2010-04-09 / Columnists

Rock Solid

A Tale Of Two Meetings
Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

What do YOU do on Tuesday evenings? Come on, admit it—a lot of people work their schedules around that phenomenally successful television program, “American Idol.” Others are addicted to “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s fine to watch these shows, but when an important weekday community meeting is on the schedule, I believe democracy demands that we all set our timers—after all, that’s what DVR (digital video recording) is for!

This week, our local ecology heroes from Broad Channel competed against “American Idol,” and won. The meeting room at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was packed on Tuesday, April 6, for the meeting of the Jamaica Bay Task Force, chaired by Dan Mundy of Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers and Don Riepe of the American Littoral Society. It was standing room only. I counted almost 60 people in attendance. Not bad for a Tuesday night.

And it wasn’t just the quantity, but the quality of the attendees that counted. Almost all of the local government agencies involved with Jamaica Bay sent representatives, including New York City’s Parks Department and Department of Environmental Protection; New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture, and the National Park Service; the Port Authority of N.Y. & N.J.; the Interstate Environmental Commission; even the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County. Mundy chairs the environmental committee of our local Community Board 14, and at least one other Community Board across the bay in Brooklyn was represented at the meeting, as well.

Many elected officials also sent representatives—including the offices of one U.S. Congressman; one New York City Councilmember; two New York State Assemblymembers; and the Queens Borough President. Elected officials who did not send representatives were duly noted. I’ll leave it to readers to figure out which ones did not, as some of them are quite busy these days. Busy responding to the baying of the news-hounds from the print and broadcast media, who smelled blood several months ago and can now, it seems, reload each day with an unending stream of embarrassing new documents obtained from Freedom of Information requests. Short-staffed too, what with aides resigning, left and right, to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.”

Groups and individual activists for protection and public use of the waterfront filled out the crowd—Steve Wohl and Joe Hartigan are well-informed and asked good questions, Rick Horan represented Gateway Bike and Boathouse and the Rockaway Park Homeowners’ and Residents, and I attended on behalf of Sebago Canoe Club to find out more about the upcoming dredging of Paerdegat Basin. There are usually a few researchers and scientists from local colleges and universities, as well, who bring important technical expertise. The meeting was publicized through various electronic list serves. If you want to get on those lists, send an email to Riepe at driepe@nyc.rr.com.

The meetings of the Jamaica Bay Task Force have not always been so well attended in the past, and key players necessary for progress were often absent from the room, as recently as October last year. What changed in six months? Alarmed by the dramatic decline of marshland in the bay and the increased nitrogen overloading from New York City’s water treatment plants, environmentalists gave up on carrots and decided to try using a stick instead. Late last year, they called in the lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Brad Sewell and Larry Levine, to help.

Multiple meetings were unsuccessful in resolving the issues, so a lawsuit was threatened against the City of New York, which has consistently failed to meet the state’s clean water standards with respect to the bay. John McLaughlin, the local DEP official in charge of Jamaica Bay projects, who has the difficult task of coming up with solutions, says he often silences heated exchanges at meetings by asking “what would YOU do if you had to figure out what to do with 40,000 pounds of nitrogen discharges a day”? It gets people to think.

Anyway, you may have read about the proposed settlement of the legal dispute in the March 5 issue of The Wave, or in the other metro dailies and local newspapers. I don’t believe the New York Times gave it much ink. The details to actually implement the settlement have not yet been worked out, but when they are, that smelly water treatment plant in the west end of the Rockaway peninsula at Beach 106 Street and Beach Channel Drive will be upgraded. I can’t think of a more regular aesthetic affront to my senses than that facility. Now that’s a palpable “quality of life” improvement!

The settlement of issues regarding nitrogen overloading in Jamaica Bay is, to paraphrase Mundy, the biggest thing to affect this area in 40 years. It’s the biggest thing since the passage of The Clean Water Act in 1972, and the establishment of Gateway National Recreation Area shortly thereafter, in 1974. It took thousands of hours of time and dedicated effort to achieve this tenuous balance of power between environmental activists and our elected officials.

The powers that be are listening. They are responding. To save Jamaica Bay, we have to figure out where to put 20,000 pounds of excess nitrogen. That’s 20,000 pounds a day.

Any ideas?

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