Storm impacts serve as warnings in annual environmental report

The Council on Environmental Quality’s annual report on Connecticut’s environment in 2011 can be summed in one word: storms.

Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm hurt air, water, land, animal and human health — most notably in Long Island Sound. These catastrophic events caused more beach closings, lower oxygen levels, more pollution and fewer lobsters, much of this related to the unprecedented amount sediment and sewage that flowed into the Sound in the aftermath of Irene.

“The storms really illuminate some of the key characteristics of our environment,” said CEQ Executive Director Karl Wagener, who said the focus on storm impact was unintentional and only evolved during the research process. “That includes our land use patterns, the way in which so much of our water quality problems are due to runoff and what our air quality would be like if we didn’t have a lot of the regulations we have.”

Beach closings rose dramatically, mostly the result of pollution and runoff from Irene that kept many beaches off-limits for extended periods. Rains prior to Irene also caused significant closings.

The fall lobster trawl was the lowest ever recorded. Nitrogen levels rose slightly; the areas of the Sound showing adequate oxygen levels declined, and the number of approved shellfish beds also declined.

“This should not be looked at ‘oh gee we had a problem because we had an unusual rain event,'” warned Curt Johnson, program director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.

“It should be a real wakeup call that we have a serious problem to deal with in Long Island Sound.”

Beach closings around the Sound in Connecticut and New York have skyrocketed in the past 15 years and tripled in the last three years alone, Johnson said. The good news he said, is that the overall volume of fish and shellfish has held steady over the last quarter-century even as species in the Sound have shifted: Warmer water species have replaced colder water ones — including lobster — that have migrated north.

“It’s not about climate change that might happen someday,” he said. “It’s about climate change that’s happening now.”

Air quality

The report documented eight more good air days in 2011 than in 2010, though more pollution on the average day. But the most striking finding was the air quality — the report called it “atrocious” — after the October snowstorm in the northern half of the state, where large numbers of gas generators and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves were in use for more than a week in many cases.

The report said: “Northern Connecticut probably saw particle levels over twice the standard that protects human health — a sample of what Connecticut residents would breathe all the time if it were not for the successful air pollution controls that have been put in place in most sectors of the economy.”

Sam Sampieri, an environmental analyst in Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Management, noted that those levels came only from monitors from Danbury up I- 84. The Hartford and Connecticut River Valley monitors weren’t even functioning due to the power outages.

Sampieri said the pollution was exacerbated by an inversion after the storm, but that this doesn’t point to an overall air quality problem. “It was a very unusual situation,” he said. “Our air is actually much better than it was 40 years ago.”

Underground storage tanks

Environmental compliance worsened, the report said, citing nearly 1,000 environmental violations issued by DEEP during fiscal year 2011 — the third year to show an increase. Gas stations and convenience stores made up the bulk of the violations, most of which related to requirements for underground storage tanks. Substandard equipment was cited as well as leaks. Another large violation category related to air pollution control equipment.

But DEEP said there’s a good news story behind those numbers for the state’s roughly 4,000 underground storage tanks. In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped up requirements for frequency of inspection. All had to be inspected by 2007 and after that, once every three years. The state was able to increase its inspection team from three to about 10 inspectors.

What’s happened said Nicole Lugli, director of DEEP’s Office of Enforcement, Policy and Coordination, is that there have been more informal Notices of Violation, many to tank owners who were unaware of their obligations for tank maintenance. Corrections are being made at a greater rate, Lugli said, so the number of formal actions has decreased.

“We don’t have to escalate to formal enforcement,” she said. “People are getting it.”

Lugli said that rate is expected to improve further. Under EPA regulations, by this August, every tank owner will be required to have at least one employee trained, with an exam passed, in tank maintenance procedures.

Open space, eagles

Medical offices and landscape business were also cited frequently for compliance infractions. Notable for their lack of violations: manufacturers with more than 20 employees.

Among other findings in the CEQ report: farmland preservation improved. Nearly 2,000 acres were saved last year, close to the annual rate needed to reach the state’s goal.

Nearly 2,200 acres of open space were saved in 2011 either by the DEEP or through municipalities. But the state still doesn’t know how much land has been conserved overall as part of the state law to save 21 percent of the total landmass by 2023. Legislation passed this session establishes a registry to finally figure it out.

Bald eagle populations have increased

People continue to drive less — down for the fourth year in a row. The report said part of that is the obvious economic factors, but the trend also seems to have a demographic component: people ages 16 to 34 are leading the decline in driving. The average person is also creating less harmful carbon dioxide and using less electricity.

But steady habits persist: no change in the amount of sewage discharged into inland waterways or their suitability for swimming. It’s so steady that the report suggested it might be time to find a new way to measure the subtleties of the progress. There was also no change in drinking water standards.

As for what to do about all of the above: The CEQ, a state agency working independently from the state DEEP, will make those recommendations later this year.