Feds pump brakes on storm barrier
Posted October 22, 2018 8:07 a.m. EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. _ Federal officials have slowed an aggressive planning schedule on possible construction of giant, multibillion-dollar gates in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the mouth of the Hudson River to protect New York City from massive storm surges.
Environmental groups welcomed that step by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and credited the state Department of Environmental Conservation and mounting concern from riverfront communities for persuading Army planners to take more time.
Last fall, the Corps announced it was studying how to protect New York City from damaging flooding such as that experienced during 2012's Superstorm Sandy, which caused $70 billion in damage and killed 44 New Yorkers.
An ongoing feasibility study is considering six possible plans, two of which involve barriers and gates in New York Harbor and elsewhere that could be raised to block incoming storm surges from the ocean. The gates would allow shipping to pass through.
The largest plan would place a 5-mile barrier across the harbor from Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Breezy Point in Queens, while another plan envisions placing a shorter barrier closer to the mouth of the Hudson at the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with four smaller barriers elsewhere around the region.
Other proposals would involve shoreline barriers along sections of Manhattan, Queens and the New Jersey shoreline, but these designs would leave the mouth of the Hudson unobstructed.
Initially, the Corps intended to winnow down the six plans to one or two preferred alternatives before the end of this year. But that step will not happen until early 2020, the Corps announced this month.
Also, the Corps will release a draft interim report in early 2019 that will be made public, with subsequent public meetings to be scheduled.
Last month, the head of the Corps' New York District, Col. Thomas Asbery, called the study "an undertaking of an unprecedented nature and scope relative to any study undertaken in the northeast. The scope and importance of the study cannot be overstated."
He said the project "involves the financial capital of the world, national transit and shipping hubs, miles of beaches and an estuary designated as national significance."
The delay was welcomed by John Lipscomb, who oversees Hudson River patrols for the environmental group Riverkeeper.
"It is great that the public now has more time to review this," Lipscomb said. "The Corps was initially going to take six plans down to one or two before the end of this year, without any form of environmental review."
Riverkeeper and other environmental groups have warned that closing off the mouth of the Hudson from the Atlantic Ocean could damage the ecology of the river, which is tidal all the way to Troy.
"The river is a living thing," said Lipscomb. "Cutting it off from the ocean would be like putting a plastic bag over someone's head and tying it off."
He said Corps officials initially estimated the largest stormgate plan could carry a price tag of between $30 billion and $50 billion. Lipscomb added that during a meeting this month, officials indicated it could be up to $140 billion.
Last month, DEC Water Resources Deputy Commissioner James Tierney attended a meeting with Corps engineering officials in Manhattan on the project, according to a photograph tweeted out by the Corps on Sept. 27.
Also, 17 riverfront communities _ including Ulster County, Poughkeepsie, and Kingston _ have passed resolutions urging the Corps to allow more time for public review and input.
Lipscomb said that pressure from DEC was welcome, but he also questioned why the DEC website contains "not one word" about the proposal or links to the Corps' webpages on the plans.
He urged DEC to "step out of the shadows" and highlight all publicly available information on the measure.
Responding to questions from the Times Union, the DEC press office issued a statement that the agency is "committed to ensuring that (the Corps) is doing its utmost to make New Yorkers aware and engaged regarding all reasonable options to bolster coastal storm resilience, abate the worst impacts of our changing climate, account for sea level rise, protect our natural resources and coastal economies, and safeguard the nation's largest economic and population center."
DEC and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection have been working with the Corps on the planning since mid-2016.
Michael Embrich, a spokesman for the Corps's New York District, said it was "in the very early stages of this study and nothing has been decided about potential study features. It could be found that all or none of the potential features are fiscally or environmentally acceptable."
He added that the current comment period on the six potential projects runs through Nov. 5, rather than the initial deadline of Aug. 20. "We welcome all data, comments, or supporting documents that are relevant to this study," he said.
A copy of the Corps plan can be found online at https://bit.ly/2pX0NVY.