Six years after Superstorm Sandy battered the Atlantic Coast, the Army Corps of Engineers this summer rolled out its plans to secure the New York shoreline — and once again found itself in a bitter fight with environmentalists who say the blueprint is an ecological disaster waiting to happen.
The Corps’ proposals would construct massive sea barriers off the coasts of New York and New Jersey to prevent the kinds of widespread flooding and property damage resulting from the 2012 storm.
But environmental and conservation groups say the proposals are totally unworkable and would disrupt water flows. One prominent New York advocacy group said the approach represents an “existential threat” to the Hudson River, and some state lawmakers accused the Corps of rushing its deliberations and not spending enough time talking with local stakeholders.
The Atlantic Coast debate is the latest example of how the Corps, despite its best efforts to stay above the political fray, routinely finds itself in the middle of ugly fights over water projects, oil and gas pipelines, energy infrastructure and a host of other issues that fall under its purview. The Corps’ Civil Works project received $6.8 billion in funding this fiscal year, according to Army data, and the Corps in 2018 is slated to complete feasibility studies on a host of projects across the country.
Although much of the Corps’ work flies under the radar, a handful of projects have generated a backlash.
A proposal to excavate 150,000 tons of sand from Michigan’s Saugatuck Dunes in order to create a harbor channel, gas pipelines proposed in West Virginia and Louisiana, and the rollback of the Obama-era “waters of the U.S. rule” are just a few of the Corps projects that have generated controversy. Critics often say the Corps isn’t sensitive enough to environmental concerns.
Corps officials deny those charges and stress that they fully consider all environmental impacts of each project.
In the case of the New York flood proposal, however, opposition has continued to mount in the weeks since the Corps formally released its six draft proposals to prevent a repeat of Sandy, which caused an estimated $70 billion in damage to the region just before the 2012 presidential election.
“Anyone who cares about the Hudson River needs to become informed and involved, now. Several of these plans — specifically, the ones including giant in-water barriers throughout New York Harbor — would threaten the very existence of the Hudson as a living river,” the New York-based group Riverkeeper said after the proposals were made public.
“From Day One, these offshore barriers would start to restrict the tidal flow, contaminant and sediment transport, and migration of fish,” the group said. “They would impede the tidal ‘respiration’ of the river. We fear that a slow death would be inflicted on the river, and that in time, the barriers would slowly, but surely, strangle the life out of the river as we know it.”
Officials said they are evaluating the six Army Corps proposals and hope to make a decision and deliver a workable draft plan by the end of the year.
One option involves building a massive sea barrier off New York Harbor with gates that can open to allow ships to pass. Another proposal would involve building a barrier at the mouth of the harbor near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, stretching all the way to Queens.
Others involve building much smaller barriers along various points along the shore. Each proposal remains in a conceptual stage, and many of the details — beyond rough draft drawings released ahead of public meetings this month in New York — have yet to be hammered out.
Corps officials say they are committed to protecting the densely populated region from further flooding and damage but do not guarantee that any of the six preliminary plans will be workable.
“It could be that all of them are found environmentally unacceptable and feasibly unacceptable. Right now we’re in the data-collection phase,” Army Corps spokesman Michael Embrich told The Washington Times.
“We’re really just fact-finding. We really don’t know a lot about what’s going to happen with this process.”
The proposal are “not set in stone,” he said. “They could all be found environmentally or fiscally unacceptable. … We don’t know that yet because we’re very early” in the process.
Riverkeeper and other groups have said that only one of the Corps’ plans — one that would use only shoreline-based walls and levees and would not use any barriers beyond the shore — is environmentally acceptable.
Question of timing
As the process unfolds, some New York officials say the Corps is fast-tracking the debate.
“We know that intense storms are becoming more frequent and something must be done, but let’s put in the time and thought and have the public comment needed to make informed decisions,” New York state Sen. Terrence Murphy, a Republican, told The Associated Press this month.
Meanwhile, the Corps is under fire from environmental groups over other projects as well. A coalition of environmental groups called on the Corps this month to reject permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would span roughly 600 miles and run from West Virginia to North Carolina. The organizations said they will ask courts to intervene if the Corps refuses to halt the permitting process.
In May, green groups sued the Corps on charges that it was shirking its responsibility to protect the shores of Puget Sound by allowing a practice known as “armoring” — the construction of structures on the shore to prevent erosion — to go forward without the proper environmental reviews.
In January, another coalition of environmental groups sued the Corps over its approval of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which would connect to existing pipelines and carry oil from North Dakota to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
The Corps does not comment on ongoing litigation, but officials stress that environmental concerns are taken into account with any project. They also say they welcome input from all sides, even those that oppose a particular project.
“Dialogue and transparency are our goals. … We want this input, and that’s why we have so many opportunities for the public to come and submit data,” Mr. Embrich said.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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