2007-10-05 / Front Page

Marsh Grass Disappearance May Be City's Fault: DEP

By Howard Schwach

It took the city's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) just under two years, and several hundred pages, to say what many locals have known for some time. Many of the problems faced by Jamaica Bay and threats to its vital ecology have been caused by the city itself, which dumps tons of sewage and runoff from its water treatment plants directly into that body of water.

At an August hearing conducted by the DEP, Broad Channel activist Dan Mundy talks about the loss of marsh grass on Jamaica Bay. Mundy says that he is unhappy with the plan issued this week to remediate the bay's ecological problems. At an August hearing conducted by the DEP, Broad Channel activist Dan Mundy talks about the loss of marsh grass on Jamaica Bay. Mundy says that he is unhappy with the plan issued this week to remediate the bay's ecological problems. "The quality of the water [in the bay] is degraded by discharges via Water Pollution Control Plants (WPCP's), combined sewer outfalls, and storm sewers. These activities have synergistically affected historic flow patterns in the bay, eradicated natural habitat, impacted water quality and modified the rich ecosystem that was present prior to the extensive urban development of the watershed," the DEP report says.

The report also lays the blame on such things as filling operations, borrow pits dug to extend JFK's runways and bulkheading of the bayfront to stabilize and protect communities along the bay.

The new information comes in a report issued on Tuesday by the DEP. The report, which was mandated by the City Council and the Mayor, talks about the problems facing the bay and "outlines a comprehensive set of strategies to maintain and restore the water quality and ecological integrity" of Jamaica Bay.

The city agency, however, says that it can't do it alone.

The report talks about the funding necessary and the cooperation of other city and state agencies.

Experts have long believed that the city's wastewater program, which includes several large wastewater plants surrounding the bay, including one on Beach 108 Street in Rockaway, has caused the bay to become heavily concentrated with nitrogen, a byproduct of the wastewater cleaning process.

That nitrogen promotes the growth of algae and reduces the amount of oxygen needed for fish and plants to live.

While experts have been working to find clues as to why a large percentage of the marshes in the bay have disappeared over the past two decades, many have long believed that nitrogen was the major culprit.

In order to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the bay, the DEP says that it will add carbon at two of its water treatments plants - the 26 Ward Plant across the bay near the Belt Parkway, and the Jamaica Plant, near John F. Kennedy Airport, two of the largest plants on Jamaica Bay.

The DEP also wants to harvest the excess algae and sea lettuce in the bay.

The agency also wants to clean sewers on a regular basis to help clean the outfill that flows into the bay whenever there is a storm and to plant shellfish back into the bay.

Environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council and local activists such as Broad Channel resident Dan Mundy, who has been credited with bringing the marsh loss to public view, are not sure the DEP plan will do any good.

"Based on what we have been told, the plan identifies the most significant problems facing Jamaica Bay and sets out certain steps for responding to those problems," says Brad Sewell, cochair of the advisory committee that was set up to study the bay. "The plan calls for steps to make at least some short-term reduction in the nitrogen pollution into the bay. We urge that DEP receive the necessary funding to move these actions forward. But these actions alone, including the limited action on nitrogen pollution, are not enough to save the bay. This plan must be seen as the beginning, not the end, of forceful efforts to revive the bay."

Mundy is even more concerned over the tenor of the report.

"I'm not satisfied with the report at all," Mundy told The Wave on Tuesday. "There are no timetables, no real acceptance of the blame, no real call to action to remove the nitrogen from the bay."

"They glorify the bay in the report," he added. "They say how important it is, but where is the action to save it?"

Mundy said that there is one good aspect to the plan and that is the end of the proposal to fill up the borrow pits that were dug to extend the runways with toxic waste dredged from New York Harbor.

All-in-all, he does not believe that the plan realistically addresses the bay's problems.

"The plan is not acceptable," he said. "They must reduce the nitrogen level in the bay and this plan does not do that."

He also said that the plan to harvest the excess seaweed from the bay is something that should not be undertaken.

"There is too much seaweed to remove unless a special boat to do the job is developed," he said, adding that crabs and fish flourish on the seaweed.

"It is the wrong thing to do, but they are going to do it," he said.

"It's frustrating," Mundy concluded. "It's a bit [of a] con job. When are they going to start doing it? I want them to show me the money. To do something to get rid of the nitrogen."

"Until they begin to do something," he said, "the plan means nothing but lots of paper."

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