Can Industry Save A Staten Island Marsh?

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Richmond Terrace, the bumpy former cow path that is the main road along Staten Island’s North Shore, starts at the St. George Ferry Terminal and winds past dozens of storage lots, old factories, transfer stations, high sheet-metal fences and, occasionally, a park. Six miles later, just east of the Goethals Bridge, it reaches its end among heavy trucks and stacked shipping containers at the Howland Hook Marine Terminal.

The port, operated on public land by New York Container Terminal, a private company, is one of Staten Island’s largest businesses. The company, officials said, has a $53 million payroll and more than 550 employees, unloading around 400,000 shipping containers a year.

But that, company officials and their allies in government say, is not big enough. The terminal, in plans outlined in a series of filings and public forums in the early months of this year, is seeking to expand its 187-acre site with a fourth container ship berth. According to the plans, the $350 million expansion would create more than 300 new jobs. It would also pave over a rare undeveloped swath of North Shore waterfront, and fill in or dredge something even rarer than that: 16.38 acres of coastal wetlands, some of the last in the city.

Because of the wetlands, which are part of a larger area called Arlington Marsh, the project requires approval from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. That could take years to secure. In the meantime, port representatives, local officials and environmentalists are grappling with some daunting questions: Is the waterfront chiefly a natural resource or an economic one? Is there any way to undo decades of environmental damage? And if there is, will anyone will pay for it?

For environmental advocates, the site of the proposed port expansion is at once a vital piece of a dwindling natural resource, and a symbol of how badly the shoreline has historically been mistreated.

Before the arrival of industry there, “Essentially 100 percent of the northwest of Staten Island was salt marsh,” said Richard Lynch, staff botanist at the Sweetbay Magnolia Conservancy, a local environmental group, during an interview this month. “We’re talking about the last 3 percent of salt marsh that can be filled, when 97 percent of salt marsh at Howland Hook and Port Ivory has already been filled.”

Later, on a walk through some of the land, he added, “Staten Islanders can’t look at this as just one project. We have to look at it as part of a never-ending process of development.”

One virtual certainty is that, if the DEC eventually allows the expansion, it will require the port to make up for filling in the wetlands by creating some public space elsewhere. The company’s preference, its president, Jim Devine, said in a telephone interview, is to rehabilitate a city-owned piece of Arlington Marsh directly adjacent to the expansion site, with walking trails, oyster beds and light marshland.

Community Board 1, which represents the area, supports the expansion project, said its district manager, Joseph Carroll. The board had previously favored putting a city sanitation garage on the adjacent marshland, Carroll said, but now would like to see the container terminal rehabilitate part of it and open it to the public. In general, Carroll said, the board favors the expansion because of its economic benefits – assuming there is sufficient mitigation.

With regard to the wetlands to be filled in, he added, the board has to make a judgment: “Are you destroying something that is irreplaceable? And the answer to that question is no.”

Proponents of the port expansion claim that the wetlands are already so polluted, from centuries of industrial use, that without the new port and accompanying remediation they will not represent a real environmental resource. A New York Container Terminal study of the land for the port expansion and the city land that would become a park shows high levels of contamination from heavy metals, pesticides and a host of other contaminants. Devine, who has a degree in marine biology, referred to Arlington Marsh as “Arlington toxic dump,” and James Molinaro, the borough president and a staunch container port advocate, scoffed at the idea that the expansion site represents wetlands worth preserving.

“I will just put it for you this way, so there’s no misunderstanding where I come from,” Molinaro said, in an interview in his office in Borough Hall. “That’s all goobledygock. It’s all bullshit, in plain English.”

Kerry Sullivan, a former tugboat worker and the executive director of the Natural Resources Protective Association, a consortium of environmental and conservation groups focusing on local waterways, shares a mutual enmity with Molinaro—he was arrested for writing “the Jerk” on a Molinaro campaign poster, and after the charges were dropped, he sued the city. (The suit is still pending.) On a recent visit to the site, Sullivan said the borough president and his allies mischaracterize the land.

“There’s beaver back in there, there’s muskrat, there’s sea turtles,” he said, pointing past a fence into the marsh. “It’s just filled with wildlife back in there.”

Omnipresent city fences around the property, Sullivan said, prevent local residents from seeing how much life remains there.

But local environmentalists differ on the pros and cons of the Arlington proposal. Sullivan, and Beryl Thurman, executive director of the nonprofit North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, want to block the port expansion, citing the wetlands’ role in filtering toxins and preventing flooding during storms.

Lynch, meanwhile, said he could support the port expansion under the right circumstances – if the container terminal, in a sweeping act of mitigation, were to buy a much larger site just south of the Goethals Bridge and rehabilitate that as public marshland instead. That 640-acre property, which had been the proposed site of a NASCAR race track, is now being considered for warehouse development – a possibility that Lynch argues is much more likely if the container terminal is expanded. Saving that area for the public rather than warehouses, he argued, could make the tradeoff of losing 16.3 acres of Arlington Marsh worthwhile.

But any fissures that exist in the local environmental movement may be moot, given Devine’s reaction to Lynch’s idea.

“If I had unlimited funds and just wanted to do something from an environmental husbanding standpoint, I’d gladly do it,” he said of the swap. “But that’s not in the cards.”

Devine said it is still too early to talk formally about mitigation, since his company is still in talks with the DEC about the size of the port expansion–the agency is pushing for a smaller footprint, he said, while the company maintains that is impossible. Meanwhile, he touted the project’s jobs benefits—although Thurman questioned whether the jobs the port will provide will go to people who live in the low-income areas closest to the site.

Much of the argument for the expansion, though, involves the cleanup of the toxins that have been detected in the land. Sacrificing the 16.3 acres of marshland to be paved in the expansion, container port supporters maintain, is the only way to clean up the marshland that isn’t being paved.

The adjacent land that the port’s leadership favors for mitigation, at the mouth of Arlington Marsh, has been under the control of the city parks and sanitation departments for years but is closed to the public. Without the port expansion, “It’s going to be fenced off, because the city’s bankrupt,” Devine said, adding, “It’s not an idyllic situation that you can just do everything you want to do. That’s why I’m saying we’re the best alternative to help. Nobody wants to pay higher taxes. I sure in hell don’t.”

Molinaro, who has been borough president since 2002 and was deputy borough president for 12 years before that, dismissed the idea of a government-sponsored cleanup of the marsh. “The city government doesn’t have that money, the state government doesn’t have that kind of money, the federal government doesn’t have that kind of money,” he said. “It’s a process that needs to be done very slowly. You know who’s going to do it? Private industry, when they want to use the land.”

With local government firmly behind the project, Lynch said he may soon take a different approach in opposing the current port expansion proposal. It involves putting pressure on the container terminal’s unlikely owner: the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, which administers the pensions of 271,000 active and retired Canadian teachers, and which bought the company in 2007.

“Maybe their membership can take a vote on whether they want to be known as a union that supports destroying wetlands in New York City,” he said.

This article is the second in a three-part series about the environment on Staten Island. To read part one, click here.To read part three, click here.