Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder’s legislation that would prevent hazardous materials from being dumped into Jamaica Bay and limit the risk of water contamination passed the state Assembly last week and awaits a vote in the state Senate.
“This legislation is not only vital to protect the waters of Jamaica Bay from hazardous dumping, but it will ensure that thousands of endangered bird species and wildlife remain safe,” said Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) in announcing Assembly passage. “It is unacceptable that the Senate is dragging their feet with this critical legislation and I strongly urge all my colleagues in the Senate to vote on this bill today and ensure our waters do not go another day unprotected.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation does not have guidelines for dumping in state waters, including Jamaica Bay. This legislation would prohibit DEC from issuing permits that would allow hazardous materials from being dumped into the “borrow pits” of Jamaica Bay and contaminating the surrounding waters.
Borrow pits include a number of locations throughout the bay that have an increased depth as a result of past Army Corps of Engineers dredging projects that have removed sand from the bay floor to fill in adjacent areas. The increased depth has caused oxygenation problems that has affected life in the bay.
Since the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began harbor dredging operations in 1985, it has repeatedly proposed dumping materials contaminated with PCBs and other pollutants in the borrow pits of the bay and cover the dumped materials with a layer of sand to keep the toxic chemicals from getting out, reducing the depth of the borrow pits in the bay and improving the oxygen issues.
Dumping contaminated materials in the bay would also be cheaper for the Port Authority than shipping them out of state.
But environmental activists like Dan Mundy Jr., of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, have spent the last 30 years fighting those plans, noting that environmental experts don’t believe a layer of sand would protect the bay from contaminated silt because the sand would move or sink into the muck.
In 2010, the Regional Plan Association, in proposals to extend runways at JFK Airport into the bay, suggested using the contaminated material to fill in parts of the bay where runways would be built. One of the biggest and most problematic borrow pits in the bay sits just off the airport in what is called Grassy Bay.
A law similar to Goldfeder’s proposed bill already exists to prevent dumping of toxic materials in ocean waters, but Jamaica Bay is not included despite its direct connection to the ocean through the Rockaway Inlet. The Port Authority does dump uncontaminated silt from the harbor dredging projects in the ocean.
“Goldfeder’s legislation will close a legislative loophole that has threatened Jamaica Bay for over 30 years,” Mundy said in a prepared statement. “The current regulation that allows contaminated fill to be placed in the waters of the bay has attracted numerous ill-conceived plans that are possibly driven by huge potential financial benefits to a few, while potentially destroying the bay forever. This legislation will end these plans and the threats they pose for good.”
He said the bill was crafted to specifically focus on Jamaica Bay and not other bodies of water in the state to make passage easier.
The bill has passed the state Assembly multiple times before, including in the last session, but would go on to die in the Senate each time.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) is sponsoring the bill in the state Senate. He said it had died in previous sessions because of opposition from former Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Senate leaders saw the issue as a “local matter,” he said, and deferred to the Mayor’s Office. Bloomberg was opposed to it and that kept it off the Senate floor.
“It was [Bloomberg’s] resistance to the bill that killed it in the Senate,” Addabbo said.
Mundy said he knew of opposition from the city Economic Development Corp., but wasn’t certain that it went as far up as the former mayor, whom he praised for his work in helping Jamaica Bay.
“EDC stated their opposition to the bill in the Senate and I’ve spoken to EDC about it,” Mundy said. “I have a lot of issues with the 12 years Bloomberg was in office, but you can’t deny he’s done a lot for Jamaica Bay.”
Addabbo did not know where Mayor de Blasio stands on the bill and would meet with aides at City Hall in the next few weeks to talk about the issue. He said he hopes to get de Blasio’s support for the bill.