2002-10-12 / Front Page

Toxic Dredge Spoils:Restoration Or Despoliation?

By Howard Schwach

Toxic Dredge Spoils:
Restoration Or Despoliation?
By Howard Schwach

Experts say that both the DEC and the Army Corps of Engineers believe that the borrow pits are "degraded," meaning that there is no life in the pits.Experts say that both the DEC and the Army Corps of Engineers believe that the borrow pits are "degraded," meaning that there is no life in the pits.

It all depends on how you look at it. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers say that the plan to bury toxic dredge spoils in the "borrow pits" at the east end of Jamaica Bay is a "restoration project." Many Rockaway environmentalists and officials, however, say that the toxic material will "despoil the bay and its environment."

"We are now completing a research study to find out if the habitat in those borrow pits needs restoration," Peter Constantakes, a spokesperson for the DEC told The Wave this week. "We're looking to see if such a project would be successful in that restoration. We need to do this study to find out if the fill would improve the habitat."

Bryce Wisemiller, the project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agrees.

"We're still in the data collection phase," Wisemiller says. "There really is no plan to use the borrow pits for the dredge material and there won't be until we have completed the data collection late this year or early next year."

Both men told The Wave, however, that should the study find that the borrow pit habitat is in need of restoration, then burying the dredge spoils in the pits would become an option to complete that restoration.

"If we need to raise those sites, then we would have to look at how to do that, what we would need to fill them in," Wisemiller said.

And, both men realize that using toxic dredge spoils in Jamaica Bay has become a controversial subject.

"We understand that there are community concerns about this plan," the DEC spokesperson said. "It has been proposed more than a decade ago and was never carried out. We understand that it is still a controversial plan, but there is no real plan until we collect all of the data.

Experts say that both the DEC and the Army Corps of Engineers believe that the borrow pits are "degraded," meaning that there is no life in the pits. They also believe that the deep pits keep the east end of the bay from flushing with the tide, therefore exacerbating the loss of marsh grass that the bay has been experiencing in recent years.

The pits were originally dug in the bay to provide fill for the extension of the runways at JFK Airport.

Those who oppose the plan argue that the DEC is using Rockaway as a dumping ground, that the toxic dredge spoils must be dredged from New York Harbor in order to keep it open for shipping and that those toxic spoils must be dumped somewhere. Those opponents say that Rockaway has been chosen for this dumping plan and that the "restoration project" is simply a subterfuge to give that plan credibility.

Jim Scarcella, the president of the Staten Island-based Friends of Clearwater recently dove into the borrow pits and videotaped what he found. The Wave recently viewed the videotape, which shows the borrow pits teeming with all sorts of marine life.

"The state has generated a spin to prove that the pits are so degraded that doses of dredge spoils are needed to solve the problem," says Bernie Blum, the president of the Friends of Rockaway. "Only they could call this toxic dumping a restoration plan."

"Agencies such as the DEC and the Corps of Engineers are under a lot of political pressure to dredge the harbor and dispose of the dredged material, which is all toxic," Blum told The Wave. "Rockaway seems to be the likely site."

Broad Channel resident Don Riepe was recently named "Bay Guardian" by the DEC. Riepe says that he wants to see the data before he makes a decision on whether some sort of remediation is needed for the borrow pits.

"I want to see the evidence that the pits have degraded," he says. "If they are, then I want to see by what criteria they made that decision."

"If the pits are degraded," he says, "then there are only two options that would be acceptable - leaving them alone or using clean fill to close them up. Under no conditions would we allow toxic dredge spoils to be used for that purpose."

"If the consensus in the scientific community is that the pits are degraded, then it might be better to use clean fill than to leave them alone," the Bay Guardian concludes.

The DEC's data collection should take until late this year or early next year. Then, a restoration design has to be proposed and an environmental impact statement must be written and presented to the public for comment. That process could take several months to a year to complete.

"We are not looking at a plan that would begin dumping the material next week," Wisemiller says. "Minimally, we are looking at 2005 at the earliest."

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