Bridgeport election sparks anxiety over big environmental plans
Bridgeport – When Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch leaves office next month he leaves behind a city transforming itself into a nationally recognized environmental showpiece.
Cash-strapped, with a low-income population more concerned with getting food on the table than how to recycle its scraps, and with finding money to pay the electric bill rather than focusing on how that power was generated, he managed to create a broad, long-range energy and environmental sustainability vision: BGreen 2020.
What’s more, since BGreen was introduced in 2010, he managed to implement many of its dozens of projects, from simple community gardens to state-of-the-art clean energy.
“If I told you when I first got elected that we were going to build North America’s largest fuel cell in Bridgeport, everybody would have had a laugh or a yawn. But we did it,” said Finch, who received the Environmental Protection Agency’s national Climate Leadership award earlier this year. “I pinch myself sometimes because I can’t believe half this stuff ever happened.”
But many more of BGreen’s projects as well as environmental initiatives outside the plan are not fully implemented. Some are still winding through regulatory and other approval processes at the state or city level. Others are still looking for funding. Some, like a far-reaching reinvention of Bridgeport as a climate change-resilient city, are barely beyond concepts.
Without Finch as chief advocate and arm-twister, there is worry among groups collaborating on projects, business leaders and others about how many will survive. And there is even concern that Mayor-elect Joseph P. Ganim, who campaigned on cutting taxes, could choose to pull the plug on some of the projects – especially those that do or could involve city money, or just ignore the BGreen blueprint.
Ganim did not respond to repeated interview requests from the Connecticut Mirror. During the campaign, neither he nor his campaign website addressed issues related to energy, environment or climate change.
Finch did not specifically say he was worried, but rattled off some of the biggest-ticket items still in some stage of limbo. “We’re building a thermal loop, we hope. We’re building a second train station, we hope. We’re building a bio-gas digester, we hope,” he said. “The incoming administration has never said whether they understand these or care about them.”
Finch is not the only one wondering
“I’m very concerned,” said Paul Timpanelli, president and chief executive officer of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, who called Finch’s environmental action in Bridgeport – arguably his signature initiative – “stellar” and “astounding.” Timpanelli has been with the council for 27 years, which includes Ganim’s earlier tenure as mayor before he went to prison for corruption in office. “Because of what he’s done and where he’s been the last seven, eight, nine years, he’s probably not as up to speed as I think he might need to be, but he’s a quick learner; he’s a smart guy,” Timpanelli said of Ganim. “Hopefully we’re going to be able to convince him of the appropriateness of some of the things that are under way.”
Joe McGee, vice president for public policy at the Business Council of Fairfield County, who called Finch’s record “enviable,” said: “I think you’ve got to give Ganim some time to just digest all this.” But, he added: “The jury’s out. Everyone I think is concerned.”
The big tickets
With $10 million from the federal government in hand to plan the new train station, Ganim has indicated it’s a worthwhile project. But it’s still tens-of-millions-of-dollars away from completion.
The digester is an anaerobic digester being developed by Anaergia, a Canadian company. It would take separated sludge from the wastewater treatment plant as well as food waste and turn them into enough electricity to run the treatment plant and then some. It is most of the way through the permitting process.
With no city money at stake it would seem to be a “go” with a completion target of sometime in 2017.
“You have to say — anything is possible,” said Bill Robinson, acting general manager at the Water Pollution Control Authority. “Right now is the ultimate rumor time, and any and all of the above is true.”
But he thought the digester would happen. “The risk is on the developer,” he said. “I don’t see too much exposure, particularly on the city side. My hope is that we’ll get cheaper electric rates and lower sludge disposal costs. That would help stabilize the WPCA rates.”
The so-called thermal loop is a $30 million heat recapture project that takes waste heat from the newest of the three fuel cell systems in the city, the waste-to-energy plant and potentially other energy sources and converts it into heat and hot water for a large downtown district.
Daniel Donovan, cofounder of the project’s developer, Nupower, said even without a final agreement from the city to buy heat or a coordination plan – which includes digging up streets – he was confident the project would be completed, given the support it’s had from other Bridgeport politicians and because of its environmental and financial benefits.
“The new administration will recognize that,” he said.
Some of the biggest and most ambitious environmental projects are outside the BGreen blueprint. Bridgeport was a finalist in the national competition Rebuild by Design, submitting a comprehensive re-imagination of the city in the face of climate change and in the wake of serious flooding during Tropical Storm Irene and storm Sandy. Last year the city received $10 million, a small portion of the available funding.
Finch wanted to put it toward planning and early engineering of a levee and a floodgate to protect the city and connect its Black Rock neighborhood with Seaside Park. But the project has not been approved by the City Council, nor is there money in place to actually build it.
Bridgeport, along with New Haven, is key in another funding contest – the National Disaster Resilience Competition – with up to half-a-billion federal dollars at stake. The Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation is handling the application for the state, which would actually get the money. And now that the proposal has made it through one round of elimination, the City Council has signed off on the required partnership agreement with the state.
But if the application makes it to the next round, the city will have to be far more involved.
“These initiatives transcend administrations,” said April Capone, who is handling the application process for CIRCA as part of her intergovernmental affairs duties at the Office of Policy and Management. “Yes, we did have a mayor who was very progressive. This does not hinge on one elected official.”
Eco-Tech, parks and green infrastructure
Among BGreen’s other major concepts is the Eco-Technology Park. Right now it is a loose assortment of environmental businesses, including Park City Green, a mattress recycling facility to service mandatory mattress recycling in Connecticut; Tri-State Flexi-Pave, which manufactures environmentally friendly permeable pavement from used tires; and Bridgeport Biodiesel, a refinery that repurposes cooking oil as fuel.
Whether a Ganim administration will continue the Eco-Technology Park concept is unknown.
A 9,000-panel, 2.2 megawatt solar installation that borders the technology park and Seaside Park on the city’s closed landfill is just about done, and the newest fuel cell – 2.8 megawatts – is running. Both are owned by United illuminating. There is also a fuel cell at the University of Bridgeport and a 15-megawatt installation, the largest fuel cell power plant in North America, that is owned by Dominion and sits adjacent to the rail line.
There are plans to add a medical waste processing facility – something the Business Council’s Timpanelli believes should stay on the must-do list.
Timpanelli has gone from skeptic to true believer that green projects would be the economic drivers Finch claimed. He now points to the 15-megawatt fuel cell, which he said generates more tax revenue for the city per square foot than any other piece of property, and he points to the Eco-Technology park.
“The numbers are clear,” he said. “In Bridgeport in the last 18 months, we’ve created 400 new job opportunities in the green arena. Four hundred job opportunities in a city like Bridgeport is a big number.”
BGreen also includes a massive parks master plan that is underway in bits and pieces. The most prominent piece so far was the reopening of Pleasure Beach last summer. It also included a wildlife protection component using 10 guards hired as part of the summer youth employment program.
That did require some city money and logistical support. The plan had been for more guards this summer, but it’s unknown what the Ganim administration will agree to.
“We’ll find a way to work with him,” said Stuart Hudson, executive director of Audubon CT, the organization that spearheaded the Pleasure Beach work. “That’s at least how we want to start. I can’t imagine why any mayor would want to go back on the success that’s happening there.”
But Hudson and other environmental advocacy groups are mindful that they had a huge advocate in Finch, a relationship that may or may not continue with Ganim. Given the uncertainty, many groups have begun meeting with each other to build bottom-up strategies to keep projects going.
The Nature Conservancy is beginning a large mapping project to help groups coordinate projects for the greatest impact. “The turnover that’s most alarming for us are some of the key staff in the city that are appointed or closely aligned with the existing mayor,” said Adam Whelchel, the Conservancy’s Connecticut director of science.
Whelchel said he sees the project as more about the health and vitality of the community than strictly environmental. “I don’t see how any leader, if they want to lead effectively and remain in office, cannot embrace that,” he said.
The Trust for Public Land is working with two park renovation projects. One is at Johnson Oak Park and the adjacent Tisdale School. The city will have to match a $375,000 federal grant, but the project — which will top $4 million — has not broken ground yet while additional private money is raised. A second project at the Classical Studies Magnet Academy is still in early planning, so its future is even less clear.
Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound in conjunction with the Water Pollution Control Authority has several major green infrastructure projects in the pipeline, so to speak. They are designed to help address an existing requirement that the city begin to separate its stormwater runoff from its sewage – a situation known as combined sewer overflow.
The full separation plan has not been finalized or implemented yet. In the meantime, green infrastructure projects are seen as ways to lower the amount of runoff so there will be a smaller problem to address.
The furthest along is a project at the Beardsley Zoo to help deal with flooding in the parking lot and the entrance. “I don’t think there’s any risk – knock on wood,” said Kendall Barbery, green infrastructure program manager for the Fund.
Less developed are four downtown green infrastructure projects. One, to alleviate flooding around Housatonic Community College’s parking structure, is awaiting the last of its approvals. State money from the Clean Water Fund has gone into the planning, and there is more available for construction, estimated at $300,000.
But the other three downtown projects are still being fine-tuned by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Robinson, at the Water Pollution Control Authority, said there are another four to six projects he’d like to see done.
“I can’t say that I’m not concerned,” said Barbery of the Fund for the Environment. “But what I can say is I think that Finch has really helped to raise awareness about these issues so there may be a little bit of a lasting legacy.
“There’s a lot of groups that are on the ground working on these projects and are going to be committed to seeing them through regardless of the political climate. Is it going to be more difficult? Maybe.”
Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, said his organization will consider legal action if there is serious backsliding by Bridgeport on the order to remedy the combined sewer overflow problem. But he worries about the commitment of the new administration.
“We have been happy and pleased to collaborate with the city and the WPCA on what will be the largest green infrastructure retrofit project in Connecticut,” he said. “What we’re very concerned about is what will happen. Is this the end? Is this the last deal? Or is this the beginning?”
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