Fight Over Solar in Bridgeport: Two Types of Environmentalism Collide

Late Monday night, the Parks Commission in the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut voted to approve the placement of a solar-panel array atop an old, disused landfill.

The project, which will consist of approximately 9,000 solar panels and a small fuel-cell facility, is expected to bring the city $7 million over 20 years in lease payments from UIL Holdings — the parent company of United Illuminating, Southern Connecticut Gas, and several other power companies.

According to UIL spokesman Michael West Jr., the project will have a capacity of 2.2 megawatts from solar and 2.8 megawatts from fuel cells, enough to power 3,000 households annually, under best-case conditions.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Except the project spills over from the landfill into the adjacent Seaside Park, an area developed under former mayor P.T. Barnum and today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Association for Olmsted Parks , a group dedicated to preserving the works of the landscape architect who designed the park, even wrote a letter (see here, page 1 and page 2) to Bridgeport mayor Bill Finch asking him to reconsider the plan.

“This is not an argument against renewable energy,” said Rick Torres, a city council member (R-130) and business owner in the city’s Black Rock neighborhood. “This is about taking land that was dedicated as park land and industrializing it.”

Torres believes the solar project should be sited elsewhere in the city. “It does not belong in a park. It belongs on any of the countless, countless unused or massively underutilized land owned by the city.”

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection(DEEP), Bridgeport has 17 brownfield sites totaling more than 185 acres. This doesn’t include any number of non-polluted but abandoned lots and buildings in Bridgeport, a phenomenon so ubiquitous that Connecticut Yankee Seth MacFarlane once used it to zing the city on Family Guy.The landfill is not listed in the DEEP’s brownfield inventory. According to the city Parks Department, the landfill was used for municipal trash and ash from burned garbage, and according to the EPA, it was closed in the 1980s.

Although a Parks Department spokesman said hiking on the landfill is not allowed, there are no fences beyond a knee-high retaining wall that segregate the mound from the rest of the park. An unpaved access road runs along the crest of the landfill which, judging by the footprints in the snow, is used by deer as much as humans. The summit overlooks Black Rock Harbor on one side and the beaches and playgrounds of Seaside Park on the other. The candy-striped stack of PSEG’s Bridgeport Harbor Station, a coal-fired power plant with a capacity of 395 megawatts that has been operating since the late 1960s, can be seen about a mile-and-a-half to the northeast.

“Reprobate mayors in the past have misused it,” said Torres about the park. “They located a landfill there because it was easy.”

West said the site “would be secured” and not open to the public. As such, it doesn’t need to be remediated for public use. Now that the Parks Commission has approved leasing the land, the conditions of the lease — including what, if any, cleanup should be done, who will pay for what, and even how much the city will be paid — must be set by the City Council. Not only does this mean the $7 million number isn’t set in stone, but critics worry if the lease terms are not strictly defined, then taxpayers could be on the hook if placement of the array disturbs the contents underneath.

Onté Johnson, a Bridgeport resident and environmentalist with the Sierra Club, sees the solar project as an opportunity to transition away from the coal-burning generation of Bridgeport Harbor Station and make an unusable site usable.

“It will be the largest solar array in New England,” said Johnson. “It opens the door for future business, for future development.”

The project is part of Mayor Bill Finch’s BGreen 2020 initiative to refashion Bridgeport into a green city, with 20 percent of its energy deriving from renewables by 2020.

“We applaud the mayor on this,” said Johnson. “In an area that has no human activity and on land that has nothing on it, we are going to generate revenue. It’s going to create green jobs.”

When pressed for numbers on how many jobs the array would create once installation was complete, Johnson said, “Temporary jobs are better than nothing.”

And when asked if reaction against the plan boils down to NIMBYistic objections about solar panels and fences ruining the view, Johnson concedes a point to his opponents.

“I do think [the concern is] valid,” he said. “I don’t want to see a coal plant as well. The way I counter that argument is that we’re complaining about solar panels when we have a relic coal plant that is marring our shoreline.”

Beautifying the shoreline is something both sides would probably agree on. Torres said he supports cleaning up the landfill and reintegrating it with the rest of Seaside Park, nodding toward Norwalk’s Oyster Shell Park down the coast as a success story.

It’s now up to the City Council of the metropolis nicknamed “The Park City” and Connecticut regulatory agencies whether the plan will move forward.