Out of the Woods / "Compo Beach -- in danger again?"
Troubled as we all are about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico -- a disaster of monumental proportions with no end in sight -- over the weekend my thoughts raced forward bringing Westport's beautiful Compo Beach to mind in an unthinkable scenario: What is the worst case on the East Coast if the April 20 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico cannot be brought under control and, aided by hurricanes, reaches our shores?
I am not trying to alarm anyone -- the chances of that happening are infinitesimal -- but being a pragmatic journalist, I often think of a worst -case outcome from a news value point if view, not to mention a possible human and ecological catastrophe.
Confirming this nightmarish thought was a scary headline I saw online from the McClatchy Newspapers website, which read: "Fear over Gulf oil spill: `What happens if they can't stop it?'" The story reminded readers that the BP oil leak, which occurred on April 20, amounted to 2.2 million gallons per day and could, conceivably, get a lot worse.
Thinking that I was just imagining an impossible event, I tried it out over the week end on a few people I met around town. Most dismissed it as nonsense. But a few shook their heads for a moment and told me the thought had occurred to them but they didn't want to embarrass themselves by bringing it up in casual conversation; others said they didn't want to talk about it because it could be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
For myself, I honestly believe that our town officials, in concert with other towns up and down the Gold Coast, should consider the possibility -- as remote as it is -- and plan for the worst.
The McClatchy story reported that BP said last week that it would take another 75 days to finish one of two relief wells it's drilling to shut down the flow. By then, if the spill doesn't worsen and the relief well stops the leak, some 20 million gallons of oil will be swirling in the Gulf, nearly double the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
Of course, is such a local disaster plan were ever drawn up it would have to be in conjunction with neighboring towns along the coast, which also have beaches, and involve the governor in Hartford because it would have to be a statewide effort, as well as all residents living near any beach on the coast.
Now, if you think I am stretching things a bit, think back to the outlandish plan that a major corporation announced in 1967 to build an atomic power plant on Cockenoe Island, only a short swim from Campo Beach. That, too, seemed like a bad dream that could not happen. For those of you who did not live here at the time, here's what happened:
Indeed, a banner headline on Aug. 7, 1967, edition of The Bridgeport Post took everyone in Westport by surprise. It read: " UI Plans A-Plant Off Westport.
Opposition to the plan, which frightened just about everyone in town, was led by the then crusading editor of Westport News, Jo (Fox) Brosious.
In my book (literally), Jo Fox is one of Westport's heroes for all time. It was a historic David vs. Goliath confrontation between the residents of a little town and a big corporate giant with lots of clout, influence in Hartford, and plenty of and money to spend.
"Save Cockenow Now" posters went up all over town and the publicity generated by the Westport News and other regional and national media sparked a turnout of hundreds of Westporters in Hartford on March 10, 1969, to oppose a bill which would enable UI (which had previously purchased the Island) to exercise unlimited power of eminent domain.
Needless to say, after a two-year battle in which scores of townspeople, including leaders from both political parties here and in Hartford, UI agreed to a compromise under which it would sell the island to Westport for $200,000. The historic decision came on April 17, 1969, when the RTM met to consider an appropriation of $200,000 requested by then First Selectman John Kemish.
The RTM voted unanimously to by the island. The town wound up actually playing only $50,000 for the island, since the state and federal governments under the open space acquisition program returned 75 percent of the costs.
The one lasting image that recall most vividly about this historic victory was Life magazine's photo of Jo Brosious standing on Compo Beach with Cockenoe Island in the background. The magazine heralded the town's acquisition of Cockenoe as one of the most significant conservation victories in the nation, in its 1970 Fourth of July issue.
Thirty years later, in September 1997, Westport's local leaders retuned out for town hall ceremonies making the triumph. RTM members from the Cockney era were given awards and Jo Fox received a special award from the Connecticut General Assembly and from the Westport Historical Society. It was a day to remember.
I occupied the editor's chair at the Westport News at the time of the 30-year celebration. I recall using my imagination then to write an article about what Westport would like if, indeed, UI, had prevailed. As I recall I described it as a "ghost town," where few people came to live and, indeed, much of the existing population left the town because of the ugly site, not to mention the danger, of having an atomic power plant off of Compo Beach.
With the oil spill still out of control, my thoughts turn back to the Cockenoe experience and how we managed to prevail. But here is a huge difference. We fought for control and won.
This time, in the unlikely chance the oil will reach our town, we will not have control of anything.
Maybe it's time for us to awaken to the unlikely possibility that Westport's very existence could once again be challenged. Not a very pleasant thought at the start of what promises to be a lovely summer. But one, I believe, we should soberly consider while making certain that we preserve and protect Compo from another potential town-changing moment.
Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News. He is author of Westport, Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence, published in 2000 and sponsored by the Westport Historical Society.