$6m in hand, coast restoration is next
A $6 million settlement from the company responsible for an oil spill in Buzzards Bay eight years ago will be used to fund restoration projects such as rehabilitating the environment of a small island off Mattapoisett, removing a dam from the Weweantic River in Wareham, and acquiring more shorefront property for public use.
A specially created Natural Resource Damages Trustee Council consisting of state and federal agencies recently began taking ideas on how to spend the money to do the most good. Local environmentalists applaud the move.
“As a guiding principle I’m very happy to hear the agencies say that this money should be spent as closely as possible to the areas that suffered the biggest hits,’’ said Mark Rasmussen, executive director of the Buzzards Bay Coalition.
One of those areas was Ram Island in Nasketucket Bay, an inlet of Buzzards Bay bordered by Mattapoisett and Fairhaven that Rasmussen said “received a lot of oiling.’’ A roseate tern nesting site, the island is a sanctuary protected by the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
Nasketucket Bay, along with more than 100 miles of shoreline from Rhode Island to western Cape Cod was damaged in April 2003 when a barge owned by the Bouchard Transportation Co. grounded on a shoal in the western end of the bay and released 98,000 gallons of oil. Thick oil slicks lapped onto popular shorefronts, the worst hit being a Dartmouth beach and the Nasketucket Bay shoreline.
The environmental damage included the loss of hundreds of birds such as loons, ducks, terns, and endangered piping plovers, animals that live on or just below the seabed, shellfish, lobsters, and fin fish. The animals suffered from tar balls and the contamination of their habitats.
Bouchard paid a $10 million fine, and the cleanup was done long ago. But the company is also legally required to pay compensation for the damage to the natural environment and for the human loss of the use of resources as beaches were fouled by oil, shellfish beds destroyed, and fishing, boating, and swimming rendered impossible in the contaminated areas.
The $6 million agreed to by Bouchard in negotiations with government officials is targeted to address specific losses - by restoring salt marshes and herring runs, stabilizing the damaged shoreline of Ram Island, bringing back piping plover populations, and providing new opportunities for people to enjoy the shoreline. While piping plover are covered by this settlement, damage amounts to compensate for losses of other bird populations such as terns and loons still have to be negotiated.
After two public meetings held by the trustee council, state officials said some promising restoration projects have already been identified.
Millie Garcia-Serrano, deputy regional director of the Department of Environmental Protection in the Lakeville office, pointed to a project to increase the bay’s fish populations by restoring the aquatic environment at Horseshoe Pond Dam in Wareham.
After the spill killed game fish and reduced the aquatic species fish live on, sport fishing in the bay declined.
A good way to rebuild the fish population is by making it easier for herring, a big link in the aquatic food chain, and other species to reach the sea on their migrations from fresh water habitats along the Weweantic River, the bay’s largest tributary, Garcia-Serrano said.
“The project in a nutshell is removing old dams that keep the fish from migrating, make easier access for them, increase the productivity of the Weweantic watershed,’’ said Garcia-Serrano, who recently visited the area. “It’s a gorgeous site.’’
“The dam creates a barrier for the fish to pass from one habitat to the other,’’ said the Buzzards Bay Coalition’s Brendan Annett, vice president for watershed protection.
Removing the dam would allow a variety of fish - river herring, American eel, tomcod, white perch, and rainbow smelt - to benefit. Increasing their numbers would increase the populations of fish that sport fishers are interested in, mainly striped bass and bluefish, along with the perch and smelt, Annett said.
The trustee council has also set aside $534,000 for restoring the salt marsh and shoreline of Ram Island, damaged by oil and the erosion that has followed the loss of beach vegetation. A unique home to roseate and common terms, the island preserve lost about 400 birds.
In addition to restoring the salt marshes on Ram Island, the Buzzards Bay Coalition backs the idea of making up for lost recreation uses on the island, in the bay, and on the affected shorelines, by acquiring new property on Nasketucket Bay.
More public land on the shoreline would yield a big environmental and recreational bang for the limited restoration funds, Rasmussen said.
“We want to do a little thing and have a lot of leverage for the bay,’’ he said. “Some very good things can happen.’’
One of those possibilities would be to acquire a 400-acre site called Shaw Farm that abuts the Nasketucket Bay State Reservation, he said. Mattapoissett selectmen have already voted to back the purchase.
What most excites coalition members about the property, he said, is that it would connect a regional bike path to the coast. “It opens public access to the shoreline,’’ Rasmussen said.
The land acquisition would compensate for the loss of recreational areas and address damage to the natural environment due to the oil spill - two main criteria for spending the Bouchard settlement funds.
The trustee council’s public meetings to solicit comment on restoration ideas were the start of the process. Staff will evaluate the comments and use them to develop a draft request for proposals - expected this winter - and the public will be encouraged to comment on the draft. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The state’s top environmental official, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan Jr., said he was excited to see the process underway. “It’s an important milestone that will serve to restore Buzzards Bay’s precious resources,’’ he said.
Robert Knox can be reached at email@example.com.