GREENWICH — Advocates and supporters of a healthy Long Island Sound gathered near the beach in Greenwich Thursday to plead for a waterway they fear is at risk under President Donald Trump’s administration.
Nearly 50 people, including local politicians from lower Fairfield County and environmental experts, met with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy to ask that he continue to push for funding and environmental supports to the coastline despite a proposed federal budget that cuts money to the Environmental Protection Agency by about one-third and eliminates money to improve the Sound.
Murphy, calling Long Island Sound “an unbelievable economic engine” and a $5 billion asset between the fishing, aquaculture, boating and tourism industry, said he has made it his mission to protect it.
“This is a quality of life issue first and foremost. It’s why people come to Connecticut. They want to be next to the water. They want to enjoy all of this benefit,” he said, standing in the Bruce Museum’s Seaside Center at Greenwich Point.
Murphy heavily criticized Trump’s proposed funding decrease for the EPA and its programs, particularly elimination of the Long Island Sound fund, a cleanup and habitat and ecology restoration program, and other geographic programs that allocate about $4 million a year to states like Connecticut.
“Those funds are always under threat because they do tend to accrue to a small number of states and there’s always a battle over whether they will remain in the budget,” Murphy said. “They’re under much greater threat today because we have a president who does not believe in environmental protection and ecological restoration and seems to have zeroed in on some of the specific programs that help keep the Sound alive.”
Murphy said the cuts would be “absolutely devastating” if they were carried out.
In contrast to the president’s spending plan, the Department of Interior, Environmental and Related Agencies appropriations bill for the 2018 fiscal year includes $8 million for the Long Island Sound Program. The bill, introduced into the House last week, was referred to the House Appropriations Committee. Congress determines appropriations, not the President.
Murphy said the funding includes more money for aquaculture research for shellfish health and development and sea grants for research.
“The reason we were able to get a doubling of Long Island Sound funds was in part because, for now, Republicans in the House and Senate have chosen to effectively ignore the president’s budget,” Murphy said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They are very publicly sort of taking his budget, tearing it up, throwing it out and then turning to Democrats to negotiate with us.”
Murphy, Greenwich resident Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and other members of the Connecticut and New York congressional delegations also have introduced the Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act to legislate oversight for and restoration of the Sound.
The act is designed to restore the Long Island Sound through 2020 by combining two water quality and shore restoration programs at $40 million and $25 million per year, while providing additional focus, oversight and coordination of federal projects relating to the Sound.
“This is the first time you had all in one place all of the federal investments necessary in order to protect this ecological and economic asset for generations,” Murphy said.
The act passed unanimously out of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee in April with bipartisan support but has not come up for a vote in the full Senate. Murphy said he did not know when a vote would take place.
Murphy also spoke on local issues, including the dispute with New York over dredging the Sound. New York State has filed suit to prohibit Connecticut from dumping contaminated sediment dredged from harbors and ports at a new Long Island Sound underwater disposal site after two older sites were closed. Connecticut is fighting the suit.
Murphy said the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a Long Island Sound dredging plan to open more of the Sound to accept dredged material that is now being discussed in Washington.
“If we get this plan through and implement it, we will have a lot of new areas in the Sound where we can dispose of dredging material,” Murphy said.
Denise Savageau, Greenwich’s Conservation Director, told Murphy that help from Washington was crucial to keeping the Sound healthy.
“From a municipal perspective, we cannot do this alone,” she said. “If we want to have a clean Long Island Sound and harvest the shellfish and swim and recreate in Long Island Sound, we need to do this as part of a partnership. This is a big program. It’s a watershed-wide program and we need everyone involved whether it be federal, state or local government all working together as well as the non-profits.”
Ed Stilwaggen, owner of Atlantic Clam Farms in Greenwich, asked Murphy for help keeping garbage out of Long Island Sound. He routinely brings in 200 to 300 pounds of bottles, plastics and other trash each day he finds while out on his boat in the Byram River, he said.
“I went out to see and it is criminal how much physical garbage is at the bottom of the Sound,” Murphy said. “You would never believe it unless you see it with your own eyes.”