Vigorous discussion about Mill Brook

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To the Editor:

Nelson Sigelman’s long feature on the Mill Brook (“Mill Brook summer data points to deadly temperatures”) in last week’s Times provides some important background and context to the swirling controversy over the future of West Tisbury’s historic Mill Pond. As the avid fisherman that he is, his article is another instance of his unsurprising loyal support of Prudy Burt’s ongoing, and divisive, crusade to remove the Mill Pond dam, thereby destroying the pond.

What is surprising, however, is that I find myself, in Nelson’s writing, accused of hypocrisy, or at least of having a double standard, because I do not support removal of the Mill Pond dam.

The hypocrisy, he says, arises because I “serve,” in his words, on the board of the Riverkeeper organization. Riverkeeper is a half-century-old nonprofit environmental organization largely responsible for the major cleanup of the Hudson River estuary, and the restoration of its fishery. Riverkeeper, he says, supports the removal of dams on the Hudson’s many tributaries, and therefore I am in conflict.

There are two problems with these assertions: Yes, I was part of Riverkeeper, on its board for many years, and its president from 2000 to 2005. (I also served on the boards of three other Hudson River environmental organizations at various times. My total years served for all four is about 50.) When I retired from the Riverkeeper board in 2006, the board honored me with “emeritus” status, which allows me to participate in board meetings if I so choose, but with no voting rights. I have neither attended nor participated in any board meetings since 2006. Therefore, to say that I “serve” on the board currently is misleading and untrue.

Second, while Riverkeeper has always supported the removal of “barriers” to fish migration, it is not a categorical policy, i.e., remove all dams or barriers everywhere within the Hudson’s huge watershed. Such a policy would be nonsensical, simplistic, if not ridiculous. I reached out to the current program personnel at Riverkeeper to verify what the policy is now, 10 years after I retired from the board, and indeed the policy is still the same: Dam and barrier removal is advocated on a circumstantial, not a categorical, basis. That has been, and continues to be, my position. Suggesting I am in conflict is again misleading, and untrue.

The removal of dams or barriers is always a complex process, fraught with potential disasters if not carefully evaluated and implemented. Here is perhaps the most egregious example: In 1973 the Army Corps of Engineers — an organization not known for its environmental or ecological sensitivities — removed an old dam in Fort Edward on the upper Hudson River. There were valid safety reasons for its removal, but in the sediments behind the dam were millions of pounds of toxic PCBs, courtesy of two General Electric manufacturing plants upstream, that had accumulated over about four decades. Those sediments were then dispersed throughout the estuary by spring floods, creating a 200-mile-long Superfund site, the largest, then and now, in the country. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the past 40 years in the cleanup efforts, which are ongoing.

What the future of the Mill Brook/Mill Pond will be remains to be seen. The committee tasked with making recommendations to the board of selectmen on Mill Brook watershed management, arguably its most important task, has yet to make any. Whether those recommendations include dam or barrier removal, diversion channels, or other mechanisms to facilitate fish migration is at the moment unknown. There will be, no doubt, a vigorous discussion of whatever they turn out to be.

Richard Knabel, selectman

West Tisbury