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A Five-Mile Seawall Was Supposed to Protect Staten Island by 2021. A Fight Over Radiation Cleanup Stands in the Way

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a floodwall around the Oakwood Wastewater Treatment Plant, but the area requires a cleanup of radiation that came from nearby Great Kills Park, Feb. 12, 2021.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to build a floodwall around the Oakwood Wastewater Treatment Plant. But the area requires a cleanup of radiation that came from nearby Great Kills Park
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

Radiation under a Staten Island park from a 1940s landfill — and a fight over who should clean it up — has again halted progress on the East Shore Seawall, a key climate resiliency project.

The radiation in the planned 5.3-mile seawall’s path comes from Great Kills Park, where radium-226 was first found during an anti-terror aerial survey conducted by the NYPD in 2005. The vast majority of the park has been shut since 2009.

The seawall originally was supposed to be completed this year. But now more than eight years after Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of the borough and about six years after the project was announced, construction remains stalled as the feds, city and state differ on who’s responsible for getting rid of the radiation.

Now it could be 2026 before the work gets done, officials say.

The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) told its state and city partners in August that it couldn’t undertake the planned removal of hazardous materials on the land without a policy waiver from the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, according to various city and federal officials.

But the Army Corps would first have to recommend the policy waiver, which it hasn’t done.

“Given there is very little precedent for [radioactive waste] remediation work to be undertaken by USACE as part of a civil works project, there is no guarantee a waiver would be approved,” Jennifer Gunn, a spokesperson for the Army Corps, told THE CITY last week.

Citing federal environmental protection laws, Gunn asserted that the contamination is ultimately not her agency’s responsibility.

“USACE is not a potentially responsible party for the contamination located within the project site,” said Gunn.

“Remediation [is] the responsibility of the non-federal sponsor, New York State. USACE has every expectation the non-federal sponsor will comply with the terms of the agreements they sign,” said Gunn in a statement Friday.

‘Staten Islanders Must Be Protected’

The Army Corps, city and the state signed an agreement in 2019 that assigned clean-up duties to the state, Gunn noted. The Army Corps has also suggested that either Albany or City Hall could take on the hazmat effort, since it is on land owned by the city, officials told THE CITY.

First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan told the Army in a January letter that making the city find a contractor to do the work would delay construction, currently set to end in 2025, by at least 12 months.

But Fuleihan affirmed that, as outlined in its 2019 agreement with the Army Corps, the city would pay for the entire cost of the Army Corps or state removing the radioactive waste.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a rendering showing the site of a proposed seawall along Staten Island’s eastern shore.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a rendering showing the site of a proposed seawall along Staten Island’s eastern shore.
Rendering/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

“Staten Islanders were devastated by Hurricane Sandy and must be protected from future storms without delay,” Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency told THE CITY in a statement. “The city, state, and both of New York’s senators are united in urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake the radioactive ​waste remediation work that will allow this project to move forward.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s commissioner, however, didn’t acknowledge any responsibility to clean the site and implored the Army Corps to take on the task in a Jan. 8 letter seeking to “clarify New York’s position” regarding waste cleanup.

“It was the understanding of New York State … that USACE would manage any radioactive material that might be excavated during the construction of the levee/floodwall,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote, citing a project agreement.

A DEC spokesperson, Maureen Wren, pointed THE CITY to the letter when asked about the state’s responsibility to carry out the remediation.

Gunn said the Army Corps can provide technical oversight for clean-up sites, but it would still likely also need to contract out the work.

Plagued by Delays

The urgency of the 5.3 mile seawall, which would stretch from the foot of the Verrazzano Bridge at Fort Wadsworth to Oakwood Beach, near Great Kills Park, is twofold for Staten Islanders.

The marine structure is intended to protect thousands of residents from potential rising waters, but it will also trigger immediate decreases in flood insurance premiums for East Shore homeowners once the project is half built.

Construction hasn’t even started, according to Gunn. The original completion date for the project was 2021, but it’s been plagued by delays since its inception in 2015.

A formal contract among governmental partners wasn’t signed until four years after the seawall project — which includes a new boardwalk, drainage improvements, road elevation and tide gates — was announced.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo speaks at City Hall, Nov. 12, 2020.
Staten Island Borough President James Oddo speaks at City Hall, Nov. 12, 2020.
Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo told THE CITY that this latest obstacle is especially frustrating because the city, state and federal agencies all knew about the issue of radiation when they entered into an official agreement in February 2019 to jointly execute the $615 million project.

“The issue of the radiological material and the need for a clean up was not necessarily new news,” said Oddo, who said that all parties were aware of this as far back as 2015.

A Long-Suffering Community

Oddo said the key to forward momentum may lie with now U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who also implored the Army Corps to take on the clean-up in a December letter with fellow Democratic New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand

“An inability of the Army Corps to move forward with remediation threatens to significantly delay completion of the seawall — estimated to be at least two years,” the senators and then-Rep. Max Rose (D-Staten Island, Brooklyn) wrote.

The stalemate likely means that the clean-up contract likely won’t be awarded anytime soon, but the state and Army Corps will “initiate construction at other segments, to expedite coastal storm risk reduction for this long-suffering, low-lying community.”

New York City dumped about 15 million cubic yards of waste fill from 1944 to 1948 into the park’s low lying wetlands. The National Park Service took over jurisdiction in 1972.

Chemical contaminants, including incinerator residue, sewage sludge and coal ash from a city-run incinerator used at the site are also present in the park, according to a 2017 report from NPS.

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