CT State Soundkeeper Terry Backer: What Does he do?
Long Island Soundkeeper Terry Backer, sporting a wild beard and white hair tucked under a seaman’s cap, peers out over Norwalk Harbor from his tiny Edgewater Place office, looking every bit the crusty New England fisherman fighting to save the sea from pollution.
Backer’s most ardent supporters and harshest critics agree he is passionate and has had the guts to take on some of Long Island Sound’s worst polluters.
A seventh-generation oysterman, Backer looks like he walked out of central casting to play the role, fighting in the courts, in the state Legislature, and alongside some of the nation’s most influential environmentalists — such as Robert Kennedy Jr. — to clean up the water along Connecticut’s coast.
Backer’s story and his 22-year environmental campaign is, in some ways, as murky as the waters he still battles to make cleaner.
Backer, 55, calls protecting the Sound’s environmental health his life’s work. Others say it been his way of bailing out of the hard life of an oysterman to make money as a litigious advocate.
Backer counters by saying he’s never worked harder than in his present job, sometimes even around the clock.
“Massive barges of human waste used to routinely go floating by in the Sound two decades ago,” he said. “But our relentless campaign aimed at forcing compliance of federal and state regulations by polluters has resulted in significant progress.”
Not everyone believes Backer should be playing such a prominent role. Some say he is an opportunist who figured out a way to make money — he now earns an annual $108,000 salary from the non-profit Soundkeeper Fund Inc. — off the void created by the government’s failure to enforce environmental guidelines. That allowed polluters to amass tens of thousands of state and federal violations of the Clean Water Act of 1972.
the critics lash out
“Terry Backer is an environmental bounty hunter, and I’ve told him that to his face,” said George “Doc” Gunther, the still feisty nearly 90-year-old former Republican legislator from Stratford and longtime political foe of Backer. Gunther believes Backer’s dual role as Soundkeeper and state representative serving on environmental committees is a “blatant, shameful conflict of interest.”
In addition to his Soundkeeper salary, Backer also earns $28,000 a year as a state representative, a seat he has held for a decade.
Gunther, who dedicated much of his legislative career to environmental issues, said Backer has been shrewdly playing a role to successfully win multimillion-dollar lawsuits against major polluters like New York City for dumping raw sewage illegally into Long Island Sound, as well as against municipal sewage treatments plants around Connecticut.
Despite earning nearly $140,000 between his two jobs, critics also point out Backer, who is an assistant majority whip, was also recently placed on a list of lawmakers who have not paid their full state taxes, listed as owing $1,367.60 in delinquent income taxes. Backer said he knows he owes the taxes and intends to pay it. “My wife lost her job and one of my children was past the age of being a dependent, and we are struggling like everyone else. But I have every intent of paying it, and have talked to the state about the best way to go about that.”
Backer’s group was created after he successfully sued several Connecticut cities for sewage treatment plant violations.
In 1987, by using $87,000 awarded in a court settlement he initiated against the city of Norwalk, he created the nonprofit Soundkeeper Fund Inc. and a 10-member Board of Directors that launched a campaign against the most notorious polluters — sewage treatment plants, companies and municipalities that had been dumping raw sewage into the Sound’s waters for years.
Patterned after the successful Hudson Riverkeepers’s program established by Bobby Kennedy Jr. in the 1980s, much of Backer’s work involved bringing lawsuits against municipalities including New York City, Bridgeport, New Haven, Norwalk, Westport, Stamford, Stratford and Milford, that resulted in court settlements requiring towns and cities to upgrade aging sewage treatment plants, some of which were built in the 1930s.
While Gunther acknowledges Backer has achieved some environmental success, he charges the Soundkeeper is “a very smart businessman who expertly navigated the waters, so to speak, to litigate cases that should be handled by the government. Most of what he does … he does for Terry Backer, and he often changes his positions when he has the chance to make a lot of money in a settlement for his group.”
Gunther said “nobody appointed or elected Terry Backer Soundkeeper; he created that post with the help of prominent national groups and environmental bigwigs, and anointed himself to the position. But most of the money gained in those lawsuits is not being channeled back into the environmental programs that need it most.”
Backer countered, “Gunther’s probably jealous he was at one time the guy in the state Legislature everyone went to on the environment, and now they come to me.”
Robert Kennedy Jr. comes to Backer’s defense
Robert Kennedy Jr., son of the slain New York senator and 1968 presidential candidate, praised Backer for his “relentless environmental campaign in Connecticut” and dismissed arguments by critics.
“I have worked closely with Terry, who has been involved in some of the most important environmental cases in history, for example, stopping the garbage from going from the East River (in New York) and Long Island Sound. He’s also got experience in government, and as a former commercial fisherman has a great deal of credibility with the grass-roots community. He has started waterkeeper programs around the world, including seven in rural villages in India and seven in Russia,” Kennedy said.
“Terry sued virtually every sewage plant in Connecticut and forced all of those plants to make process changes to improve water quality in the Sound,” Kennedy said. “All of them were in violation of their permits. At that time there was no enforcement by the state DEP. None had been litigated against or brought to court. Terry was the plaintiff in the initial lawsuits that brought about significant penalties against the plants and municipalities that were illegally dumping waste into the Sound.
“Nobody was doing anything to stop the polluters. Terry filled that vacuum,” Kennedy said. “In the case we filed against Bridgeport, there were 50 pages that listed 15,000 violations over a five-year period, and the state had never brought an enforcement action before then.”
Kennedy said he’s also heard the same criticisms as Backer about his own efforts. “I get hit from both sides — and so does he — from the polluters who accuse me of pursuing blatant violations, and at times from environmentalists when I compromise on an issue because I recognize there is a need to supply energy. It’s a very fine line.”
And on the charge that Backer is an environmental bounty hunter?
“I think Terry would be proud to wear that label, but I doubt he’s making any money because there is no provision to collect funding as a result of the lawsuits. Since the early 1990s it’s been very difficult to collect even on cost and fees. It’s an inflammatory criticism that’s not fair.”
Rocking the boat
With a stocky, muscular build and the deep, resonant voice of a ship captain, Backer is described by his supporters as possessing the kind of intimidating presence that serves him well in taking on tough, corporate polluters.
But critics, including New Haven oysterman Larry Williams, have testified before the Connecticut Siting Council — which is responsible for regulating and making decisions on a wide range of proposed environmental projects — that Backer has not always been consistent on some of the Sound’s most controversial projects.
One of those projects involved the high-voltage Cross Sound cable, a 330-megawatt power line buried beneath Long Island Sound from New Haven to Shoreham, N.Y. The 24-mile long cable began operation in 2004.
Some critics accused Backer of “flip-flopping” on that issue, and similar projects, whenever he believes an out-of-court settlement might benefit his Soundkeeper group, but not be best for oyster and clam beds and other sea life he swears to be protecting.
Backer, in fact, angered many in the shellfish industry when he reversed his initial opposition to the cable after the company, TransEnergie US, agreed to give the Soundkeeper fund a $1 million donation for restoration of damaged oyster beds. In 2002 TransEnergie reached a settlement with three major shellfish companies — including Tallmadge Bros., co-owned by Backer friend and associate Norm Bloom — for between $9 and $25 million.
The Cross Sound issue, say critics like Gunther, was an example of Backer “selling out.”
But Backer and his proponents strongly deny that. Groups that work to protect the environment such as the non-profit Fund For the Environment’s “Save The Sound” and government agencies entrusted with enforcement of state and federal regulations, defend Backer.
These groups, along with Kennedy, insist Backer has filled a major gap in helping clean up Long Island Sound that had no oversight before he came along, and that his organization has served as a model for nearly 200 similar Soundkeeper, riverkeeper and baykeeper programs around the world, where Backer has often traveled to help start new programs. In 2008, Backer claimed $18,109 in travel expenses on his group’s nonprofit 990 federal tax return.
“We may not always agree 100 percent on every issue, but Terry Backer’s Soundkeeper program has played a major role in helping to stop polluters and damaging projects from going forward,” said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative affairs for Save the Sound, which often works with Soundkeeper.
Schmalz said Backer has been an ally in the fight to clean up the Sound, particularly in pushing for funding and programs to reduce nitrogen levels, a byproduct of human and animal waste that enters the waters through sewage plants and fertilizer-laden storm water.
Lack of enforcement
Schmalz, and others, say there isn’t enough staffing or funding for government agencies to do the job, and that organizations like the Soundkeeper are needed to protect the Sound and its watersheds from polluters of all kinds.
“Frankly, there is no so-called bounty for Terry Backer to collect, because none of the funding won in lawsuits or settlements is permitted by law to go directly to his organization,” said Karl Coplan, an attorney who has represented both Kennedy’s Hudson Riverkeepers group in New York and Backer’s Soundkeeper Inc. in Connecticut.
“What created the need for groups like Soundkeeper was the glaring need created by the lack of enforcing environmental laws by both the state DEP and federal EPA,” Coplan said.
Coplan said there are two ways to look at the failure of governmental agencies to enforce the regulations.
“The sympathetic view is that there is a lack of resources and manpower, the cynical view is that these agencies have not always been all that eager or willing to enforce environmental regulations because it would mean impacting some major employers and rocking boats they don’t necessarily want to rock,” Coplan said.
But Coplan concedes Backer does benefit from the lawsuits “indirectly” at times. He cited the $4 million settlement with the city of New York in the late 1990s for dumping of raw sewage into the Sound that resulted in grants for “pump out” work that went to Backer, who as Soundkeeper was able to obtain grants and contracts from that award because he was the sole bidder.
Over several years, more than $200,000 was awarded to the Soundkeeper program to pump out waste from marine vessels from the New York border to Westport. Backer says that is still one of his group’s money-making functions, estimating the group brought in about $135,000 in 2008.
No one can deny Backer has become a big player in the decades-long battle to stop polluters from making thousands of illegal raw sewage dumpings in Long Island Sound, creating what environmentalists call “dead zones” in the waters that result in low oxygen and high nitrogen levels that kill fish, oysters and lobsters and force many forms of sea life to seek refuge in other parts of the Sound
“We have made significant progress in cleaning up Long Island Sound, but this is an international problem,” Backer said. “We’ve got a hell of a long way to go and a lot more work to do,” Backer said. “Sure, there are times I changed my stance on proposals when I realized there was nothing anybody could do to stop a project, such as with the Cross Sound Cable.
“That doesn’t mean I didn’t work for the best possible environmental outcome possible … it also doesn’t mean I ever sold out.”
By Richard Weizel