Woog’s World: The nuclear power plant that almost was
Three Mile Island. Chernobyl. Fukushima.
But not Cockenoe Island.
No, the small island off the shore of Compo Beach is not linked forever in the litany of horrific nuclear power plant disasters.
But it could have been. Because half a century ago, a nuclear power plant came close to being built on that pristine isle. And once such a facility begins operating, there’s no telling what can happen.
There are two types of people in Westport: those who have no clue such an idea could ever have been proposed, and those who remember well the controversy it caused.
This year — the 50th anniversary of the agreement that scuttled those plans — is a great time to add those memories to the half-century nostalgia craze that includes national events like the moon landing, Woodstock and the Amazin’ Mets.
The story began a couple of years earlier. Jo Brosious was editor of the Westport News. The fledgling paper, just a couple of years old, was challenging the established (and establishment) Town Crier. A newcomer from the West Coast, Brosious and her husband enjoyed taking their small boat out to Cockenoe (pronounced kuh-KEE-nee), to fish and clam.
One day, they heard a rumor: The island would be sold. On it, a power plant would rise. Brosious started a campaign to keep Cockenoe in the public domain. Readers quickly responded.
A couple of months later, the Bridgeport Post ran an enormous headline: “UI Plans A-Plant in Westport.”
United Illuminating — a statewide utility, and the new owner of the island that had long been privately held — would construct not just a power plant, but a nuclear power plant. It would rise 14 stories tall, with a causeway linking the island to the nearby shore.
The Westport News sprang into action. Brosious wrote news stories and editorials decrying the idea. She published letters to the editor and editorial cartoons.
The Town Crier, meanwhile, supported the plan. It would be good, the paper argued, for Westport’s tax base.
An RTM meeting drew an SRO crowd. The legislative body voted unanimously to acquire Cockenoe. They’d use federal, state and, if necessary, local funds to keep the island as open space.
Local activists formed Save Cockenoe Now, and the grassroots group met often at Brosious’ house. They enlisted the help of a Westport Public Library research librarian. In those pre-internet days, she struck gold: a Life magazine editorial about ways in which municipalities could curb eminent domain requests of power companies.
Brosious’ group challenged UI’s eminent domain through a pair of bills in the state legislature. One would enable the town of Westport to use eminent domain in this case, while the other would permit all Connecticut towns to have pre-eminence over all utilities in all eminent domain cases.
That was huge. Case law was unsettled over who had first rights in cases involving eminent domain: utilities or local governments.
Ed Green ran for state representative on a “Save Cockenoe” platform, and became the first Democrat elected from Westport in 50 years.
Democrats pressed the issue and rented buses to take Westporters to Hartford for committee hearings. Green introduced two Cockenoe bills on the floor, co-sponsored by Louis Stroffolino, a Republican representing the Saugatuck area.
Westport’s arguments were not against nuclear power, which — before any of those now-famed disasters — was considered safe and clean. The argument was for saving a valuable recreational spot; the power plant could be built elsewhere.
Under pressure — including from the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, Connecticut senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker, congressman Stewart McKinney, conservationists, fishermen, thousands of citizens, and even other utility companies that feared the omnibus bill — UI offered to sell the island.
There was one condition: Westport would drop the proposed legislation.
In late 1967, the deal was done. The town paid approximately $200,000 for Cockenoe Island (UI’s purchase price). State and federal funds covered 75 percent of the cost. Westport now owns Cockenoe in perpetuity.
Brosious trumpeted the accomplishment with a memorable Westport News headline: “Isle Be Home For Christmas.”
It took two years for all the details to be finalized. And when the deal closed on Dec. 23, 1969, almost exactly 50 years ago, Brosious wrote this headline: “Cockenoe Island Safe in Sound.”
The next year, Life called it one of the seven most significant environmental victories in the nation.
Ever since, area residents have enjoyed Cockenoe, but each year, fewer and fewer know the story of what might have been.
Men on the moon, Woodstock and the Mets were significant events, but none of those historic moments impacted Westport half a century later like the battle to “Save Cockenoe Now.”
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.