Tuesday November 13, 2012

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Several government agencies and nonprofit groups have begun assessing the environmental damage inflicted on shoreline areas in Connecticut and other states by Superstorm Sandy, with the ultimate goal of identifying ways to better protect both human development and wildlife habitats vulnerable to storm surges.

The Oct. 29 storm damaged scores of homes along Connecticut’s coast, pushed sand from beaches into neighborhoods and led to discharges of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Long Island Sound. Damage was similar but more widespread in coastal areas of New Jersey and New York.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has begun collecting information on damage to the shoreline and marine life. One concern is possible damage to shellfish beds caused by the storm surge and the sewage discharges, which led to a ban on shellfishing in many areas near the shoreline.

Sandy dramatically altered some beaches and other parts of the landscape on Connecticut’s coast, said Terry Backer, executive director of Soundkeeper, a Norwalk-based nonprofit group dedicated to protecting Long Island Sound. There also were reports that the storm swept oysters to new locations, which can kill the shellfish, Backer said.

"The Sound has weathered many storms and its shoreline moves around," he said. "But we’ve put infrastructure and houses in those places. The impact on the Sound comes from destruction on land -- ruptured oil tanks, sewage treatment problems, structure damage, debris, that’s where it can cause water quality problems. The water often rebounds from water contaminations, but it does take time."

Save the Sound and other environmental groups hope to convince policymakers that rebuilding sand dunes, restoring saltwater marshes and other shoreline restoration projects are the best ways to minimize storm damage.

"One of the things that we did see from this last inundation was that areas of the coast that were restored ... actually withstood a lot of the storm surge force and protected the homes and infrastructure behind them," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound.

Schmalz said one of Save the Sound’s projects -- a dune system in Old Lyme -- absorbed much of the storm surge and protected nearby Amtrak rail lines, just like it was supposed to do.

A full picture of how Sandy damaged the environment may not be known for months, but a preliminary profile is being put together by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit wildlife conservation group expects to release a report on damage from Delaware Bay to Long Island Sound by mid-December.

The foundation is working with federal government officials and other nonprofit groups, including the American Littoral Society based in Highlands, N.J. The groups plan to present their findings to Congress, state officials, scientists and the public.

"The idea is to do a very quick assessment to see what the major impacts are and identify the major changes in the habitat areas," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "Obviously, the biggest impacts are to the beaches and the barrier island system. There are shorebirds and other animals that depend on those."

Dillingham expects more comprehensive studies to follow his group’s assessment, as well as lengthy debates on how to rebuild the shorelines.

Many environmentalists are also eagerly awaiting the completion of a U.S. Geological Survey imaging project that’s expected to show exactly how the storm changed the coastline from North Carolina to Massachusetts. The project is using "lidar," or light detection and ranging, from an aircraft-based system that uses laser pulses to collect highly detailed ground elevation data.