The Soundkeeper: A Story of Political Courage

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With his wild white hair, gold sea-anchor earring, and seaman's cap, Terry Backer seemed like your typical New England fisherman. He certainly did not look like a politician, much less a powerfully impactful politician. But that is precisely who he was.

Terry Backer was a 12-term Connecticut state representative who engaged in an historic 22-year environmental campaign against pollution in Long Island Sound. His career began in 1987 when he joined with John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy to sue a variety of organizations along the Sound's coastline for direct violations of the 1972 Clean Water Act. These companies illegally dumped contaminants into the water, thus catalyzing thousands of fish to wash up dead on nearby shores. With part of a $172,000 settlement from the city of Norwalk, CT, Backer was appointed head of the new non-profit Soundkeeper Fund. From then on, he became known as the Soundkeeper.

By hosting a large variety of fascinating organisms, the serene waters of Long Island Sound are amongst the most enriched areas in New England. The Soundkeeper Fund's initial mission was to protect this precious estuary through litigation and other forms of political action. But as the years passed, the Soundkeeper organization developed into monitoring the "Sound's biological integrity, pursue polluters, and reduce contamination; restore salt marshes, educate the public and generate popular support" as per The New York Times. In addition, since Long Island Sound is surrounded by the densest population area in America with no fewer than seven shoreline power plants, Backer knew he had an extremely uphill battle ahead. He knew he must prevent local residents, local corporations, and even the federal government from dumping major pollutants into the Sound.

Instead of meekly standing by as the Sound became more and more polluted, Backer decided to take a hard-nosed legal position against the culprits, knowing that this could potentially isolate him from his peers in the state house of representatives. One of his primary objectives was to stop nearby power plants from killing fish. On this issue, Backer noted that permits granted to power plants allow the murder of millions of small fish. By sucking in and then heating hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day, a power plant instantly kills any unlucky creature that gets itself trapped. The Soundkeeper Fund estimated that several of the long Island Sound power plants killed upwards of "154 billion fish...in the three decades ending in 2002". By choosing to face these giant foes, Backer ultimately dedicated almost all of his political life to protecting Long Island Sound.

Perhaps his largest battle was against a company called National Grid. In 2010, Backer accused National Grid of being a "giant fish-killing machine committing an act of theft", off of the statistic that the company was linked to the deaths of over 8.5 million fish in 2003. Following the filing of the lawsuit, Backer accused the New York's Department of Environmental conservation for being "lackadaisical, slow, and laissez-faire" regarding their investigation into National Grid. Through unlimited perseverance and the desire to make things right, Backer charged forward. In 2011, federal officials enacted a change in the operating permit for National Grid's power plant, thus creating a variety of environmental rules for the company to now abide by. But Backer didn't stop there. He eventually went on to sue the state of New York as well as the federal government for regulations involving "cooling water intakes from power plants".

Of course, Backer did not succeed without his fair share of obstacles. Throughout his prominent career, he had to deal with a variety of critics ranging from former Connecticut Republican legislator George Gunther to local fisherman Larry Williams. Both these men accused Backer of "flip-flopping" on certain environmental issues. In addition, Backer had to deal with angry backlash from industries that he tried changing for the good of the environment. But clearly the worst problem for Backer to tackle was the federal government. He had to deal with the worst elements of a bureaucratic system: lethargy and ineffective provisions. With his intrepid legal actions, he faced defamation at best and possible ejection from the state House at worst. Ultimately, the Soundkeeper chose to put his passion for doing the right thing above all else.

Despite all of the backlash, Terry Backer trudged forward with determination and political courage. He said in a recent interview, "Sure there are times when I changed my stance on proposals when I realized there was nothing anybody could do to stop a project...that doesn't mean I didn't work for the best possible environmental outcome...it also doesn't mean I ever sold out".
It's incredible that Backer is almost single-handedly responsible for the significant reduction in pollution levels of Long Island Sound. Many recent reports have noted how remarkable the Sound is faring against the overwhelming odds. Furthermore, Backer's actions have certainly helped the public interest. His multi-pronged fight has made the Sound a safe and clean area for local residents to engage with. Garbage and debris are rarely spotted anymore, a welcome change from the dirty waters of two decades ago.

Last December, Terry Backer died due to complications of brain cancer. In addition to his political obstacles, Backer had lived with the deteriorating disease for several years, but he still continued his campaign for environmental protection. Backer's career, which he dedicated to standing up against things that were blatantly wrong, was no doubt a powerfully impactful one. His creation of the Soundkeeper Fund started a new trend, labeled the Waterkeeper movement, that has quickly spread. To be exact, there are now about 200 Waterkeepers in 20 countries across 6 continents. Connecticut Senator Murphy said of Backer, "Despite being so ill, he was...standing with me... on Long Island Sound, making one final pitch to preserve the waters that defined his life and career...to his very last breath, the Soundkeeper."

Written to commemorate the accomplishments of my community's hero and to highlight the need for the preservation of the environment, with all of its natural inhabitants.