By Sarina Trangle
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill earlier this month temporarily extending the ban on disposing certain hazardous materials in the ocean to the waters of Jamaica Bay, the largest wetland habitat in the city and home to a significant bird sanctuary.
The legislation prohibits the state from authorizing an agency, a company or other party from burying PCBs and heavy metals in ditches previously dug in the bay, as has been proposed by the city in recent years.
Because it is expensive to remediate such containments or find sanctioned disposal methods, the bills’ authors and sponsors secured support from the city for a trial period because the state usually confers with the city on such proposals. The compromise was a law that will expire after three years.
Still, Dan Mundy Jr., a Broad Channel resident and member of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, which helped draft the bill, called it a victory.
“The federal standards are pretty strong, common-sense ones. PCBs, heavy metals, these are clearly known to be harmful,” Mundy said of the federal protocols dictating what can and cannot be deposited in the ocean. “You can’t put this in the ocean because it becomes part of the food chain.”
Jamaica Bay’s expansive wetlands provide habitat for more than 325 species of birds, offer a safe breeding space and serve as a crucial refueling area for migrating birds, according to the city Audubon Society.
Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, a group of environmentalists seeking to preserve the bay, began fighting various government agencies’ plans to pack sand containing toxins into burrows and cover it with clean soil.
Mundy said the burrows remained from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to dredge pathways for larger ships and build up various regions for development, such as the construction of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
He said the city Economic Development Corp. began discussing digging up portions of the bay in the 1990s to ensure ports could accommodate new ships and remain competitive.
Federal provisions prevented dug-up soil from being deposited in the ocean if it contained a certain level of toxins, so the EDC explored pouring it into Jamaica Bay’s burrows and sealing it off with fresh sand, according to Mundy.
Community outrage prevented sludge from flying into the ditches, but fears remained.
“Anytime you have a loophole, particularly one that may save a party millions, you can’t let your guard down,” he said. “As soon as you let your guard down, they get approved overnight.”
State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Beach) and state Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach), who introduced the bill in their respective chambers, said they planed to work with the Ecowatchers on extending the protection beyond three years.
“Life in the water, on the water and around the water must be preserved,” Addabbo said in a statement. “I hope this legislation will ensure future generations can enjoy the serenity and beauty for years to come.”
Goldfeder said the move was financially and environmentally necessary.
“This law will not only protect the waters of Jamaica Bay from hazardous dumping, but also ensure that thousands of endangered bird species and wildlife remain safe,” he said in a statement.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.