State lacks strategy to protect Long Island Sound

If Connecticut were to receive another proposal for a long pipeline across Long Island Sound as it did in the early 2000s, it still wouldn't be able to respond quickly or strategically because it doesn't have a full inventory of resources and uses of the Sound or a preservation plan.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts have each passed legislation to create an "ocean plan," but Connecticut's legislature failed to pass similar legislation this year.

The legislation would have required the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to coordinate an inventory of Long Island Sound's resources and uses - such as commercial fishing and recreational boating - and develop a plan to protect the Sound. Supporters said the creation of a comprehensive map of the sea floor that is available to the public could save companies money as they apply to lay gas pipelines or telecommunications cables in the Sound and save DEEP money as it evaluates applications.

DEEP reviews applications on a case-by-case-basis, which can result in lengthy application processes and lawsuits.

In the early 2000s, Islander East Pipeline Co., which was formed by Spectra Energy Corp. and KeySpan Corp., proposed building a 50-mile, natural gas pipeline across Long Island Sound. Several years later, Connecticut officials rejected the proposal because of concerns about harming oyster beds near the Thimble Islands in Branford. The company appealed the state's decision several times and the case went to federal court. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the company's appeal.

"By having that kind of a plan, that kind of mapping, we could say to - for example in the Islander East situation - say ahead of time, well we know that there are important shellfish resources in that area of Branford, you would be best to avoid that area but perhaps you could look over here where our mapping indicates that there are fewer potential impacts," said Brian Thompson, director of DEEP's Office of Long Island Sound Programs.

David Sutherland, government relations director for The Nature Conservancy, supported the bill and said it would have given DEEP the authority to get as complete a picture as possible and identify which areas could be problematic.

"If we were going to run a transmission line for electricity ... where would be the best place to run that cable?" Sutherland said. "We don't want it to zigzag all over the place, but we might be able to avoid sensitive areas."

The state Senate passed the legislation at the end of April but the House of Representatives didn't call up the bill.

"It was one of our important environment bills, but it got caught up in, unfortunately, a long filibuster by Republicans," said state Rep. Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, said the bill had a lot of support.

"I imagine it could sail through next year," Wright said.

Groups are mapping parts of the Sound.

The Long Island Sound Cable Fund Steering Committee, which includes representatives from Connecticut's DEEP, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation and Sea Grant programs in both states, has planned to map the central part of the Sound in the Stratford Shoal area south of Bridgeport, the eastern part of the Sound, which is the area between Fishers Island and Long Island, and the western part of the Sound near Stamford, said Ivar G. Babb, director of the Northeast Underwater Research Technology and Education Center at University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus.

Connecticut's Sea Grant College Program is a partnership between UConn and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

UConn leads one of three teams that use sophisticated sonar technology to map the Sound. They use a multi-beam sonar device that records the depth of the sea floor by measuring how long it takes for sound to hit the sea floor and be reflected back, Babb said. The device also measures the type of ground at the bottom of the Sound, mud versus rocks, by measuring how much sound is absorbed versus reflected. The team also collects samples from the sea floor such as mud and sand and uses high-definition video to determine the biodiversity of the animals in a particular region, he said. The data is inputted into a computer program that creates three-dimensional maps that can be laid on top of one another to create a full picture of the sea floor.

The failed legislation that would have required DEEP to create a plan for preserving the Sound didn't include additional funding. Completion of the inventory and plan would depend on available resources, according to the bill. Thompson said that DEEP would be able to use existing staff to coordinate the work, but to complete the plan, the agency would likely require additional resources.

The groups involved in the three-section study of the Sound have access to about $6 million from a 2004 agreement between the state and the Cross Sound Cable Company LLC. In 2003, the use of the company's 24-mile long electric transmission cable across the Sound faced opposition from DEEP and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal because they said it was not laid deep enough in sections of New Haven Harbor. In 2004, a settlement was reached that involved removing leaky utility cables and installing environmentally improved cables along with setting up the $6 million fund for research and restoration projects in the Sound.

Babb said he supported the legislation and that his group was willing to work with DEEP on the mapping and planning to preserve the Sound.

"We are hoping to be able to do these three major areas with the funding that is available, but it's not the entire Sound," Babb said.

j.somers@theday.com

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