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Norwalkers ponder ConnDOT plan for Manresa Island

A screenshot of Wednesday’s Harbor Management Commission meeting. At upper right is Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman. Pictured is Manresa Island. The defunct power plant is easily seen from Calf Pasture Beach.

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s harbor keepers are keen to know what the Connecticut Department of Transportation is planning for Manresa Island. Answers are not forthcoming, but informed speculation is rife.

“My suspicion is that this meeting coming up is more on a fact finding that how much resistance they’re going to have with Village Creek and … Harbor View,” Norwalk Harbor Management Commission Chairman John Romano said Thursday.

Conversation at a pair of meetings this week began with concerns about getting into the meeting ConnDOT plans for June 16, tersely described as being about possibly using a portion of Manresa Island for the Walk Bridge project. It progressed to talk about barges, truck traffic down Woodward Avenue and an “absolutely nasty” underwater creature that could be disturbed by whatever plan ConnDOT has up its sleeve.

Romano’s “inclination” is that ConnDOT will be staging barges and possibly some construction, putting pieces together. And “even though” Woodward Avenue is a State highway and had traffic carrying “fly ash out other stuff as well” for many years, neighbors are going to push back, so ConnDOT is looking to gauge that reaction, he said.

“The Harbor Commission suggested five years ago that they take a look at Manresa Island as a way to stage the barges and some of the fabrication parts of the project,” Coastal Area Planning Consultant Geoff Steadman said at Thursday’s Mayor’s Water Quality Committee meeting.

Instead, ConnDOT has a permit application into DEEP (Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) to build a fabrication platform off South Water Street, he said. So, if Manresa were used instead, the South Water Street area could be used for two passenger boats.

The Sheffield Island ferry and Maritime Aquarium vessels need to be relocated as part of the project to rebuild the Walk Bridge, the antiquated railroad bridge over the Norwalk River.

There had been talk of staging barges out by Manresa rather than mooring them in the harbor, where they could potentially damage shellfish beds by resting on the bottom, Steadman said.

Manresa Island could present opportunities but if dredging is needed, then there’s the problem of where that material would go, and New York isn’t allowing placement in Long Island Sound, Steadman continued. Putting it “upland” would be problematic as there’s a remediation pilot project for the coal ash on Manresa.

The island is 80 percent fly ash, Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson said. If you’re coming into the plant, the entire area on the left is where the boat was, that “ate up the fly ash.”

Steadman also wondered how this unrevealed plan would affect ConnDOT’s existing permit application and how it relates to ConnDOT’s controversial Environmental Impact Evaluation, which did not include Manresa Island.

“There’s a whole lot of interesting things to think about, but it has positive potential, real positive impact,” Steadman said.

Mayor’s Water Quality Committee Chairman Joe Schnierlein asked if heavy equipment had gone out the asphalt road leading to the plant.

Years ago, there were tractor trailers going down that road, bringing in cables, Johnson said.

“But I don’t think they’re going to be using that much on roadway anyways,” he said. “I think they’ll bring most of that by water. It’d be cheaper…. it’s a minimal as far as road stuff goes.”

On Wednesday, Norwalk Harbor Management Commissioner Christopher MacDonnell said ConnDOT toured Manresa’s defunct power plant four years ago, considering the site for a barge.

MacDonnell was then Manager of Design and Construction for the Walk Bridge Replacement Project, as Parsons Brinckerhoff Senior Supervising Engineer. He has moved on to a different company and is no longer involved directly with the Walk Bridge.

ConnDOT considered “using the basin for the barge to assemble the structure on, and then some of the area around the tanks” for a laydown area, MacDonnell said. It didn’t go forward because ConnDOT was four or five years away from construction and didn’t want to have a contract with NRG, owner of Manresa, itself, it wanted a contractor to have the agreement.

“I don’t know what’s happened in the last couple years since I have not been involved directly with the job at all,” but NRG wanted “quite a bit of money just to lease the space in the basin,” he said.

“I don’t know how everybody feels, if they’d rather have that going on at Manresa then on … Water Street, right across in the visitors dock,” MacDonnell said. “My only concern is … what kind of traffic can the Woodward Avenue corridor hold, which is, you know, not best, thoroughfare … for trucking in large amounts of steel for assembly. But, you know, we’ll see what they have to say.”

 

A lesson about local sealife

Schnierlein said he’d already submitted feedback to ConnDOT.

“I weighed in because that’s a breeding area, where the Diamondback Terrapins and also a creature called the mantis shrimp,” he said. “I can tell you all kinds of great stories about mantis shrimp. Most people don’t even know what they look like, but they are a tremendous food source for striped bass, nasty creatures, absolutely nasty creatures.”

A Mantis Shrimp. (FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Diamondback Terrapins are turtles. The mantis shrimp was called the honey badger of the sea by Wired magazine in a 2014 article under the heading of “Absurd creature of the week.”

Their “vision is unparalleled,” according to Mental Floss.

The particular breed, Squilla empusa, grows to about nine to 12 inches here, said Schnierlein, who was once a high school biology teacher and who used to lead educational trips for the Maritime Aquarium. Once a student didn’t listen to him and picked up a shrimp the wrong way, and found his hand impaled straight through the palm.

The doctor didn’t know what to do, “because I had to break the claw off … and it went right between the carpals … bones and came out the other side,” Schnierlein said. “…When the mother saw this kid in with the doctor, and he was ready to remove it, she yelled into the doctor and said, ‘I hope you don’t use any anesthesia on him. He’s got to learn what stupidity feels like.’ Mothers like that aren’t around anymore.”

The mantis shrimp has several ways of catching fish, he said. They can grab the fish, or it can impale fish as they swim by the hole the shrimp is hiding in, in the mud flat.

Can they be shrimp scampi?

“You know, the tails aren’t bad…and they’re big,” Schnierlein said. “…Down south, they eat them. Nobody around here cooks them, probably because they’re too hard to find. And they’re too hard to catch.”

Johnson said that when he worked at Manresa the shrimp were caught in the screens, and the guy who operated that equipment cooked them.

“Great creatures,” Schnierlein said. The shrimp and the turtles have to be considered, but “if they’re not building up the road, then I don’t see how that’s going to have an impact.”

Schnierlein said when he trained people at the Aquarium he told them the story of student who picked up the shrimp the wrong way. “I never had a problem with that kid after that. He listened to everything I told him.”

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