[OPINION] Town Should Not Forget Cockenoe Fight

The first moon landing. Woodstock. Chappaquiddick. The Mets.

All year long, Americans have celebrated the 50th anniversary of historic evenets.

Locally, 1969 was an important year too. But most Westporters have forgotten a battle that — if lost — would have irrevocably changed this town.

Joe Schachter still remembers the fight to save Cockenoe Island from becoming the site of a nuclear power plant. (You read that right. Click here for full details.)

Joe — a member of the “Cockenoe 50th Commemorative” group, along with Betty Lou Cummings, Miggs Burroughs and Jo Fox Brosious (honorary) — writes:

1969 marked the end of a townwide, all-consuming effort to stop installation of an industrial-size nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island. The huge, 14-story complex — just a mile or so off Compo Beach — would have transformed our pristine view; stopped access to the island’s trails, beaches and boating anchorages, and forever altered this part of Long Island Sound.

A rendering of what might have been.

The 2-year “Save Cockenoe Island” battle “involved more residents in a local action than ever before– or since,” says Jo Fox Brosious, then-editor of the Westport News. Her leadership, editorials and articles led the battle.

Victory meant that families who might have considered leaving Westport if the nuclear plant had been built did not have to make that choice. Nor did thousands who moved to Westport since, but might not even have considered it, had the plant been erected.

That critical 1967-69 effort followed an earlier battle by Westporters that took place about 250 years ago, and also shaped today’s Westport. Note these parallels:

  • In 1777, Westport farmers rose up as “Minutemen” to battle British efforts to stop formation of the new republic that, centuries later, provides today’s envied way of life.
  • In 1967 Westport residents rose up again, to battle an ominous nuclear presence on Cockenoe — avoiding a specter that could have decimated our way of life.
  • The 1777 British troops who burned their way up to Danbury were engaged by Minutemen as they returned to their waiting ships, seen anchored from Compo Beach.
  • The 1967 Westporters stopped a potentially despoiled view from Compo Beach, and prevented loss of access to Cockenoe’s swimming, clamming and fishing grounds.
  • Today’s residents see reminders of our patriots’ 1777 battles as we pass the Minuteman Monument, or see a pair of cannons on South Beach — each commemorating an event about 250 years ago.

But our town has yet to officially recognize an existential episode of only 50 years ago by designating even one similar lasting object to commemorate this critical achievement.

Indeed, most Westporters under age 60 don’t have even one first-hand memory of an all-out battle that preserved the character of our precious community.

To prevent this clash from disappearing from the pages of our town’s history, members of the 1967-69 “Save Cockenoe Island” original leadership commemorated that battle every 10th anniversary year with events, press releases and boat parades, right through to the 40th in 2009.

2019 is its 50th commemorative year. Those remaining few who were part of that pivotal battle will not be around much longer to remind youngsters and newcomers how their predecessors protected this community for them.

Now we leave it to them to preserve the sparkle of this historic contribution to our town’s brilliantly shining light.

Cockenoe Island was saved, in perpetuity.

42 responses to “[OPINION] Town Should Not Forget Cockenoe Fight

  1. We used to have the psychedluc-style “save cockenoe” poster on the wall for years at the home of the late Eleanor and Paul Green at their warm and inviting old mill residence.

  2. Cheers to those who fought to stop it. It would not have only destroyed Westport, but all of Fairfield County’s value. No one would have wanted to live near a nuke, nor want to eat the oysters grown in its shadow.

    What I still don’t get is why anyone would think to place the thing there in the first place. Crazy ideas sometimes do get through, but thankfully not this one.

  3. As well as defense of Compo and the purchasing Longshore the greatest single act in Westport History.

  4. With rising sea levels due to climate change brought about by, among other things, the slow adoption of co2-alternate energy sources (like nuclear), cockenoe might not be around for much longer. But at least the Westport views and way of life have not been disturbed. Bravo!

    • You’re no fun at all.

    • You’d have a good point if nuclear energy was the only carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels. Fortunately, though, there’s other, safer, cleaner, viable and achievable options.

      • What Dave Stalling is ignoring is the scale of nuclear power vs. the scale of solar. Both utility-grade solar and wind farms are very land-intensive. We’re not talking about a few solar panels replacing a nuclear plant. Millstone is more than 2,000 megawatts; a wind turbine is approximately 1 megawatt. Of course, wind can be put offshore, but then it runs into viewshed objections, as happened on the Cape. Already they’re battling big wind in New Jersey. My point is that ALL energy solutions involve some disruption.

        • I’m not ignoring that at all. And I agree with you that all energy options involve some disruptions. As I’ve stated elsewhere here, several times, all energy choices have consequences, but some consequences are more severe than others.

          Some consequences of Nuclear energy include safety and security risks, waste disposal challenges, and water requirements.

          Who knows: If a nuclear power plant had been built on Cockenoe Island in 1969, the name Cockenoe might now be synonymous with Three Mile Island, Cheronobyl and Fukushima. I’m glad we didn’t take that risk.

          The Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks ongoing safety issues at nuclear plants, found that “leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents”. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 nuclear sites in the United States.

          Personally, I’ll take unsightly wind turbines over mass water consumption and radioactive waste.

          But you’re correct: Solar alone won’t cut it. But as I previously mentioned, there’s lots of other choices.

          Innovative technologies are advancing rapidly. (They’d be advancing even more rapidly if the fossil-fuel industry didn’t have such a chokehold on our political system and work to curtail and undermine many efforts to quickly, efficiently and effectively move towards renewable and alternative sources of energy.)

          A comprehensive study by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that the U.S. can generate most of its electricity from renewable energy by 2050.

          The study found that a renewables future is feasible with currently available technologies, including wind turbines, solar photovoltaics, concentrating solar power, biopower, geothermal, and hydropower.

          The study also states that a “high renewables scenario” can meet electricity demand across the country every hour of every day, year-round.

          From the study: “Variable resources such as wind and solar power can provide up to about half of U.S. electricity, with the remaining half from other renewable sources. . . Increasing renewables to supply U.S. electricity does not, however, limit energy choices to one specific pathway. Rather, research shows that a range of renewable energy scenarios provide the nation with multiple pathways to reach this goal. . . Renewable energy provides substantial benefits for our climate, our health, and our economy. It dramatically reduces global warming emissions, improves public health, and provides jobs and other economic benefits. And since most renewables don’t require water for cooling, they dramatically reduce the water requirements for power production compared to fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants.”

          As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere here, where I live in Montana we’re already meeting 61 percent of our electrical needs through hydro, wind and solar. Other places are doing even better.

          There are many viable, achievable options that don’t include building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island.

          • I wrote a Wharton report on those studies about renewable energy, and (based on Stanford professor’s research) they’d involve devoting a huge amount of space to solar and wind farms. That would be easier to do if we didn’t fight every renewable energy project because we didn’t want to look at it. If a wind turbine was planted at Compo Beach, the lawyers would immediately be called. And that’s where wind is, at the beach (or offshore).

            • I understand, and agree. That’s why I think it’s important that people fully understand the consequences of all available options, and support choices that cause the least overall harm. It’s frustrating. Good, important discussion. Thanks.

              • Jim, I attempted to find your Wharton Report and stumbled upon a bunch of your other great work. Very interesting and informative; you’re a great thinker and writer. I look forward to reading more. Thanks!

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70 BA, MA, JDE

    It was cited by environmentalists that the water temperature in the proximity of the proposed nuclear plant would rise, I forget by how much. A classmate of mine, Arn Berglund, earned immortality (at least with me) by stating at the public hearing: “personally, as a fisherman, I prefer to catch my fish BEFORE they’re cooked.”

  6. Perhaps the newly named Westport Museum for History & Culture could do an exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

  7. I remember the event and that iconic Save Cockenoe Now poster from my childhood days growing up in Westport! Is anyone selling poster prints now? I just moved back to Westport after 35+ years away. I would buy and hang a print of that poster in my new home in Westport — to commemorate the effort and to remember with fondness my childhood here in the 60’s and 70’s! (Btw – this is my first 06880 comment ever – but I really appreciate this great town resource!).

  8. I was in college when a lot of this process was going on so, my thoughts might not be completely true, BUT, wasn’t Cockenoe offered to the Town of Westport prior to the attempted sale to the Utilities???

  9. Cockenoe is a gem. Thank you to all that saved

  10. Dan, the poster is stunning, but you didn’t credit the artist. Was it Miggs? He’s mentioned as being on the Commemorative Group, so I’m assuming it was he.

    • Naiad Einsel, one of Westport’s finest artists, designed the poster. Ironically, her former house and property on Morningside Drive, which she’d succeeded in designating as a Local Historic District, is now being highly altered by a developer who purchased it after her death. The town made errors in its effort to enforce that historic designation and the developer used those errors in court and won their case to develop. Compromises were reached and Naiad’s house will remain (at least the front of it will) but she is likely rolling in her grave. Naiad helped save Cockenoe but, despite her best intentions, couldn’t save her own property from nuke-style development.

    • I believe we credit this fabulous poster to Westport’s Naiad Einsel . Naiad was passionate about preserving our town until her passing , her last act of preservation was 20- 26 Morningside Drive South, her beloved home and studios.

  11. Great article, Dan. Thank you.

  12. I certainly don’t think there should have been a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island, and I remember this fight, but this is not the simple issue that it appears on the surface. Nuclear power does not produce any greenhouse gas, and the sources that ensure Westport keeps its lights on (coal and natural gas) definitely do. People on the Cape used the same “it will spoil our pristine views” arguments to kill a wind farm there–with opposition from the Kennedys, among others. Instead, the Cape gets energy from a coal plant. We can’t get smug about things like this. There are no perfect energy solutions, and if Connecticut shuts down the Millstone nuclear plant it will certainly mean failing to meet the state’s greenhouse goals (as the state’s DEP director just affirmed). I don’t love nuclear power. I don’t love fracking. But you can’t oppose both and be done with it.

    • True: You can’t oppose both fracking and nuclear and be done with it. However, you can oppose both and promote other options. There’s more than two choices. There are viable, achievable, carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels other than nuclear. Where I live, in Montana, NorthWestern Energy already produces 61 percent of our electricity from hydro, wind and solar. Yes, I realize those choices also come with some consequences. But some consequences are more severe than others.

      • Hey Brother,
        I’m for as many alternative energy sources as possible, but one thing that hasn’t been mentioned on this board is the future availability of rare earth metals necessary for both wind and solar…and the affect that mining for these materials may have on the environment.
        Here’s one good article on the subject:
        https://e360.yale.edu/features/a_scarcity_of_rare_metals_is_hindering_green_technologies

        • Thanks. I’ll check it out. I’ve read a bit about some of this; I need to learn more. No doubt there’s consequences to every option, but some consequences are more severe than others. As for the topic of this post: I don’t think building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island in 1969 was a good option, and some here seem to be suggesting. (And don’t even get me started on the impacts it may have had on our striped bass fishing!)

          • I don’t think anyone is saying that putting a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island was a good idea. I certainly don’t. But energy is a complicated issue, and nuclear has tradeoffs–some of which are positive. It offers greenhouse gas-free power at a utility scale in a small footprint. Nothing else does.

            • Good point. I guess where I disagree with you is that I think the consequences, and potential consequences of nuclear power are far greater than the consequences and impacts of other viable, achievable, carbon-free, alternative and renewable sources of energy. Even more so when you consider the state of nuclear power in 1969 and related safety concerns — and the disasters that occurred elsewhere after 1969.

  13. I should have said Alex Wennberg makes a good point. I remember seeing, at the Clearwater Festival in New York, signs both advocating the end of fracking and closing Indian Point. Really, both? And what will power New York City? My book Feeling the Heat (2004), about climate change, posits a possible flooding of New York City from rising seas, and lo it came to pass. Cockenoe is not preserved “in perpetuity”–it’s time could be limited

  14. Preventing Cockenoe from being used as a nuclear power plant site AND buying and preserving it for future generations of Westporters to admire and enjoy is the stuff of legend, and the wisdom of that effort just appreciates with time. I tip my hat to all involved back then. As a Town we should continue to pursue these sorts of efforts to preserve our precious open spaces and natural resources, as today’s successes will look wise indeed 50 years from now.

  15. I believe that the owner’s of Cockenoe did offer to sell to the Town of Westport, but for whatever the Town didn’t purchase it at that time.
    The the Utilities made an offer to purchase the island. I was away at college in Vt. & Fl. so I heard and read about the process from a distance, most of the time. Thank you folks who worked to preserve Cockenoe! My grand kids can go to the beaches and see a natural sound view!

  16. Westport was once a very engaged community on the local level. It’s possibly an open question whether we would prevail were the Cockenoe fight to occur in the present time. And the truth is, we tend to treat many of our public open spaces with something less than what might reasonably be characterized as appropriate stewardship. For instance, 5,000 yards of fill contaminated with DDT and arsenic is still sitting in one of our parks where it was illegally dumped by the town last year. Those concerned citizens that stood up and said something about this were disparaged and mocked by numerous elected officials. Whenever I look at my beautiful Save Cockenoe poster I’m inspired. But then I quietly thank god that fight was fought at a different place in time.

  17. Since some folks seem to be applying what we know now to the past and speculating, here’s some real possibilities:

    If a nuclear power plant had been built on Cockenoe Island in 1967, maybe there would have eventually occurred a core meltdown and resulting release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste into surrounding waters causing $2.4 billion in property damage with a cleanup cost of 12 years and $973 million as happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1969.

    Or maybe a failed test would have cause the sudden and unexpected release of a large amount of energy, vapourising superheated cooling water and rupturing a reactor core in a highly destructive steam explosion, resulting in an open-air reactor core fire, releasing considerable airborne radioactive contamination for about nine days or so, as happened at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine in 1986.

    Or maybe some natural storm or human accident would have caused a loss-of-coolant that led to nuclear meltdowns and hydrogen explosions resulting in the release of radioactive contamination into the air and large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes, resulting in the evacuation of 154,000 residents, as happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011.

    Who knows.

    I do know this: The Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks ongoing safety issues at operating nuclear plants, found that “leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents”. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports that radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 nuclear sites in the United States.

    There are viable, achievable, carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels other than nuclear. Where I live, in Montana, NorthWestern Energy already produces 61 percent of our electricity from hydro, wind and solar. Yes, I realize those choices also come with some consequences. But some consequences are more severe than others.

    Nuclear power entails substantial safety and security risks, waste disposal challenges, and water requirements. And back in 1967, when United Illuminating proposed building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe, those risks (and ways to reduce those risk) were not as fully understood as they are today.

    I’m grateful for those who successfully fought to keep a nuclear power plant off Cockenoe, and hopeful that we can continue developing alternative and renewable sources of energy that are safer, cleaner and healthier than either fossil fuels or nuclear.

    • It’s bothering me how many times you’ve said this already, verbatim. The whole reason nuclear power is demonized is from misinformation like this- your points completely ignore more than 50 years worth of R&D. The most reliable, achievable, carbon free method you’re thinking of is actually spent fuel nuclear reactors.

      • What did I get wrong?

        Are you saying that the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima didn’t really happen? Or couldn’t have happened at a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe between 1969 and the present like they did elsewhere?

        Or are you saying that the Union of Concerned Scientists did not really state that “leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents.”

        Or are you saying that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not really report that radioactive tritium has leaked from 48 of the 65 nuclear sites in the United States?

        Or are you saying that viable, achievable, carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels other than nuclear do not really exist?

        Or are you saying that where I live, in Montana, NorthWestern Energy does not really produce 61 percent of our electricity from hydro, wind and solar?

        Or are you saying that nuclear power does not really pose any safety and security risks, or waste disposal challenges, or water requirements?

        Or are you saying that back in 1967, when United Illuminating proposed building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe, that those risks (and ways to reduce those risk) were as fully understood as they are today?

        Or are you saying that I am not actually grateful for those who successfully fought to keep a nuclear power plant off Cockenoe?

        Or are you saying that I am not hopeful that we can continue developing alternative and renewable sources of energy that are safer, cleaner and healthier than either fossil fuels or nuclear?

        If that’s what you’re saying, I disagree with you and would happily provide references, citations and evidence for the statements you claim I’ve made, verbatim, many times, which you apparently keep reading even though it bothers you.

  18. Put solar panels on your homes and office buildings. All of them.

  19. Wasn’t the reactor the same design as Fukushima? With Sandy…how would that have worked out?

  20. Talented student Julianna Schmaruk in Westport did a very nice 7 minute video of the fight a few years ago as a s hook project. She interviewed me and included footage of my family enjoying the island in the 60s. She did a nice job of capturing the times so people can remember. Can be viewed on YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Onqmlfp1xPI

  21. Do you remember the Inkling article, and picture,” Cockenoe sunk,” and a picture of the open sound! I will never forget that!

  22. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    I was gone from dawn to dusk today or I would have jumped in sooner. I would have loved to be among the first to respond. Although I was no longer living in Westport my family was. I remember the posters and the newspaper articles and the concerned and united effort to save Cockenoe . Like others wondered, could enough people unite and be of one mind today? I pray so. Certainly there must be some way a permanent memorial to the effort could be established where all could see and marvel the united successful effort. Somewhere it could be seen and enjoyed by all free of charge. P.S. I wasn’t far away at the time. I was living in a walk up brownstone in Manhattan and loving every minute at home on the weekends.

  23. Excellent images and commentary. I did not know this, as I am not from Westport, nor do I reside there. My ancestors did, however, and were part of that uprising in 1777. I’m hoping their descendants who are still in the area took part in preventing that power plant from being built.

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