's coastal waters cleaner, officials said.

Backer has filed lawsuits and negotiated multimillion-dollar settlements with cities, including Bridgeport, New Haven and New York, and has traveled the world to start similar programs in rural India, Russia and Third World countries.

But a big part of Backer's job is local. One effort is a pilot program started in Norwalk in 2004 in which special "ultra-urban" filters were inserted in more than 300 city catch basins to capture pollutants such as oil, animal feces, plastic and bacteria that otherwise would flow into Norwalk Harbor in runoff.

The $500,000 program — started with a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a cooperative effort among the city of Norwalk, state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Soundkeeper Fund – has been even more successful than city officials had hoped.

It has also served as a test site for AbTech Industries Inc. of Arizona, which designed and used the filters on the West Coast but was eager to determine whether they would be effective in cold weather.

"We got the answer to that. They work extremely well to filter out toxins from storm water runoff here," said Norwalk Public Works Director Harold Alvord. "Our results show that in the test area in South Norwalk the filters reduced pollutants by 95 [percent] to 98 percent compared with a control group area nearby where the filters were not used."

Backer was "the key to bringing all the parties together to make the program possible," Alvord said.

Kurt Johnson, senior attorney and program director for the nonprofit Save the Sound and Connecticut Fund for the Environment in New Haven, agreed that storm water runoff is now the Sound's biggest pollution problem. He also said Backer's contributions to reducing that pollution have been considerable.

"Terry (Backer) has been an incredible advocate and has had a very significant impact on making the Sound cleaner," said Johnson. "No one has devoted more time and energy to cleaning the Sound."

But echoing the sentiments of Alvord and Backer, Johnson said one of the biggest challenges is stopping water runoff and littering.

"What has shocked us is how many plastic bags are ending up in the Sound," said Johnson. "Our volunteers picked up 14,000 bags over the past two years, and that means there are hundreds of thousands of them actually out there. It's a huge problem, and we need to make this a top priority."

Removing potential sewage from May to October from private boats is also among the Soundkeeper's biggest priorities. The "Pump-Out" program, in which Soundkeeper vessels pump out sewage from recreational boats at marinas from City Island to Westport, prevents tons of raw sewage from being dumped into the Sound. "I like to say we pump out to keep the poop out," Backer said.

Soundkeeper vessels are equipped to transport sewage to water treatment plants. Backer said about 3,000 private boats participate in the free program, which he estimated transports more than 2,000 tanks of sewage annually to water treatment plants.

"It has a big impact. One recreational vessel releasing sewage has a bigger impact than a municipality of 10,000 people because the waste and its bacteria rapidly multiply when dumped from a private boat directly into the water," Backer said.

Backer said the program is made possible with a U.S. Fish & Wildlife contract administered by the state DEEP. The $140,000 annual program is 75 percent federally funded.

Looking ahead, Backer said he intends to start training someone to take over his job. "I won't be around forever," said Backer, 57. "But the work must go on forever.

"Here in Connecticut, we don't have the Grand Canyon. We don't have Yosemite National Park. But our treasure is Long Island Sound, and we have to keep working to make it so clean ... that someday no one will ever remember it was polluted."

To sign up for the Pump-Out program, go to www.soundkeeper.org .

Do you believe Long Island Sound is cleaner today than it was 25 years ago? Tell us about the Sound in a comment below.

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