Field Work Keeps Vital Salt Marsh Healthy
Former Mattapoisett harbormaster hauls Styrofoam out of popular cove
October 13, 2016
MATTAPOISETT, Mass. — Horace Field has lived only meters from Brandt Island Cove for nearly two decades. The water’s edge is connected to Field’s backyard by a short, grassy path.
He now navigates the well-worn path bordered by trees and bushes with his black Lab puppy, Piper, who bounds along close to his side, circling his knees. The path leads out onto the salt marsh, where water laps at the edge of spongy ground covered in tall, thin grass.
Field wanders through the grasses along the shoreline, untangling the occasional piece of plastic or bit of Styrofoam from vegetation. Piper follows his lead, rocketing back and forth around the marsh collecting sticks and shells to chew on briefly, before losing interest and running off again in search of a new prize.
Field pinches a a small piece of dirty Styrofoam between his fingers, examining it. This, he said, is a small reminder of the pollution that used to cover the salt marsh — Styrofoam everywhere.
“With your bare eyes right now as far as you can see that way and that way, what looked like almost junk and snow,” Field said, gesturing around him. “Big chunks and pieces of this and that.”
Now, though, the salt marsh is pristine. Thanks to Field’s efforts and persistence, the Styrofoam that once covered the cove has been almost entirely cleaned up.
The 83-year-old stares out across Brandt Island Cove, pointing out Brandt Island across the water. “Beyond the causeway there going over to Brandt Island is Nasketucket Bay,” he said. He also identified Leisure Shores Marina, just across the cove from his property, the culprit of the pollution. The place where the Styrofoam originated.
Field is protective of his 20-acre domain, which spans the shoreline between two white rocks. Though he has only lived here full time for 20 years, his attachment to the place goes back much further.
“I was born and brought up in Mattapoisett,” he said. “My father inherited a bunch of land up in Northfield (Mass.) moved the whole family up to the mountains. I was 12. Too late, I liked boats and water and that sort of thing. So when I earned my first monies ever, I came down and purchased this land. And then I just sat on it until I could afford to do something with it.”
In 1968, he built a small cottage on the land that he used as a vacation home.
“I was an international guy at work,” he said. “Whenever I got time off, I’d come back. I said, ‘Well, when I do retire that’s where I’m going to go.’”
He did just that, in 1998, building a house on the property, which he finished in 2000. Though retired, Field felt he needed something to occupy his time. He put his love of boats and water to use and became the Mattapoisett harbormaster, a post he held for the next 12 years.
It was during his tenure as harbormaster that he noticed more and more pieces of Styrofoam cropping up on his property and along the rest of the Mattapoisett shoreline, from small beads to large chunks.
The source of the pollution was no mystery — Field knew that the Leisure Shores Marina used uncovered Styrofoam blocks to keep its docks afloat. These were beginning to break down, allowing pieces of foam to float away.
“We’re on the prevailing wind side,” Field said. “And whatever comes out of that marina, which is right across the way, ends up here. We find everything. Oil cans, coke bottles …”
He said the Styrofoam had always been here, “but the longer it went the worse it got.” He noted that over the years oil and age break the foam floats down.
In 2005, Field wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen. He didn’t receive a response or even an acknowledgement of its receipt. Undeterred, Field kept at it — attending town meetings and talking to various committees and boards.
He told anyone who would listen that allowing these Styrofoam flotation blocks to break down and pollute the surrounding area shouldn’t be permitted. But nobody else seemed as willing to fight for a change.
It wasn’t until early 2013, after Field retired from the position of harbormaster, that he began to make progress. Fed up with the lack of response from the town and other government agencies, Field contacted the Buzzards Bay Coalition (BBC), a nonprofit “dedicated to the restoration, protection, and sustainable use and enjoyment” of Buzzards Bay and its watershed.
Field said the BBC took action immediately, sending a team to examine the problem. Korrin Petersen, senior attorney for the coalition, led that team. Petersen has been working for the BBC for more than a decade years, handling their local, state and federal advocacy at town halls and in the courts.
“From that moment on,” Field said, “I had a real ally. (Petersen) ended up sort of leading this team. I get all the credit, but I don’t deserve all the credit. It was a team effort. She did just an excellent job of garnering the right people and getting the word to the right places.”
Petersen also had high praise for Field. He made it easy to help, she said, like any good citizen watchdog should. He came to the coalition with plenty of pictures of the Styrofoam — from tiny pieces to ones 8 feet long, rolled up into the salt marsh — allowing the Petersen and the BBC to understand the problem right away.
“Horace’s documentation of the problem and his involvement from very early on was critical and so important to the ultimate success of the issue,” Petersen said. “That’s key, for citizens to know that they have to stay involved.”
She noted that having a paper trail to illustrate the extent and time frame of the damage eventually made legal and policy arguments to the town and to the state much easier.
Still, even with documentation, Petersen said she was shocked by what she and her team observed on the first visit to Field’s property.
“It was winter,” she recalled, “and the grasses weren’t growing, so we were really able to get out into the marsh and see the extent of the pollution that was occurring. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it in my time here.”
With the help of the Harvard Law School’s Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, she began to research which laws the pollution might violate. Petersen said they discovered that the saltwater marsh is a protected resource under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. This meant that the Styrofoam debris altering the salt marsh was a violation of that law.
With this information, they wrote a letter to the Mattapoisett Conservation Commission, to notify it of the violations. The commission then requested that the marina, the BBC and Field all come to a commission meeting to discuss the problem.
Petersen said the main problem was the unprotected Styrofoam floats that the marina was using. Best-management practices require floats to be covered in black plastic to prevent them from breaking down.
During the next two years, the parties argued back and forth during conservation commission hearings. Initially, the debate centered on the legality of the marina’s use of the Styrofoam blocks. The marina said it was legal. However, it soon became clear that its permit stated it was to use “encapsulated flotation.”
The debate then turned to the time frame for replacement of the blocks. Though the marina claimed it needed five years to replace all of the blocks, Petersen said, it ended up replacing all of the floats before the commission even came to its final resolution, in summer 2015.
Together with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Conservation Commission also issued an agreement between the marina and the state requiring that marina clean up within 300 feet of mean high water and to retrieve and remove any Styrofoam within a 2,500-foot radius of the marina, Petersen said. That included the salt marsh in front of Field’s house.
“I would say that this was a victory,” Petersen said. “It was a great example of a citizen blowing the whistle and a regional advocacy organization coming together with the town to clean up a pollution source.”
Field said the process taught him some important lessons. “Be persistent, and be honest. Have a cause that is bulletproof, and don’t let up on it until you get satisfactory results,” he said.
Sad that the marina took so long to do the right thing. But even then, they changed only because the law told them to, not because they cared about whether their practices were fouling the marsh. What will it take for people to care more about a clean environment than inconvenience or financial loss?