Sen. Lieberman Provided Key Support in Early Efforts to Protect Long Island Sound

U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman speaking at a 2010 press conference in Washington, D.C. Photo is from the LISS archive
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman speaking at a 2010 press conference in Washington, D.C.

Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who died from complications of a fall in March, championed many environmental causes in the Senate. Among his successes was creating legislation that played a critical role in establishing long-term efforts to restore and protect Long Island Sound.

As a freshman Senator in 1989, Lieberman joined the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works where he helped draft the Long Island Sound Improvement Act. In a 2013 interview with the Grist, an online magazine, the senator explained why he sought the committee post.

“I’m proud that one of my first acts as a senator, even before I was sworn in, was to request a seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee in the Senate because I knew it was from there that I could do the most good to protect and improve our environment.”

At the time, Long Island Sound was faced with a many water quality issues, including depleted oxygen levels leading to massive fish kills, medical waste and other debris washing up on beaches, and a legacy of toxic contaminated sediment from the Sound’s industrial past. The Act, which became law in 1990, created an Environmental Protection Agency program office for Long Island Sound with a full-time director, an annual budget, and a charge for EPA to develop and implement a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan with support from a Management Conference. It made permanent the Long Island Sound Study, a federally-funded study established in 1985 to address issues of poor water quality, which was set to expire in 1991. Today, that office, located at the Stamford Government Center, manages a $62.7 million budget, coordinating over 500 projects throughout the Sound’s 16,000 square mile watershed.

Lieberman laid out the importance of local coordination through the the Long Island Sound Study and the office in 1989 at a public hearing he co-chair in Bridgeport to collect testimony on the bill. At the hearing, the senator discussed the need for an EPA field office to streamline restoration efforts, which were at the time being managed by two regional EPA offices (New York and New England), two states, and over 150 local governments. The Long Island Sound Study and its partners recognized the importance of working with local government and community involvement since many of the Sound’s challenges, including nitrogen pollution stemming from wastewater treatment plants, fertilizer usage, and atmospheric deposits, originated from the land. The legislation was modeled after similar efforts for Chesapeake Bay.

“If we’re really going to do what we want to do and that is to clean up the Sound there needs to be coordination of all that activity and management and that’s what this office will be all about,” he said at the hearing. “It will become the focal point of our efforts to preserve this tremendous natural resource Long Island Sound for ourselves and for our children.”

The Stamford native and Yale University Law School graduate started his career in public office in the state Senate from 1970 to 1980. He was the state Attorney General from 1982 to 1988, a position where he took pride in enforcing environmental law.

“I hauled polluters into court and made them pay,” he said in the Grist interview. “In fact, a corporate defense firm had to dedicate a whole wing of its office to defend those suits. He named it the Lieberman wing. I’m proud of that.”

Besides passing the Long Island Sound Improvement Act, Lieberman’s environmental achievements, included helping to win passage of landmark Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990. He also wrote legislation to hold oil and shipping companies liable for the damage they caused; and helped co-author the Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990 which quadrupled the number of EPA investigators. For Connecticut, he worked to create the state’s first national park at Weir Farm in Wilton.

In the 2000s, he was active in supporting bipartisan efforts to combat climate change and worked with the environmental community to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2006, he  sponsored another piece of Long Island Sound legislation, the Long Island Sound Stewardship Act. The act formally established the Long Island Sound Stewardship Initiative, which identified 33 coastal areas of major recreational and ecological value to develop strategies to protect and enhance them. Rather than focusing on the Sound, the Stewardship Act focused on lands such as coastal wetlands that help filter pollution and provide breeding grounds for fish and wildlife. The Stewardship Act followed through on recommendations from the 1994 CCMP, and also addressed the early understanding that solving the Sound’s water quality issues needed to be solved through efforts on land and in the water.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my work this year on the Environment and Public Works Committee,” said Lieberman in his written statement for the hearing in Bridgeport in 1989. “It’s to remember (the conservationist) John Muir. “He said, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’.”

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