No Fore Warning

Print More

Dwayne Jenkins grimaces and wrinkles his nose as he inspects a trench full of gravel, ringed by rusty cans, rags and unidentifiable gunk, that snakes past a dusty basketball court where a group of screaming children are playing. When completed, the trench will be the first piece of a new community park on Balcom Avenue in the Bronx. Until the 1,200-foot-long ditch was installed in May as a safety measure, nearby monitoring devices were registering underground levels of methane gas that ranged from 2.6 to 4.2 percent of the air. State regulations call for corrective action when that level reaches 1.25 percent. At 5 percent and up, methane can explode.

According to state environmental officials, the trench has stopped the gas. Jenkins was worried that the methane would migrate across the street from the park and explode in the basements of the Throggs Neck Houses, a 2,800-resident public housing complex where he is vice president of the tenants association.

Explosions are not all that Jenkins is concerned about. The trench works by catching the methane, which is produced by decomposing garbage, and venting it into the air. But now park users could be breathing dangerous gases, says Jenkins, a custodian at Fordham University and father of four. He notes that a recent New York State Department of Environmental Conservation study of 38 landfills shows that when methane migrates, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other poisonous substances can move with it.

“Knowing what I know, I wouldn’t recommend anybody playing in the park until the whole thing is cleaned up,” he says. Jenkins and environmental groups have repeatedly expressed concerns to state officials that VOCs may be emanating from the trench.

But the monitoring wells are being tested only for methane, says Dan Walsh, DEC’s acting regional supervisor of solid and hazardous materials. Says Walsh, “We believe that given the great age of the landfill and given the conditions of the landfill for the last 40 years–the free flow of water in and gas out–that VOCs don’t constitute a threat.”

Until the mid 1960s, when it was transferred to the Parks Department, the 220-acre section of Ferry Point Park east of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge was an active landfill. Although Robert Moses once dreamed of building a golf course there, the park sat mostly undeveloped. On its moonscape, motorcross bikes roared and jumped over dusty hills, and from a four-acre airstrip the giant model airplanes of the Blue Angels Radio Model Airplane Club soared. Entering through a hole in a fence, bikers and walkers could travel along the East River. Throughout its recent history, the park also served as a popular place to illegally dump cars, oil drums and other refuse.

But Jenkins and the Throggs Neck Tenants Association fear that plans to develop the park could bring bigger trouble. He angrily points at a huge dusty expanse a few hundred yards away from the trench, where bulldozers are pushing piles of dirt around, preparing the site for the first golf course to be built in New York City since 1963. The 195-acre, 18-hole course, slated to open in 2003, is being designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and built by J. Pierre Gagne, a developer from White Plains. Their company, Ferry Point Partners LLC, has won a 35-year franchise from the city Parks Department to build and operate the course.

The developers say that their project should meet Tournament Players Club standards set by the Professional Golf Association. Currently, there are only 25 such courses in the country. The greens fees for the new Bronx course have yet to be determined, but Chris Smith, director of public relations of PGA Tours, says he would expect them to cost significantly more than the $16.50 to $21 charged at other municipal golf courses. (For comparison, a high-quality, privately owned course in Putnam County charges $125 a day on weekends.)

The site will also include a driving range, a clubhouse and a pro shop. A waterfront park, accessible by car, will include a riverside restaurant with seating for 400 as well as a separate banquet facility capable of holding up to 825 guests. The parking lots will be able to hold 1,115 cars. In all, according to the developer’s contract with the city, the golf course and other facilities will cost approximately $22.5 million to build.

The city has a stake in the development, too. Ferry Point Partners will pay the city an annual rent, starting at $1.25 million and increasing to $3 million by the end of the 35-year contract. Alternatively, the city will get a share of the revenues, from 5 to 11 percent for the project’s first eight years and more after that, if that amount is greater than the rent.

But the city’s financial gains could quickly turn into liabilities if environmental hazards emerge later, because under the agreement the city is responsible for any problems relating to preexisting conditions at the site. If things go wrong, clean-up costs could be expensive. In 1988, a municipal course in Glendale, California, was closed for two years because explosive levels of methane gas were leaking from beneath it. Glendale spent $750,000 for a new gas collection system.

The new golf course will be quite a change of scenery for the residents of the Throggs Neck Houses. For years there were spontaneous fires at the old landfill, and children who played there broke out in hives, says Lehra Brooks, a longtime resident. “When the fires erupted, there was a big stench–you would have to close your windows,” she says.

Brooks helped organize community meetings with the Parks Department, and in 1988 the city put an impervious cap–one foot of clay and three feet of soil–over about a quarter of the landfill on the section that lies across the street from the Throggs Neck Houses. An engineer’s drawings of the cap after its completion show a contoured landscape with hills gradually rising up to 40 feet, numerous gas collection wells, a groundwater monitoring well, and vents to release pent-up methane. After the cap was put down, “we didn’t have as many fires, but we still had fires,” says Brooks.

Now the project’s developers insist the golf course will make the landfill safer. According to their lawyer, Stephen Kass, the site never had a clay cap. The developers say that the site has been covered only with soil; in fact, they’re bulldozing up to 100,000 cubic yards of the dirt to contour the golf course.

State environmental officials also say the landfill is safe. “If there were a problem, it would present itself in the first seven years” after a landfill closes, says Walsh. “After that, you’re looking at the tail end.” Walsh could not provide a decisive answer on what caused the recent methane spikes; he speculates that the gas swells resulted from frost on the ground this past winter.

But environmentalists say the emergence of the methane raises serious concerns about what else is under the surface of the landfill. What exactly could be percolating under Ferry Point is uncertain. Because the landfill closed in the 1960s, it was not subject to New York State regulations governing the operation and closure of landfills. Under current state regulations, there must be complete documentation of everything that was disposed at a site. The regulations also require a full-scale engineering report, an impermeable cap over an entire site and monitoring of the landfill by its owner for 30 years.

While Ferry Point Partners conducted its own assessment of the site’s safety in 1999, that study did not include any testing of groundwater, which would have reliably shown whether or not hazardous waste had been dumped at Ferry Point Park. Environmental engineers and golf course architects say these tests are standard practice for projects constructed on top of urban landfills. The environmental assessment of Ferry Point Park doesn’t detail what was dumped there, nor does it mention the dangerous conditions at the landfill described by neighborhood residents. On the basis of a single phone conversation with a Department of Sanitation official, the assessment states, “[T]he landfill reportedly accepted municipal solid waste.”

Yet until the early 1970s, according to Walter Hang, president of the environmental consulting firm Toxics Targeting, it was legal to unload industrial waste at garbage dumps. In addition, he says, to keep landfill dust down, the city itself spread 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of waste oil, often highly toxic, at most landfills every other day for at least six months each year.

In the 1980s, as Toxics Projects director at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Hang wrote an influential report on six New York City landfills that had been categorized as municipal garbage dumps–that is, until evidence to the contrary started surfacing. At Brookfield in Staten Island, a city sanitation official was convicted of taking bribes to dump hazardous waste. In Edgemere in the Rockaways, which had been given a clean bill of health in a Sanitation investigation that followed the bribe scandal, 3,000 barrels of industrial waste were discovered. And DEC estimated that 1.1 million gallons of hazardous waste found their way to a landfill at Pelham Bay, north of Ferry Point.

After studying over 10,000 pages of DOS records documenting what was dumped at the landfills, Hang’s report concluded that the landfills had actually received “massive quantities of toxic chemical waste in addition to consumer garbage.” Today, the city and state are spending hundreds of millions of dollars cleaning up the old municipal landfills, which are now on the state’s Superfund registry.

Hang believes Ferry Point Park could very well be eligible for Superfund site status, too. Last year, he asked DOS for records on the site; the agency told him it couldn’t find anything. But according to Hang, based on standard operating procedure at New York City dumps during the 1950s, “It would be an absolute miracle if hazardous wastes were not dumped at Ferry Point Park in vast quantities.”

_______

The golf course development is a classic example of the city shortchanging its minority residents, says Leslie Lowe, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “They’ve closed off access to the community so they cannot get to the public esplanade. And they’ve put the mitigation for the environmental hazards that the golf course is creating”–the trench–“in the only part of Ferry Point Park that the children from the Throggs Neck Houses can use,” says Lowe. “This is about as stark as it gets in terms of environmental racism.”

After reviewing the developer’s environmental assessment document, NYCEJA, along with NYPIRG and the Urban Environmental Law Center, filed suit in November 2000 to stop the golf course, alleging that the landfill had not been properly cleaned up and that developers had not adequately considered the health and safety of the nearby community. This past spring, the suit was dismissed because it was filed more than four months after the developer filed its environmental assessment.

But the lawsuit succeeded in revealing a significant piece of information that Ferry Point Partners never mentioned in its contract with the city. According to a court affidavit by a state DEC official, Ferry Point Partners was intending to collect fees for taking in 800,000 to 1,000,000 cubic yards of soil and uncontaminated construction debris from construction sites–turning it back into a waste disposal area.

Building a golf course on a landfill is a costly endeavor, says Tim Nugent, an Illinois-based golf course architect who has extensive experience with similar projects. In the past, he says, developers have financed their projects by using construction debris to shape the course and accepting fees for its disposal.

In April 2000, after discovering that the Ferry Point Partners intended to collect fees for the construction disposal, state officials insisted that Ferry Point Partners obtain a permit to operate a solid waste facility. It was that permit that required the company to install the gas monitors that later detected the methane surges near Balcom Avenue.

At the going rate of $10 to $20 a cubic yard for construction and demolition debris–and up to twice that for heavy substances like milled asphalt, which the developers are now seeking to use–Ferry Point Partners could take in enough in fees to offset much of the cost of the project.

_______

Ferry Point Partners clearly wanted the franchise badly. The group retained powerhouse lobbyist Ed Wallace, who as a City Council member in the 1980s was one of Manhattan’s two members-at-large; the other was Henry Stern, now city Parks commissioner. In the past three years, Wallace’s company, Greenberg Traurig, has spent over a quarter of a million dollars lobbying the Parks Department and other city agencies for the project. Last year, Ferry Point Partners spent $167,579 to lobby the city, the fourth highest amount spent by any company. Observes Andrew Goldberg, a lawyer with NYPIRG, “It’s a tremendous amount for one project–not like Con Edison, which has a lot of business before the city.”

The investment paid off. The new golf course has the enthusiastic support of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Community Board 10 and the Throgs Neck Homeowners Association. Many homeowners view the golf course and the new parks as desirable alternatives to what they had. There were substantial gaps in the fence surrounding the landfill, say neighborhood residents, which allowed trucks and cars to drive right into the park. “There’s been illegal dumping over the years. All these years it’s just been sitting there,” says James Vacca, District Manager of Bronx Community Board 10. “My community board is very satisfied with this project.”

The anticipated development of Ferry Point Park is already transforming the sleepy residential neighborhood of Throgs Neck, which lies on a peninsula bounded by the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Twenty-six two-family houses are being built by Parkview Estates along Balcom and Miles Avenues, just a putt away from the new course. The new houses are selling for about $400,000, and many have been sold even before being built, says Dorothy De Marco, a realtor with Town and Country Homes and Properties.

Ferry Point Partners is also building a seven-acre community park across the street from the Throggs Neck Houses, as well as a separate 19.5 acre public park and esplanade along the East River, which will have stunning views of the nearby Whitestone Bridge. But the residents of Throggs Neck Houses, which are 50 percent African American and 44 percent Latino, and where the average household income is $14,000 a year, see clear signs that most of the green space is not intended for them. Their small park will literally be walled off from both the golf course and the new riverfront access by a man-made lake and a fence extending all the way to the East River.

The only entrance to both the larger riverfront park and the golf course will be on the opposite side of Ferry Point Park, about three miles from the Throggs Neck Houses. Pedestrians will have to walk along the service road of the Hutchinson River Parkway to access the park. “They don’t want our kind going in there,” concludes Jenkins.

Local residents aren’t the only ones outraged at losing their waterfront access. The design for the riverfront park has resulted in a major de facto revision to the city planning department’s 1997 master plan for the East Bronx Greenway, which was supposed to start at Pelham Bay Park and to continue south, mostly along Eastchester Bay, before entering Ferry Point Park via Schurz Avenue. Now, because of the planned fence, bikers will have to take a detour away from the water to access the park. “This is a major defeat for the greenway–it cannot be a dead end,” says Rich Gans, chairman of the Bronx chapter of Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group. “We believe that if this park opens without East Side access it will be a travesty and a perversion of the greenway plan.”

_______

While the barriers to access were what first got NYCEJA’s attention, the group’s energies quickly turned to environmental concerns. They were particularly alarmed at the possibility that the landfill was never properly closed and that the new development could exacerbate hazards that already exist.

Golf course development does not necessarily improve conditions at a landfill. Two years ago, Janet Fletcher, an environmentalist in Kingston, Ontario, successfully sued authorities there for allowing a golf course to be built on top of a municipal landfill that had been closed in 1971. Kingston’s landfill/golf course was never properly capped because, like Ferry Point, it was closed before strict regulations governing landfill shut-downs took effect. Fletcher began investigating conditions at the golf course after her children, who went to a nearby camp, started breaking out in hives. She discovered that city officials had covered up dumping of hazardous waste, which contained high levels of hazardous compounds such as PCB’s and arsenic.

In addition, because the landfill had never been properly capped, rain was seeping through, dissolving the garbage and waste material and causing contaminants to leach out; this resulted in the pollution of an adjacent river. On wet days, leachate also flowed out from the landfill below and surfaced at the seventh hole. “At first, the golfers would just assume it was water,” says Fletcher. “But then their shoes started to disintegrate from walking through the contaminants.”

Under state law, Ferry Point Partners was required to prepare an environmental assessment for the golf course, which described the project as well as the anticipated effects it would have on the surrounding environment. Subsurface tests for methane in 49 locations over an area one-third of the size of Central Park showed extremely high methane gas concentrations in some places. About half the tests that went three feet into the ground showed methane readings of between 21 and 76 percent of the air, or four to 15 times the lower explosive limit.

Ferry Point Partners’ engineers also took 16 soil borings up to 22 feet deep, and sampled dirt on the surface in several spots. The soil boring tests found levels of dangerous substances such as pesticides, SVOCs, PCBs, arsenic and lead that exceeded state and federal risk-based criteria. Nevertheless, the assessment concluded that the construction debris and topsoil that will form the course “will isolate park users from subsurface waste materials.”

The high levels of hazardous materials found in the soil borings indicate that groundwater at the site could be highly contaminated, according to Fred Lee, an engineer who filed an affidavit on behalf of the Environmental Justice Alliance. According to Lee, the soil borings should have prompted extensive further testing.

But for the Parks Department, which would not comment for this story, the assessment provided conclusive evidence that the project would not pose any negative health or environmental impacts. In September 1999, the Parks Department signed off on the environmental assessment, allowing Ferry Point Partners to avoid preparing an environmental impact statement. An EIS would have required much more intensive testing at the landfill as well as extensive public participation.

Ferry Point Partners was not required by city or state officials to test groundwater at the site, nor does it plan to. When asked whether there were groundwater monitoring wells at the site, developer Pierre Gagne responded in an e-mail: “The land fill is 40 years old. Any leachate activity is preexisting, if any exists. This project does not contemplate causing any additional leachate.”

But Jefferson Atkins, an engineer who reviewed the project’s environmental assessment for NYCEJA, says he would have placed a well every 250 feet on slopes heading down to the river. “Leachate could already be discharging to the East River,” he says. “They are putting a million cubic yards of soil and construction debris there. It’s like standing on top of a bag of wet garbage–it’s going to squeeze out.”

Golf course architects say that it is standard operating procedure to test groundwater on a landfill where construction is taking place, to avoid liability lawsuits later. “You’d put in more than one groundwater monitoring well. You’d ring the site,” says Tim Nugent. “If you want to protect yourself from someone making accusations down the line, without establishing a baseline [measure of contamination] there’s no way to assess what you’ve done versus what was there before.”

Nugent sounded surprised to learn Ferry Point Park doesn’t have any groundwater monitoring wells. “I don’t know why a developer wouldn’t require the city to put in a groundwater monitoring well,” he says.

The absence of monitoring wells certainly works to Ferry Point Partners’ advantage. Its franchise contract with the city indemnifies the limited liability company against lawsuits stemming from conditions at the site that predate its arrival. Without a baseline, it could be very difficult to pinpoint whether a problem emerged under the city’s watch or on theirs.

The cap installed in 1988–over the section of Ferry Point Park closest to the residential area–did provide a modicum of protection, says Atkins, who has been involved in numerous landfill closings in upstate New York. “The theory is just like Egyptian mummies–it keeps the contents dry; you don’t have the leachate from the water that leaks out from rainfall,” explains Atkins. “Also, if the garbage doesn’t get wet, then the organics don’t break down biologically so you don’t get the methane and the hydrogen sulfide that gives off the rotten egg smell.”

But the developers have not yet explained how they have managed to level acres of hills and valleys without disturbing the protective cap that was contoured to fit them. “As built” drawings by the engineering firm Woodward Clyde, produced in 1988, clearly show a clay cap installed.

The environmental assessment, by contrast, doesn’t even mention a clay cap. Instead, the document refers to “additional closure operations conducted more recently in the 80’s.” “It was just additional soil in the 80s,” says Ferry Point Partners’ Stephen Kass. “The city did not put on an impervious cap of a material like clay–nor would that have been a good idea,” because, he says, it would have impeded the natural venting of methane.

State environmental officials, who have been taking an increasingly active role in overseeing the project, are allowing the developers to tear up what DEC calls “cover material” in two places for man-made lakes which will be used for irrigation and some pesticide runoff. The lakes, which will cover about 10 percent of the site, will be lined with a geomembrane liner, which is made of high-tech synthetic materials.

But putting a man-made lake on top of a landfill is a problematic operation, says Nugent, the golf course architect. Geomembrane liners have been known to leak, he says. If the lake spilled into the landfill, it would likely produce large amounts of leachate, which could pollute nearby water. Once geomembrane liners leak it is hard to remedy conditions at a landfill, says Nugent: “The horse is already out of the barn.”

Because of the sensitive issues involved with development on top of a landfill, state environmental officials say that the Ferry Point Project has been subject to an especially high degree of scrutiny. Under Ferry Point Partners’ waste disposal permit, DEC required the company to hire an independent monitor to check the truckloads of construction debris arriving at the site and make sure that only clean debris is being used. As of late May, the monitor had turned away 56 trucks for containing contaminated debris, including asphalt, which contains petroleum products and is illegal to dump in New York City.

Although Ferry Point Partners originally stated that it was the company’s intention to use only clean fill to shape the golf course, the developer is applying to the city Department of Sanitation for special permission to use asphalt millings; this past April, it requested special permission from state officials to also use fill with an elevated lead content.

As the course’s construction marks its first anniversary, just over 25 percent of the base layer for the golf course has been placed at the site. The project is more than a year behind schedule. In a written response, Gagne attributed the delay to “two lawsuits that were dismissed by the court and extensive regulatory requirements.”

The delays certainly aren’t due to the Parks Department, which signed its contract with Ferry Point Partners on May 31, 2000, and allowed work to go ahead on the site starting that August, without official city approval of the franchise. In July 2000, the City Comptroller’s office rejected the contract for several reasons, including an unspecified Department of Investigation inquiry connected to the project, but most significantly because it had not been approved–or even voted on–by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee. The FCRC is responsible for approving all major deals involving private leasing of city-owned property.

When the FCRC did finally meet on the matter, in a special session this June while a second lawsuit was pending, members agreed to waive a requirement to notify the community board of the franchise, according to minutes of the meeting. A letter from the Parks Department requesting the waiver noted that the community board had already had an opportunity to review the city’s requests for proposals for the golf course–in 1997.

By the time the comptroller finally registered the contract, on June 5, 2001, Ferry Point Partners had been working at the site for almost a year. The comptroller’s office wouldn’t comment on the contract. But NYPIRG’s Goldberg contends that the end result of the short cuts taken by the Parks Department was that the city has made a bad deal with a company that hasn’t been properly checked out.

While a star on the links, Jack Nicklaus has been less than spectacular in his business career: Two years ago, his company, Golden Bear Golf, settled a class-action lawsuit for $3.5 million with shareholders after it had to revise its loss figures from $2.9 million to $24.7 million for its golf course construction unit. Shortly after the lawsuit, Nicklaus took Golden Bear private.

When Goldberg tried to serve papers on Ferry Point Partners, he discovered that at the time it hadn’t registered to do business in New York State, nor was it even listed with directory assistance. “This is not an oversight,” Goldberg says. “It’s not like it’s somebody that cannot fill out a form to operate a hot dog stand.” •

Alex Ulam is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.