Down the Drain

Senator Lieberman and the Politics of Storm Filtration

It’s not every day you see a U.S. Senator surrounded by garbage. The senator was Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and the location was the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut, on a site overlooking the tidal Norwalk River, which flows into Long Island Sound. The garbage (including no less than three water bottles) was there to showcase the effectiveness of 275 storm drain filters, which the city installed with help from a $400,000 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant, the City of Norwalk, private donors (including the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation) and Connecticut’s very vocal and effective Soundkeeper, Terry Backer.

Long Island Soundkeeper Terry Backer explains the importance of protecting the health of the vibrant water body from polluted runoff.© Timothy Bleasdale

The federal General Accounting Office estimated in 1996 that 46 million gallons of oil, the equivalent of more than four Exxon Valdez tankers, is spilled, dumped or dripped into the nation’s rivers, lakes, streams and oceans annually.

Lieberman stood by as Glenn Rink, the president of AbTech Industries—makers of the filters—poured an oily solution through his SmartSponge. Clear water emerged out the other end. The crowd was properly appreciative.

“The issue is non-point-source runoff from our homes and streets,” Backer said. “It ends up in Long Island Sound, and it affects public health.” He pointed to the oil-soaked garbage captured in the new storm drains. “The only thing we didn’t find in there was Jimmy Hoffa’s body.”

Lieberman proclaimed himself “thrilled” at this high-tech solution to Long Island Sound pollution, which is known as the Filter Project. In its initial test (which will continue after the grant money runs out), the storm drain filters captured 14,000 pounds of material and resulted in a 75 to 100 percent bacteria reduction (including E. coli and other fecal coliforms). Business Week describes contaminated runoff as a “witches’ brew of garbage, hydrocarbons and bacteria that flows down curbside drains and eventually into local waters.”

The SmartSponge looks like, well, a sponge, or maybe popped popcorn. When it encounters oil, it starts to look like a chocolate-covered macaroon. It uses an antimicrobial agent that chemically bonds to the polymer filter material, and it disables the microorganisms before they can release chemicals or leach into the ecosystem. Rink described it as a “closed loop” solution, because the used filters, which get cleaned out every three months, can be burned in garbage-to-energy plants as non-toxic waste.

Norwalk has 10,000 storm drains, so the project provides far less than complete coverage. But Backer says every one doesn’t need treatment if those with the “greatest density and greatest activity” (such as drains connected to highways near the Sound) are protected.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (right) helps Glenn Rink of AbTech Industries demonstrate the company's filter technology.© Timothy Bleasdale

The EPA has ordered municipalities of more than 10,000 people to have plans in place by 2008 to deal with contaminated runoff. In Chicago, the new regulations have led to a $3 billion network of tunnels and reservoirs underneath the city; in Los Angeles, a $500 million bond issue.

A Campaign Issue?

Just around the corner from the press conference is the Norwalk headquarters of Ned Lamont, the upstart from wealthy Greenwich who is running a Democratic Party challenge against the three-term Lieberman. Lamont has a personal fortune of between $90 and $300 million, and with a $1 million contribution he’s demonstrated his willingness to put his own resources into the campaign. But he’s also raising considerable money at the grassroots level, and had taken in $620,000 from individuals as of late May. By contrast, Lieberman has a $7 million war chest.

At Memorial Day parades around the state, Lamont volunteers were widely seen passing out literature and stickers. “There’s considerable opposition to Lieberman,” says influential national columnist Stuart Rothenberg. “He’d better be prepared for a real race.”

The central issue in the primary is Lieberman’s steadfast support for the war in Iraq, which Lamont opposes. “His Bushlike inability to face reality on Iraq looks less like a stand on principle than the behavior of a narcissist who can’t admit error,” charges New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Lieberman responds that he is not, as has been alleged, President Bush’s favorite Democrat (or his “lapdog,” according to a Lamont commercial). “I have opposed almost every initiative of this President,” he says. Lieberman retains a 59 percent approval rating in Connecticut, according to a Quinnipiac University poll. The same poll showed 90 percent of voters did not know enough about Lamont to form an opinion.

SmartSponge filter material before and after water treatment.© Timothy Bleasdale

Both candidates are now running TV ads, an expensive proposition when the local media includes New York City mega-stations. The ads focus on Iraq, and in Lieberman’s case his support for abortion rights and work against the Bush Medicare plan. The environment is not a major issue, though Lieberman stresses his work on energy bills.

In fact, Lieberman has a decent environmental record. He’s been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, which praises the incumbent as “a top environmental leader in Congress, fighting every day for the environment, health, and quality of life of Connecticut families and all Americans.” In a Hartford ceremony, LCV Senior Vice President for Political Affairs Tony Massaro singled out Lieberman as “willing to stand up to big corporate polluters and work tirelessly to protect our natural resources for future generations. He supports real, clean energy solutions to reduce our dangerous dependence on oil and to combat global warming.” He added, “We urge all Connecticut voters to join us in supporting Senator Lieberman’s re-election.” Specifically, he voted against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, tried to shut down dirty coal-fired power plants, and helped stop efforts to gut the Endangered Species Act.

Democratic challenger Ned Lamont is running a campaign against Lieberman based on progressive values and opposition to the Iraq war.

But not all Connecticut environmentalists are pleased with the senator. “I’m pleased that there is a serious challenger,” says Norwalk-based clean water activist Diane Lauricella. “He did help get the money for the new storm drain filters here, but any senator would have done that.” She thinks people should weigh the cost of the Iraq war in deciding how to vote in the August 8 primary. “It would be interesting to ask Lieberman’s people to put out a white paper on money spent on the war versus environmental work that could have been done,” she says.

For his part, Soundkeeper Backer says Lieberman has generally been there for Long Island Sound. “He was especially supportive of our work when he was state Attorney General,” Backer says. “He’s not necessarily a national leader on environmental issues, but I haven’t had a problem getting support from his office.”

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E; TIMOTHY BLEASDALE (who also took the photographs) is a University of Connecticut student and E intern.


EPA Non-Point-Source Pollution page

AbTech Smart Sponge Demonstration

Long Island Soundkeeper

Ned Lamont for Senate

Senator Joseph Lieberman