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Environment

Environmentalists See Mixed Bag in Cuomo Budget


ClimateChange

Gov. Andrew Cuomo draws a clear connection between extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and climate change. And he argues that the challenges posed to New York State by climate change will only grow.

But the governor’s proposed budget this year reveals an uneven focus: major investments in areas like energy efficiency and solar power are coupled with what advocates say is woefully inadequate support for core environmental programs that are on the front-line of the state’s response to climate change.

“It’s great to see that he’s [Cuomo] making that connection [to climate change],” said Dan Hendrick, vice-president for external affairs at the New York League of Conservation Voters. “But…the investments aren’t following. We’re not seeing that broader vision [in terms of] sustainability and resiliency.”

There is virtually uniform agreement among environmentalists that funding for the state Department of Environmental Conservation must be increased. The agency has lost approximately 800 staff members since 2008. Yet the governor’s proposed $1 billion DEC budget includes funding for only one new staff person.

The agency’s mission is fundamentally tied to slowing down the forces contributing to climate change.

“DEC needs to be a central part of the state’s climate change strategy and planning,” said Richard Schrader, the state legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Despite its limited resources, the agency is doing “a very good job in its clean air and overall climate analysis.”

The DEC’s Office of Climate Change is “aggressively” working on policies that will lower the state’s carbon emissions and New York State participates in the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon-trading program, noted DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens during a January legislative hearing on the budget.

The agency monitors and enforces state and federal air quality standards – a responsibility that includes regulating the level of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, generated by new power plants.

Furthermore, the DEC is one of the state’s first responders to the impacts of climate change. The agency tracks the condition of the state’s coastal and inland water bodies, and its forests, which are slowly being altered by the increased carbon levels in the atmosphere. The DEC is also spearheading efforts to cope with the entry of invasive species into the state, which has been exacerbated by climate change.

“It is a vitally important agency,” said Katherine Nadeau, policy director at Environmental Advocates, an Albany-based watchdog group. “[But], they’re dying by a thousand cuts.”

Re-investing in DEC staff is necessary, argued Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Group, “to protect New Yorkers and respond to...ever-increasing natural and manmade disasters.”

The agency is down to 2,700 full-time employees throughout the state, about 77 percent of the workforce employed by the DEC before the recession began in 2007.

 “These are very substantial reductions,” said state Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, D.-Manhattan. “Oversight has diminished…I believe there is less enforcement activity [of environmental regulations].”

The agency’s ability to do its job – from monitoring and reducing air pollution to inspecting sewage treatment plants to plugging abandoned gas wells – has been questioned repeatedly by environmental groups and state legislators during the past few years.

And in the context of a changing climate, these functions take on added weight. The agency notes, for example, that air pollution not only harms human health, but also can “damage all the elements of the ecosystem.”

Kavanagh and Environmental Advocates stress that they believe DEC employees have made an enormous effort to continue the agency’s mandate, but Kavanagh adds, “something has to give…they’re trying to act efficiently [but] important objectives suffer.”

An analysis of state data reported in September by Environmental Advocates found that New York’s “formal enforcement” of provisions related to the federal Clean Air, Clean Water and Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts had “decreased by nearly 25 percent between 2009 and 2012.” The study also found that inspections of polluting facilities overall dropped by 35 percent during the same period.

The DEC assailed the report, saying it “distorts key facts, omits others, and outright ignores this administration’s strong environmental record.”

Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates told the Gotham Gazette that “we are 100 percent solid in our data – it’s all public.”

The DEC has taken steps to manage enforcement in new ways with less manpower, including the establishment of a program that allows environmental offenders to avoid penalties if they self-report violations.

Kavanagh, who leads the newly formed New York State Caucus of Environmental Legislators, said there is significant interest in getting more resources to the DEC.

“We are early in the budget process. This is going to be an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We know there are people on the other side of this who would prefer less [environmental] enforcement.”

A fight is also being waged over the “modest” increase proposed by the governor to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. The EPF is supported by the Real Estate Transfer Tax and underwrites a wide array of environmental and sustainability projects throughout the state.

The $4 million included in this year’s budget would bring the EPF to $157 million.

A coalition of more than 100 environmental organizations have asked the state legislature to increase the EPF to $200 million, and maintain the EPF’s current share of proceeds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax.

“Additional funding will position New York to address the critical issues,” the groups said in a Feb. 6 letter to lawmakers, “empowering our municipalities to become more resilient and reduce risk from storm impacts.”

Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, a Long Island Democrat who chairs that body’s Environmental Conservation committee, said the legislature is looking closely at ideas for revenue, including a surcharge on plastic water bottles, which would “support a stronger EPF.” He said that it was a “tougher sell to single out one agency” – the DEC – for increased funding even though the agency has suffered arguably disproportionate staffing cuts.

A sense of urgency about EPF funding crosses party lines.

“We need to get that [EPF] figure way above,” said state Senate Environmental Conservation committee chair, Mark Grisanti, R.-Buffalo. “I’m shooting for $200 million.”

Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Zero Waste Future is Now, and it’s in Brooklyn


digester-eggs

New York City has entered a new frontier of sustainability by turning food and human waste into energy that will heat our homes and businesses.

And it is all going to happen in eight enormous space-age eggs in Brooklyn.

The city announced Friday that it has partnered with Waste Management, Inc., and National Grid to harness the methane that is generated at its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and convert it into “pipeline ready” fuel. The three-year pilot project has the potential to reduce New York City’s carbon emissions by more than 90,000 metric tons annually, comparable to taking 19,000 cars off the road, city officials said.

Making Gas

At a tour of the facility with the city and its private sector partners last week, Newtown Creek plant manager Jim Pynn explained that bio-gas, which is mainly methane, is a standard by-product of the wastewater treatment process. How is bio-gas generated? By cooking the waste, essentially.

At the Newtown Creek plant in North Brooklyn, the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility, human and other types of organic waste undergo a series of processes which produce a sludge. 

The sludge is then heated to at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 days in the plant’s immediately recognizable “digester eggs." The heating of the sludge generates the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which consume much of the organic material. That “digestion” process produces water, carbon dioxide and bio-gas.

Continue reading at New York Environment Report.

Safeguarding Staten Island's East Shore From Future Hurricanes


800px-TAG Cedar Grove

The city announced last week that it will spend $100 million on flood-prevention infrastructure upgrades for the New Dorp Beach and South Beach areas of Staten Island. Those two neighborhoods — located on Staten Island’s East Shore — were at the epicenter of devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy over a year ago.

The island’s East Shore is directly exposed to the New York Bight, a coastline formation that can channel powerful storm waves and surges into areas within New York Harbor. But its vulnerability to flooding is directly tied to both a changing environment and lack of planning by the city over several decades. It’s no surprise then that both the East and South shores of the island have now been designated by the city as areas at “major risk” from storm surge.

And the threat of wave action and coastal flooding is likely to grow: Preliminary work maps released by FEMA earlier this year indicate the number of structures on the East and South shores within the 100-year floodplain — the area that has a one-percent or greater chance of flooding in any given year — has expanded by 46 percent. The number of residential units has expanded by 50 percent.

All beaches along the East and South shore coastlines are now within a V-zone, which is a coastal area at risk of storm waves of three feet or more.

While the East Shore is one of the areas in New York City most vulnerable to extreme weather and rising sea levels, it has suffered from flooding for decades. Originally a “vast swath” of marshes and swamps, development “far outpaced the construction of critical infrastructure like storm sewers,” said Carter Strickland, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, in a written statement.

That’s where the new flood prevention infrastructure could make a big difference in the years to come.

The area’s local City Council representative, Republican James Oddo, who is also the borough president-elect, said that many homes were not built to withstand punishing coastal storms.

And despite their proximity to the shore, areas like New Dorp Beach and South Beach developed without a comprehensive plan. “Summer communities became year-round homes. The city allowed the construction to happen with an ‘I.O.U.’…’we’ll come in at some later point’…the city is still playing catch-up,” Oddo said.

The lack of proper stormwater infrastructure has created systemic problems for communities like New Dorp Beach and South Beach. “Any time there is an average rainfall, [it’s a] terrible situation,” Oddo said. “There’s no place for the water to go…[the infrastructure projects] will give these folks a little peace of mind,” he added.

The planned infrastructure work in South Beach, for instance, has been “20 years in the making,” noted Oddo.

Continue reading at New York Environment Report

Industry's Opposition To Foam Ban Cleared Away


foam-container

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial plan to ban foam food containers just got less controversial.

The Dart Container Corp., a leading manufacturer of foam and plastic products, dropped its opposition to the bill yesterday after weeks of negotiations between the business community and the City Council. The news leaves little doubt that the Council will pass the bill that will potentially ban any foam containers used for food and drink.

“Throughout this process we have negotiated with the city in good faith and we thank Speaker Quinn and the members of the city’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management for making sensible changes to the proposed bill,” said Michael Westerfield, Dart’s director of recycling programs, in a statement.

In thanking the Council, Westerfield still said that the bill singled out and “unfairly maligns” foam products. Even so, he added that the compromise was in the best interests for everyone involved as their attention turns to “successfully passing the recycling test.”

The American Chemistry Council, which helped organize local restaurant owners opposed to the ban through its Restaurant Action Alliance, was also satisfied with the news of compromise.

“The American Chemistry Council congratulates the Council on its decision to implement polystyrene foam recycling in New York City, and we look forward to working with the de Blasio Administration to further increase plastic recycling,” said Warren Robinson, spokesman with the ACC.

Representatives from the foam industry originally took issue with the original bill’s implementation of a year-long trial to explore recycling.

At a recent hearing, the bill’s lead sponsor Councilman Lew Fidler joined Bloomberg Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway in arguing that plastic foam goods — commonly referred to as Styrofoam — were not actually recyclable.

Nonetheless, the bill will give the Department of Sanitation one year to roll out a recycling plan. Opponents of the ban, including Dart, argued that it wouldn’t make sense for the company to invest millions into potentially short-lived program with no guidelines from the city as to how it would decide whether or not recycling was feasible.

"Previously, there were claims made by opponents of the bill, many of which were false or misleading, and there was a lot of money spent — over one million dollars, in fact — lobbying against this bill," said City Councilman Lew Fidler, the sponsor of the bill, in a statement. "Yet, words and money can only buy you so much. This bill demands proof and this bill provides a solution."

The new version of the bill still has a year-long trial, but offers more details on how the city would proceed after the trial period.

A ban on the bill would only go into effect on January 1, 2015 at the earliest, and that’s only after the new sanitation commissioner consults with recycling experts and the business community — as well as any other experts he or she deems necessary.

The commissioner must then report to the Council and mayor, a key check that helped convince members of the foam industry.

Additional changes to the bill include specific definitions on those groups subject to the ban and offers any restaurant, nonprofit, food truck or store earning less than $500,000 annually to request a hardship waiver. It also requires the city to undertake an educational campaign on how New Yorkers need to adjust to whatever decision made by the commissioner.

Alternatively, if the recycling test is successful, New York City could be the first major metropolitan city with the ability and capacity to recycle foam goods.

Countdown To Approval For Rockaway Pipeline


It’s possible to build and operate the Rockaway pipeline without doing serious harm to the local environment, federal regulators say. But the pipeline’s operator must agree to a series of additional steps, such as disclosing the toxicity of the drilling fluid it will use.

“We are recommending that our mitigation measures be attached as conditions to any authorization issued by the Commission,” said reviewers for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Today is the last day the public will be able to submit comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for major sections of the Rockaway pipeline project.

FERC, which released the draft EIS in October, stated that, “approval of the Projects would have some adverse environmental impacts, but these impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels.” Any environmental damage to the Rockaway coast and other areas would “mostly occur during [pipeline] construction,” the agency added.

FERC also notes in the EIS that pipeline-related infrastructure, particularly a meter and regulating facility to be built at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, are vulnerable to flooding and high winds associated with category 1 to 2 hurricanes. But these vulnerabilities could be addressed said the agency.

State and federal agencies, and environmental groups, have raised concerns about the complex project, especially the impact of drilling a 3-mile section of ocean floor pipeline off the Rockaway coast. Some local groups have also charged that the pipeline is part of the “industrialization” of the New York coastline, and an inappropriate use of a national park.

But the pipeline meets a critical demand, according to one of its builders, Oklahoma-based Williams companies. Williams stated in a federal filing that local utility, National Grid, requested the pipeline and that it would “reduce gas supply constraints, allowing existing dual-fuel power plants and customers with interruptible service…to continue using natural gas rather than switching to their alternative oil-burning systems.”

The findings of the draft EIS are a significant step forward for the Rockaway pipeline. If approved by all the relevant agencies, construction on the ocean floor section of the pipeline would begin in the spring of 2014.

And the determination is good news for the Bloomberg administration, which has consistently supported the project, saying that natural gas could enable New York to transition away from heavier heating oils that have contributed to the city’s air pollution woes.

The Rockaway pipeline is one of two major natural gas pipeline projects currently under construction in New York City.

Continue reading the story on New York Environment Report

See Gotham Gazette's feature on the project

Why Ban Foam Food Containers? The Recycling Plan Bloomberg Doesn't Want


styrofoam-cup-beach

NEW YORK — Foam makes up one half of one percent of New York City’s total waste, takes decades if not centuries to biodegrade and can end up polluting waterways. And it could cost the city millions a year to recycle.

A push to ban foam food containers sold in the city, spearheaded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s legacy-conscious administration, has spurred opposition from industry including from the world’s largest manufacturer of foam cups.

The Dart Container Corp., through an intermediary, spent thousands on local political races in this year’s historic elections, including on the campaign of a failed candidate for Manhattan borough president. The councilman, who lost to Gale Brewer in the BP race, is now sponsoring a new bill that would render the proposed ban null and void.

“We had to engage. There’s so many lies being told, so we had to engage and be part of the political process,” said Michael Westerfield, Dart’s director of recycling programs, of the company’s political contributions. “And we’ve provided full disclosure on everything we’ve done.”
 
The company has also hired lobbyists and worked to make sure their opposition is known to key members of the City Council, which is considering legislation backed by the Bloomberg administration.

In many ways, the opposition to the proposed ban has changed the conversation, with a revision of the legislation before the Council requiring the sanitation commissioner to explore recycling opportunities initially for a year seen as a compromise. But Dart Container Corp., has dismissed that compromise. It instead backs Councilman Robert Jackson’s competing bill that would outright redefine foam as recyclable.

With mere days left before a new mayor and City Council take their places in City Hall, there is little time for the outgoing Council to move ahead on any legislation. The foam legislation could be voted out of committee this week.

To Recycle Or Not To Recycle

Expanded polystyrene foam starts out as small white beads and are transformed into everyday goods familiar to many New Yorkers. Coffee cups. Take-out clamshells. School lunch trays. Disposable picnic plates.

“Something that we know is environmentally destructive, that is costing taxpayers money, and that is easily replaceable, is something we can do without,” Bloomberg said in February’s State of the City. “Don't worry: the doggie bag and the coffee cup will survive just fine.”

While many, including city officials, refer to the foam as Styrofoam, the name is a trademark that belongs to Dow Chemical Co. and isn’t used to produce those items that the mayor and Council would ban with Intro 1060-A. The proposed law itself isn’t as concerned with all foam goods as it is with foam goods used as “single service articles.” There would be no ban on foam used for shipping products, only on foam used for eating or drinking.

New York wouldn’t be alone in banning foam goods. Seattle, San Francisco and Portland all have existing bans, as do smaller municipalities across the country, on expanded polystyrene foam.

The problem is no one can agree on whether or not foam is actually recyclable.

The original sponsor of the bill backed by the mayor’s office says no, despite what Dart Container might say.

“Dart has a lot of skin in the game. I would expect them to defend their product,” said Brooklyn Councilman Lew Fidler told the Gotham Gazette before a committee hearing on his bill on Nov. 25. “I wouldn’t expect them to spread the misinformation that they have spread. If they felt they could defend their position without misleading people, they would have.”

Dart contends otherwise, and that it’s been recycling foam since 1990, although never in a city as large as New York. Westerfield repeatedly questioned the honesty of supporters of the bill and their understanding of the product — much less its recyclability.

In a heated exchanged between Westerfield and Fidler during the hearing, Westerfield referenced an Oct. 9 meeting organized by the Black, Latino and Asian caucus to discuss the bill.

“The first thing you said is, ‘I want you all to know that foam is not a plastic,’” Westerfield told Fidler. “If that’s the type of research that you conduct, if that’s what your findings are, I’m sorry but we’ve got to disagree with you.”

The city plainly argues that foam used for food service cannot be tossed into a recycling bin. That much is true. New York City currently asks residents to toss those used containers into the trash bag. In fact, even clean foam is currently not recyclable in New York City. Polystyrene goods are classified as no. 6 plastics, identifiable by a small number on the bottom of most containers.

Deputy Mayor Cass Holloway, testifying at the late November Council hearing, argued that the city doesn’t have the infrastructure to collect, sort and re-process foam.

Even a state of the art recycling facility being completed in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, cannot currently handle expanded foam. Managed by Sims Municipal Recycling, the 11-acre, $110 million site at the 30th Street Pier was designed to process the city’s recyclable plastic, metal, and glass.

fidler-foam-ban

Tom Outerbridge, general manager for the Sims site, admitted at last week’s hearing that the site cannot recycle expanded foam, at least not right now. Outerborough testified the facility wouldn’t be able to handle foam, favoring a ban that would require manufacturers to use conventionally recyclable products.

Outerbridge testified that he wasn’t opposed to a provision in Fidler’s ban bill that would give the sanitation commissioner sole oversight over a year-long pilot program to explore recycling foam.

While the Sims facility cannot currently recycle expanded foam, it’s not to say that the city can’t repurpose the foam — even dirty foam. Dart Container, one of the country’s biggest producers of expanded foam goods, has arranged a deal with an Indianapolis company willing to pay $160 per ton of waste that the city currently can’t recycle itself.

Plastic Recycling, Inc., would purchase both dirty foam and other no. 6 rigid plastics that the city considers non-recyclable and currently end up in landfills. The plastic containers used for salads, coffee cup lids and the ubiquitous red Solo cups, would all be collected with the foam, which by itself is often considered too lightweight to be profitable for most recycling companies.

Once Sims sorts and collects 20 tons of no. 6 plastics — both dirty and clean — the waste would be taken by rail to the Indiana facility, where it would be washed and repurposed back into pellet form. The contract would be guaranteed for at least five years, with penalties for pulling out of the agreement even after the allotted five years.

Conflicting Information

Ahead of the late November hearing, Capital New York reported that a lobbying effort by Dart Container had successfully included the year-long delay on the ban for the foam industry to prove it could recycle EPS products. Public records show that Dart hired former councilman Ken Fisher now of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies and Mercury Public Affairs at a total cost of $120,000.

But Westerfield told the Gotham Gazette that Dart had nothing to do with the year-long delay.

“Absolutely not, and they didn’t work with that on that compromise either,” he said. “If they would have worked with us there would have been more objective criteria.”

Westerfield argued a one-year study of New York City’s ability to recycle foam wouldn’t be a sound investment considering the final decision lies not with the Council that voted on the bill but on whomever the next sanitation commissioner under Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio — who has come out in support the ban — may be. Even then, the ban bill doesn’t outline any standards or methods by which the merits of recycling foam are measured.

It would take at least six months to get a recycling program fully working, according to Dart representatives, which would include installing equipment at the Brooklyn facility. Dart briefly implemented one part of the program as a trial, temporarily outfitting the location with a sorting device to pick out foam goods.

At the hearing, the city called that short pilot a failure and not viable for New York City, while Westerfield passed around a small vial of foam pellets he said were the result of the sorting machine’s dry run.

The conflicting information from the administration and the foam industries have already proved frustrating to some Council members.

Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson and Brooklyn Councilwoman Diana Reyna introduced a competing bill on the day of the hearing to counter Fidler’s. Currently, city law doesn’t allow polystyrene foam to be considered recyclable. Intro 1205 would redefine the law to include it as recyclable waste, effectively nullifying the need for the administration’s proposed ban.

“Quite frankly, I’m not sold on the administration’s messaging,” Jackson said to Holloway at the hearing. “I say to you, deputy mayor, that if we can recycle it, I’m ready to recycle it instead of outright banning it.”

Both Jackson and Reyna, members of the BLA caucus, were at the meeting with administration and foam industry representatives in October. However, Jackson appeared not only unconvinced but upset with the administration during the hearing.

Jackson told the Gotham Gazette that the administration had given him conflicting information about foam’s recyclability during the caucus meeting, where Gonen presented on its behalf. The term-limited councilman from Harlem said that he’s convinced that it is recyclable.

The Bloomberg administration has called those arguments a distraction.

The Money Behind Foam

Unsurprisingly, Dart Container supports Jackson’s bill. And, beyond its own lobbying activities, the foam company also indirectly supported Jackson’s recently failed bid for Manhattan borough president.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board lists a bevy of donations totaling $38,525 from Ariane M. Dart, listed as a homemaker in Sarasota, Florida.

Ariane is married to Robert Dart, CEO and one of two brothers heir to the Dart Container Corp. The couple sits on the board for the Dart Foundation alongside Robert’s mother Claire and elder brother Kenneth, the company’s chairman.

The brothers have been embroiled in tax evasion controversies since the 1993, when they both renounced their American citizenship and moved to the Cayman Islands after the Internal Revenue Service found they had charged millions in personal expenses to the family company.

The Dart Foundation, created in 1984, reports having given hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits and educational programs over the years, including Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Ariane Dart was listed as donating three times to Jackson for a total of $3,850, as well as seven City Council campaigns and Sanitation committee chair Letitia James, who won her race for the public advocate’s office. James, despite being a sponsor of the foam ban bill, received $2,650 from Dart.

Immediately after last week’s hearing, however, Jackson said that he hadn’t made the connection between the donation to his campaign and his anti-ban bill. Jackson said he remembered being put on the phone with a woman from Florida who donated to his campaign, but to discuss an entirely different issue.

“It had nothing to do with this whatsoever, in my opinion, because my conversations — if that’s the same woman — my conversation was about education,” Jackson said, adding that the foam ban hadn’t been raised to his attention until September or October. “Had not one iota to do with recycling or Dart or any discussions.”

Jackson’s campaign also benefitted from a $12,948 independent expenditure paid for by the Restaurant Action Alliance, an Albany-based organization that has mobilized local small businesses against the foam ban.

The mailer — paid for on Aug.  3, almost two months before the BLA caucus briefing where Jackson said he felt misled by the administration — explicitly quotes the Councilman in opposition to the foam ban, featuring photos of smiling business owners of color using various foam containers.

The alliance’s website, which touts more than 18,000 member restaurants, was first registered in April 2013 to the American Chemistry Council, a chief opponent of the foam ban. Campaign finance records also show that ACC allocated $824,500 to the alliance between April and May, but the Jackson IE mailed out was its only listed expense.

A representative for the ACC told the Gazette that the balance of the contributions was spent on “outreach and education on the significant fiscal impact of the proposed ban for local restaurant owners.”

“I don’t know who the restaurant alliance is funded by,” Jackson said, indicating that testimony from alliance members about a potential increase in packaging costs is real regardless of who mobilizes the owners.

He said the foam ban is being rammed through the City Council at the last minute. “This is another type of legacy that the Bloomberg administration is attempting to do,” he said.

One Last Push

In a letter dated Oct. 8 to Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty from a Dart Container representative, the foam company provided a timeline of events from March through July, detailing meetings it had with Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Gonen and Sims facility representatives.

Dart argued that it believed “that Mr. Gonen has interfered with our contract negotiations with Sims and is misleading members of the New York City Council,” and that Councilman Fidler had misinformed fellow Council members.

The Bloomberg administration repudiated the allegations.

“They are false and meant as a distraction from the fact that polystyrene foam is a devastating pollutant infecting our parks and waterways while never biodegrading and that it has been classified as a carcinogenic health hazard by the National Institute of Health,” wrote Bloomberg spokesman Jake Goldman in an e-mailed statement last week.

Styrene, from which polystyrene is derived, is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to a 2011 report from the NIH’s National Toxicology Program.

The report does point to previous studies on how certain foods can leach styrene depending on a number of variables, yet mostly focuses on worker exposure to styrene during the manufacturing process and cancer testing on animals exposed to the chemical.

However, the NIH reported that the source for the general population’s greatest exposure to styrene is one long banned by Bloomberg and the Council: cigarette smoke.

The Council’s sanitation committee meets one more time before the next Council moves in, its final hearing scheduled for Dec. 9. If the committee votes it through, the foam ban could go to a floor vote the following day or at the final stated meeting on Dec. 19.

Seventeen of the 51 Council members are currently on-board with the bill, giving the Council members and mayor two weeks to get more votes to ensure it can make it to Bloomberg’s desk for one last signature, keeping his promise from February.

But Fidler holds that his bill is more than just another notch on the mayor’s belt of public health feats.

“This is not a rush to the mayor’s nanny state,” Fidler argued at the hearing. “This is actually a rush toward the future, for the protection of the Earth, for our environment, for people who work in this industry.”

A Year After Superstorm Sandy, Turmoil Continues On Staten Island


staten-island-beach-2

Until October 30, 2012, Dorothy Nolan lived with her husband in his childhood home in Fox Beach, a four-block subdivision of the Oakwood Beach neighborhood of Staten Island. Comprised mostly of bungalows constructed between 1930 and 1950, this was the kind of neighborhood where people stuck around, worked on their homes, and passed them down to their children.

The Nolans began renovating their home in 2008, piece by piece, as they could afford it. In the summer of 2012, they finally finished the last project – a back deck.

But the Nolans’ enjoyment of their renovated home was brief — and ended when Hurricane Sandy plowed into the city last fall. Nolan described her family’s harrowing experience in a letter to Governor Cuomo.

“We were trapped by flood waters that rose so high so quickly that we barely managed to escape up into a small crawl space in the attic of our home,” she wrote. “We struggled to stay calm for the almost 12 hours that we were there, watching the water levels rise to over 8 feet in our home, ending just below the ceilings, and the space we were hiding in.”

From the crawl space, Nolan said, “We could hear each wave come in. You would hear a crash and dishes breaking and everything moving.”

When they emerged from their attic on the morning of Oct. 30, they found “everything was in a big pile. It was like a snow globe, like someone shook the house.”

A year later, the turmoil wrought by the storm is far from over for Nolan and her neighbors on Staten Island’s southeastern shore.

Median incomes in this area, known as “mid-Island” hover around $73,600. Some displaced homeowners are still paying rent on temporary housing while making monthly payments on mortgages and water bills. Others are faced with insurance payments that cover only a fraction of the costs to repair their homes. City and state relief programs promise to make up some of those differences, but applicants have yet to hear whether, and for how much, they qualify.

While some people have borrowed from retirement funds or family members in order to begin rebuilding, a surprising number have signed petitions asking for buyouts. Still others are waiting until they have more answers from the government before deciding whether to rebuild or relocate. Many living on Staten Island’s storm-ravaged shores agree that moving on has been almost impossible.

“We Can’t Take a Beating Every Year”

In neighborhoods like Fox Beach, where every home was damaged during Sandy, the buyout choice was clear. Since the 1980s, single-story bungalows have increasingly been joined by attached-home developments, and wetlands have given way to concrete foundations. Around the Nor’easter of 1992, residents experienced their first bad flood and began to agitate for better flood protections and less development. Many neighborhoods did not have storm sewers, and relied on vacant land to soak up storm water. “We've hardscaped those sponges, so that they no longer naturally slow down the impact of that incoming surge," William J. Fritz, a geologist and president of the College of Staten Island, told the Huffington Post last November.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers installed some berms and other measures in 2000, some of those protections began to come undone by 2008. New developments also continued to increase. Then, in 2011, Hurricane Irene brought up to 5 feet of flood water to this part of Staten Island.

Of course, that was nothing compared to Sandy, which sent up to 15 feet of water across the streets of the mid-Island. “Some people had just finished renovations from Irene. This storm was a knockout punch,” said Joseph Tirone, founder of the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee. Shortly after Sandy, Tirone began signing people in and around the subdivision onto a petition asking the state to buy them out and return their land to nature. As of last week, the borough president’s office reported that over 1,000 people had signed up for buyouts.

“We can’t take a beating every year,” said Dimitri, a resident of a townhome development a few blocks from the Lower New York Bay. Ten years ago, Dimitri and his neighbor, Alex (both preferred only to use their first names), purchased townhomes here, thinking if the city had permitted his development “it must be safe.” Now, he is concerned that owners who rent their townhouses have not properly abated the mold creeping along shared walls. In addition, he worries that if his development cannot be raised, his insurance rates will spike exponentially.

Dimitri is certainly not alone in this concern. This past Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a joint study by the city and the RAND Corp. on the impacts of new FEMA flood maps and changes to national flood program regulations. The study found that updated FEMA maps will consider thousands of new properties in New York City in the floodplain. Moreover, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which is set to go into effect this month and which phases-out subsidies, will cause rate increases ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 for those properties that are below new flood height requirements.

With such issues in mind, the state announced a pilot buyout program in February, which eventually included 418 properties in Oakwood Beach. The program offered 100 percent of pre-storm home values and stipulated that it would keep the land undeveloped to serve as a natural flood barrier. Out of the 418, 300 homeowners, including all but three Foxbeach residents, signed up.

Meanwhile, the city put forward its own acquisition plan, promising to redevelop acquired land to be more storm resilient and offering post-storm home values plus a relocation bonus. On Oct. 7, the state signed off on its first buyout, a two-bedroom home in Fox Beach. Three days later, the city publicized its first acquisition – this time, the home of a woman on Staten Island’s southernmost shore, who had lost her husband and daughter in the storm.

A week later, Staten Island City Council members James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio came out with some surprising news – the city had decided to turn its acquisition program over to the state. Exactly how the consolidation will affect buyout terms remains to be seen.

“The city and state are still in discussions regarding the acquisition program, the MOU has not been signed and the details have not yet been finalized,” said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for New York Rising, the state program managing New York’s relief efforts.

Oddo, however, has reported that all buyout-eligible homes will now be acquired at pre-storm values.

“Every day is Oct. 30”

Meanwhile, after protracted struggles with insurance companies and a year of depleting their savings, more and more people are deciding that buyouts are their best option.

Jackie Parker, a nurse at the VA Hospital in midtown Manhattan, has lived on Staten Island for over 30 years. Although her Midland Beach house is 15 blocks inland, she got 12 feet of water during Sandy. “I still freak out every night,” Parker said.

She was able to move into the top floors of her home shortly after the storm, and just last month, her bank received an insurance payment to make necessary repairs to the first floor. Parker said that while the bank will release the payment in full directly to her contractor, neither it nor the insurance company will agree to inspect the work once it has been completed.

Parker is not comfortable paying for work in advance without some kind of accountability. “I’m scared to do it,” she revealed. Feeling “disenfranchised” by her experience, she recently signed a buyout petition.

Parker is one of the lucky ones. “I don’t know anyone who has received a fair payment from their insurance,” said Dee Vandenburg, president of the Staten Island Taxpayers Association. She went on to describe the situation of one man she knows whose “house was completely wiped off the foundation … The insurance company keeps telling him they can’t find his house. He keeps saying it’s gone.”

In the vast number of cases, insurance offers are far lower than estimated repair costs. “A lot of people are only getting half of their policy. So they’re getting $125,000 but they need more like $250,000,” said Nicole Romano-Levine, president of the New Dorp Civic Association. According to Romano-Levine, insurance payouts are based on national averages far below the costs of construction in New York City.

Even the Nolans, who recently received a buyout offer, are still reeling from their nightmarish experiences with insurance companies and various bureaucracies.

Because they had paid for flood insurance, FEMA only offered them Small Business Administration loans and provided them with small, short-term rent stipends. They had a $100,000 homeowners policy to cover the contents of their home, but were initially declined all of this coverage. A few months ago, they finally received a flood insurance payment but by this time they needed that money to avoid defaulting on their mortgage.

Adding insult to injury, the city’s Rapid Repair program turned their water and power on without their knowledge so they received several utility bills even though they had not lived in their home since Oct. 29.

Nolan said she has spent hours every day over the past year dealing with such issues. “Frankly, every day I wake up is Oct. 30 to me because I have to start the day pulling the files and sending emails all over again,” she said.

Red Tape and Rumors

A city program, Build it Back, in particular, has received much criticism for its extended trails of red tape, response times, and lack of transparency. More than 5,000 Staten Islanders have registered for the program, which vows to help eligible applicants make up the difference between insurance payouts and costs of repairs. Since it launched in June, only a handful of people have heard back from the city to schedule home evaluations, the next step in the process. Build It Back spokespeople explain that lengthy federal reviews required for each project have delayed disbursements, a situation made worse by the federal shutdown earlier this month.

In the meantime, the definition of who can be considered “eligible” remains unclear. In the absence of information, rumors fly, fueling fears that the mid-Island’s lower middle and middle incomes will be too high to qualify for relief programs. “The people out here are firemen, policemen, sanitation workers, MTA workers. They can’t afford to not get this help” said Vandenburg.

Another key uncertainty concerns the future of development in the mid-Island. For years, mid-Islanders and local experts have tried to bring attention to the dangers of an increased trend towards subdividing of lots and infilling vacant land, especially in wetland areas.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg has famously vowed not to back away from waterfront development, Cuomo told an audience at the College of Staten Island in February that “there are some places that Mother Nature owns.” However, the state only intended to prohibit rebuilding in areas it designated as “enhanced” or “very high risk.”

Now that the city and state have combined their acquisition programs, it is unclear how much of that land will be redeveloped. So far, Oddo has emphasized a provision to acquire properties with the intention of selling them for redevelopment. “That gives us the best chance to be transformative, to take a community and build a better housing stock, while giving people in that area the right, if they want, to come back and live in that housing stock,” he said at a press conference.

In that case, much depends on the enforcement of zoning and building regulations. And that could depend heavily the upcoming election next week.

So many questions and so few answers will make Oct. 29, an already difficult day, all the harder.

A number of memorial events will be held throughout the Island, but Vandenburg predicts that a lot of people will opt to commemorate the day privately. “Lives were ripped open,” she commented. “Everybody’s nerves are still frayed.”

City Promises 'Broad-Based Outreach' To Communities To Prepare For Future Storms


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The city has decided to reconvene two community advisory task forces that weighed in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s multi-billion dollar plan to protect the city from future extreme weather and the effects of climate change in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the city’s resiliency director told the Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY in an exclusive interview. The task forces will resume meeting this fall.

Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s director of resiliency, also said yesterday that there would be “broad-based outreach” to some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods as part of a Department of City Planning study that will examine “how we can ultimately build more resilient communities.” The study will examine issues such as the city’s building codes and the new national flood insurance maps.

The announcements come as the city fields criticism about community involvement in its climate change planning process as detailed in an investigative report by Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, a digital news platform.  

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One of the task forces to resume work, made up of elected officials and community board chairs from the areas of the city most impacted by Sandy, had met monthly in the five months leading up to the release of the mayor’s plan in June, Zarrilli said.
 
A second task force was “composed of community organizations from the impacted areas, which the community boards were also heavily involved in,” Zarrilli said. He noted that “in some cases they [the boards] hosted the briefings and brought together local leaders.”

As part of a special investigative report, Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY surveyed 11 of the 18 community boards representing districts hardest-hit by Sandy.

In part 1, we documented how half of the community boards that represent the hardest hit areas do not feel they and the city are communicating well on rebuild and resiliency questions, despite the city’s intense focus on these issues. Part 2 zeroed in on the concerns of a half-dozen of the boards, which confront issues ranging from storm surge protection to soaring flood insurance rates to the demise of storm-battered businesses.

A More Democratic Process

The city’s 59 community boards, the most localized form of representative government in New York, currently have a non-binding vote within the city’s land use review process.

Some boards have argued that they should be more formally integrated into the city’s climate change planning process. Said Jonathan Gaska, the district manager for Queens CB 14 in the Rockaways, “Our big concern was there was not an official community board process — no ULURP [Uniform Land Use Review] process, no hearings. They didn’t treat us like a government body that represents 130,000 people.”

Zarrilli said that arguing that the city has not been listening to the boards is “not quite right. We’ve been out and responding to community boards,” Zarrilli said, referencing Gotham Gazette’s/AdaptNY’s reporting. “Every neighborhood is different.” He added that some of the boards were equally concerned about whether all the city’s resilience proposals could even be funded.

When asked if the community boards had a legitimate place at the table in terms of planning for climate change, City Councilwoman Gail Brewer of the Upper West Side said, "of course", but argued that the boards needed more support to participate fully in complex infrastructure and land use questions.

Brewer stressed that the boards had an equally important role in terms of identifying and serving the city's most vulnerable populations in the event of another major storm. "They know the neighborhoods, the city does not," Brewer said, adding that the Council would be passing legislation on Wednesday requiring that a centralized list of vulnerable populations be made available to emergency and first responders.

The Bloomberg administration’s highly-detailed report, A Stronger, More Resilient New York, released in June, outlined dozens of strategies for making the city more adaptable to extreme weather patterns, from storm surge barriers to green infrastructure.

The document includes over 200 initiatives designed to rebuild the five sections of the city that were particularly hard hit by Sandy — Lower Manhattan, south Brooklyn, south Queens, the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, and the eastern and southern shores of Staten Island — and increase climate resilience citywide. It was intended as a long-term roadmap that could be used by future administrations.

The report was prepared by the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency.

The Bloomberg administration maintains it has made an extensive effort to solicit community involvement as it rebuilds from Superstorm Sandy and plans for future storms, and argues that this engagement will continue. “We heard lots of good feedback,” Zarrilli said yesterday. He said turning the initiatives proposed by the city into reality would require more outreach to the public.

“Each one of those is going to take its own path towards implementation,” he said.

Zarrilli said that it was impossible to comment on whether the next mayoral administration would consider expanding the role of community boards in the city’s ongoing resiliency planning process. A spokesman for mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio said that the Democrat did not have a position on the issue, nor had he indicated a position on engaging community-based organizations generally speaking in climate change planning efforts.

But de Blasio does support “formalizing” city collaboration with community-based organizations as emergency first responders in the event of another catastrophic storm.

The public advocate’s office released a report in June which maintained that community-based organizations “represented an under-utilized resource” in the city’s ongoing efforts to prepare for the future impacts of climate change. “Hurricane Sandy revealed the latent weakness in New York City’s efforts to reach communities in need and providing vital aid,” the public advocate’s report went on to say. “The city must take immediate action to establish partnerships with CBOs and ensure they have the necessary support to assist communities.”

While Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota could not be reached for comment on community involvement, his on-line “policy book” calls the city’s SIRR plan “commendable.” Lhota states that he would continue work on the city’s “ambitious” plan to create a system of flood barriers, which will “protect New York City’s critical infrastructure and vulnerable neighborhoods,” if elected.

The Need for Follow-Up

After the city stopped gathering information for the SIRR report in May, it no longer appears to have engaged the community boards or other local groups as systematically. The city moved on to finalizing its analysis, disseminating the results, and trying to get projects off the ground. A number of community boards in the hardest-hit districts have been looking for ongoing follow-up and raised a wide variety of issues with Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY.

Zarrilli said the boards have had an ongoing channel of communication with City Hall via the community affairs unit of the mayor’s office.

But Gaska of Queens CB 14 in the Rockaways said he did try to follow through with questions on local concerns. “Did we speak with the Community Affairs Unit? Absolutely. Did they communicate it to City Hall? Who knows.”

“I wish that it was a much more collaborative effort,” he continued. “One of the most important tenets of planning is you keep the stakeholders involved, and that really didn’t happen …. Democracy can be ugly and time consuming [but] that’s the process we have.”

However, other boards reported better communication with the community affairs unit.

Gigi Li, who chairs CB3 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said that her board has an “open line of communication” with the community affairs unit. She said that, both through the unit and by participating in the advisory task force, “some of our concerns have been addressed”.

Li said that CB3 “would have liked” more involvement with the city on resiliency planning questions since the release of the SIRR report, but added that there has been more opportunity for dialogue in the last two to three weeks.

Moving Forward

Community boards in the hardest hit areas told the Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY they are searching for more effective ways to insert themselves into the climate change planning process.

The boards also have the unique quality of being part of government, even as they are also considered part of the local community.

Courtney Smith, the Municipal Art Society’s resilience and community engagement project manager, pointed out that neighborhood-based planning was not a focus of the SIRR report but maintained that community boards “are a critical part of the rebuilding process.”

“Regardless of any government-driven rebuilding process, to be sustainable and relevant, communities must be the drivers of the community plans and be involved in the decision-making that directly affects them,” Smith said. “Many residents have lived in these impacted neighborhoods for decades, and are experts on the conditions and experiences in their neighborhoods.”

But it will be the next administration’s task to decide how to integrate community boards into the city’s planning process.

The stakes are high. Forty-three New Yorkers died during Superstorm Sandy. Thousands more lost their homes or businesses or were temporarily displaced. The Bloomberg administration estimates that Sandy cost New York City $19 billion in losses. And climate change marches on.

INTERACTIVE: Community Boards On Climate Change Adaptation


 

As New York explored ways to make the city more resilient in the face of future extreme weather like Sandy, City Hall zeroed in on five areas it considered the hardest hit by the storm damage -- the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront, South Queens, Southern Brooklyn, Southern Manhattan, and the East and South Shores of Staten Island. Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY surveyed representatives of half of the 18 community boards representing those hardest-hit areas, to find out what kind of impacts they suffered, how they've recovered, future impacts they worry about and their recommendations for dealing with them. We also asked how well they felt the city and communities had worked together and how well their voices were being heard. The map below outlines the 18 hardest-hit CBs. Click on those CBs in blue to find out what what we learned.

Preparing For Climate Change: What Community Boards Say


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New York’s City Hall and some of its community boards show an at-times striking disconnect over ongoing preparations for the impacts of climate change, as revealed in board-by-board reporting conducted over the last two months by a team of reporters for Gotham Gazette and news partner AdaptNY, a digital news platform for the debate around climate resilience.

Five of the 18 most vulnerable community boards - the city’s front line of government – reported that they felt they were communicating effectively with City Hall about climate change preparations.

We reached eleven of the 18 boards hardest-hit by Sandy. Fully half of those that responded to an extensive survey or spoke with our reporters had serious concerns about their communications with the city. They expressed frustration and shared a sense that the city is not moving fast enough to rebuild or prepare in anticipation of more extreme weather to come.

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In Part Two of our special report, we take a brief look at a half dozen of the boards that were most heavily affected by Sandy and how they view their interactions with the city on the questions of rebuilding and preparing for future storms.

Each board experienced the physical impact of Sandy in different ways and each has a complex set of challenges to face. What follows is a series of snapshots based on the perspectives of the community boards themselves.

Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY reached out to the mayor’s office for comment several times during the reporting of the series and again on Tuesday. The city had not responded to many of the specific complaints from boards by the time of publication.

However, the city has said that it is making a concerted effort to involve local communities, especially the boards, in long-term planning for climate change adaptation. The city said that it also established two task forces with representation from community board members and has ongoing conversations with them through the Community Affairs Unit.

Less than two months after Sandy, the city announced the creation of the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, and “charged it with producing a plan to provide additional protection for New York’s infrastructure, buildings, and communities from the impacts of climate change”. The city went on to release “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” the following June, extensively documenting the physical damage suffered throughout New York, and provided a “roadmap” for the city’s rebuilding efforts.

Lower Manhattan

Most of the district represented by Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan was without power for up to five days, and some sections for weeks longer.

Businesses and residents in the area that includes Battery Park City, the Financial District and TriBeca, were without telecommunications for weeks because of damage to Verizon’s copper-wire system. The Financial District, especially South Street Seaport, and the western part of Tribeca also experienced substantial flooding, as did the subway systems.

But repairs by the city began immediately after Hurricane Sandy. CB1 Chair Catherine Hughes said the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, a central intake for the police department set up after 9/11, “helped pull together city agencies and utilities … to facilitate quicker restoration.”

Hughes said CB1 had several meetings with city officials prior to the release of the mayor’s massive climate resilience plan last June. She said that some of the recommendations in the report that came out of the city’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency have already been implemented, such as raising electrical and heating systems in buildings.

Lower Manhattan is among five areas most affected by Sandy that are eligible for federal community development block grants through the city’s Economic Development Corp.

INTERACTIVE: Community Boards On Climate Change Adaptation

Despite this, Hughes still has concerns about how to prepare for future storms, including questions about flooding in the tunnels that link to the outer-boroughs. She also wonders whether mass transit can be better protected.

On the other hand, Manhattan’s Community Board 3, which covers the Lower East Side and the eastern section of Chinatown, has a strong bone of contention with the city: Seaport City, the new development proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which the mayor said would serve as a protective barrier for the east side of Lower Manhattan, and create housing and commercial space.

CB3 Chair Gigi Li said, “Lots of attention [is] being paid to zoning text amendments and large scale changes, like Seaport City. More attention needs to be focused on community responses on the ground in case of another disaster, how to build safety nets, particularly for the vulnerable populations.” Li is also concerned about protecting all of the public housing in the area from storm surge-related flooding.

Li said that when Sandy swept through Lower Manhattan, older buildings in the neighborhood suffered infrastructure and foundation damage. Elderly residents and those with special needs were trapped in their homes throughout the emergency.

In response, Li said that stakeholders in the community have established a Long-Term Recovery Group, which is working to upgrade buildings, study waterfront protection measures and to train residents on emergency preparedness. The community also formed Project Hope to deal with mental health issues related to the aftermath of Sandy.

Li attended two SIRR meetings. She said that the city presented extensive amounts of information, but that the Seaport City proposal was not raised. She said that CB3 was briefed on Seaport City just one week before the SIRR report came out.

At a recent special meeting with CB3 on the topic of Seaport City, Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s Director of Resiliency, housed at the EDC, laid the proposal out: “We need to be bolder about solutions. How do we not run away from the water? How can we embrace the water to protect [Lower Manhattan]?”

David McWater, who co-chairs CB3’s land use, zoning, public and private housing committee remarked, “What this feels like you’re saying is all the little people that got hurt, all the small businesses that closed…the only way to deal with it is to build luxury housing… [It’s] hard to believe that building more houses into the water is going to protect us.”

Some board members argued that the city should have consulted with them more before taking further steps on the project.

Zarrilli told Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY that Seaport City would serve as a “coastal protection for a vulnerable set of neighborhoods along the East River, based on the risks of storm surge and sea level rise that were identified by the New York City Panel on Climate Change.” He added: “This [the city’s current proposal for Seaport City] is a feasibility study to determine how best to consider a multi-purpose levee in this location, with a clear understanding of the technical and regulatory challenges. We have to better understand this before we can have a meaningful conversation.”

“The community will be engaged along the way,” he said.

Further uptown and a little to the west, Bob Ely, head of the environment committee for Community Board 2, which covers Greenwich Village, Chinatown, SoHo and other lower Manhattan neighborhoods, said that he had been trying – so far unsuccessfully - to bring the mayor’s office in for discussions on how to prepare for the next Sandy.

Ely said that the city’s current resilience plan includes temporary bulkheads running along the west side of Manhattan that can be installed in case of a hurricane. He said that he did not know what – if anything - had been done in terms of erecting these barriers. Ely also had a larger question — whether sufficient funding exists for the city’s extensive plans to make the district more climate change resilient.

Ely said that private owners in residential buildings are being charged “significant money” in assessments to retrofit buildings that were damaged by the storm. In a perfect world, Ely said in an email, there would be money to erect soft and hard infrastructure barrier projects in New York Harbor to prevent storm surge, and at the same time, design holding tanks or other infrastructure locations where flood waters could be diverted and absorbed.

Brooklyn

District Manager Chuck Reichenthal, of Community Board 13 in hard-hit Coney Island, said that the city has been very responsive.

The district, which also includes Brighton Beach and SeaGate, was inundated by water from all sides — the coast, Coney Island Creek and the bay. A total of 150 buildings were razed because they were so badly damaged. The community of SeaGate fared the worst. Even though tourist areas are back to normal, community institutions like Coney Island Hospital, the local library and NYCHA housing are still getting back into shape.

Reichenthal said that prior to Sandy, CB13 and the city, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, had been working on beach replenishment, and creating rigid structures that interrupts water flow called grions to protect the Coney Island/Brighton Beach area. Reichenthal said he is hopeful that work to strengthen the coastline will continue. And, after much petitioning, the city is looking at sand replenishment in the Seagate area, he added.

Reichenthal said he hopes that the next step to all of this will be the replacement of the area’s seawalls and seagates.

Reichenthal said that he believes the city’s responsiveness is largely due to the efforts of outgoing Councilman Domenic Recchia. Reichenthal could only speculate what kind of relationship a new administration would have with his district. He said he remains optimistic because candidate Bill DeBlasio has promised that Sandy recovery efforts would focus on more than just Manhattan.

Brooklyn’s Community Board 11, which includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend, also reported it felt strongly that their community and the city were on the right path. Marnee Elias-Pavia, the board’s district manager, said the area wasn’t particularly hard hit by Sandy, but that her board has been pressing the city to extend a seawall that would protect the Belt Parkway, which was submerged by Sandy’s storm surge.

In the mayor’s report, the city recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers come up with an implementation plan by 2015.

Along the Brooklyn waterfront, Community Boards 6 and 7 also reported that the city is listening to their concerns, but worried that the administration may not follow through on all the plans outlined in the SIRR report.

Craig Hammerman, district manager for CB6, which includes Red Hook and Gowanus, called the city’s plan “ambitious and far reaching.” But Hammerman said he felt that the city was not providing the support needed by small businesses as they recovered from the impacts of Sandy. “[It] seems like the government is eager to give low-interest loans,” he said. “People aren’t looking … for more debt … We don’t see government offering incentives to businesses to relocate their equipment to the rooftops, to keep them out of harm’s way.”

Hammerman recommended that government extend tax incentives to help owners reinvest in their buildings. And he also wondered about the continuity of the SIRR plan, saying it is “not something the city itself is committed to — it was produced by one administration and we’re going into a new one.”

Concluded Hammerman: “There’s not much we can do locally without there being a broader public policy agreement—the best thing we can do is encourage people to get involved with the SIRR.”

Jeremy Laufer, CB7’s district manager, agreed, saying, “Overall, the city is listening to our issues — and has even followed through. But that isn’t to say more doesn’t need to be done …. We would be better prepared to handle any future storms with better transportation options.”

CB7, which includes Sunset Park, “is vulnerable to heavy rains and the integrity of the streets gets affected,” Laufer said. He added that the city needed to investigate how better to manage water entering the area from New York Harbor.

Staten Island

Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY contacted all three of Staten Island’s most vulnerable community boards, but two of the boards declined to discuss planning for climate change.

The SIRR report notes that peak storm tides reached 16 feet in the area around Tottenville, in Community Board 3, and “along the Staten Island coastline, monitors indicated storm tide fluctuations of 5 to 6 feet every 30 seconds … large waves repeatedly slammed into the coast at the height of the storm.”

We did speak with Staten Island’s Community Board 1, which covers the island’s historic North Shore. The city projects that CB1will face increased risk of extreme weather events. The North Shore also suffered extensive damage because of Sandy.

Board 1 chair Leticia Remauro argues that the city has not focused enough attention on businesses that were destroyed during Sandy. Busines owners, she said, “have to make decisions about whether to stay and continue to employ local people, but they’re still waiting for help and the city was not quick to give them help.”

Remauro said that business leaders and others in the community have taken the lead on developing a remediation plan. She said they were working with the Dutch government to fund a pilot project to build natural barricades along the waterfront.

“What’s wonderful about this,” Remauro said, “is that it builds natural barricades using barges chained to the bedrock (similar to the Battery Park City ferry dock) and natural plantings… [which] would move with the water … they would be configured in such a way … that the current doesn’t bash the shoreline.”

Remauro explained that a local group applied to FEMA to fund the project and also approached the city. While EDC’s Seth Pinsky, who led the SIRR initiative, was receptive, Remauro said that she was told that the city had to prioritize climate adaptation planning for the eastern coast of the island, where residents were so heavily affected. The western coast, where the business community was impacted, would be addressed subsequently.

Remauro was generally positive about the proposals outlined in the SIRR report, but she asked how they would be funded. “A report doesn't mean it's going to happen. We have to take it to the next step,” she said. And she argued that her district’s resiliency needs had to be addressed. “Staten Island has a working waterfront [and we] have heavy equipment out there that can’t just be moved. You can’t move docks,” she said.

Queens

Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaway peninsula, was decimated by Sandy’s storm surge, not only from the ocean side, but also from the Jamaica Bay side.

Board Chair Doris Orr described the devastation in her survey response: “On the ocean side of the peninsula, west of Beach 86th street (where there are no rock jetties), [there is] complete devastation - all homes flooded anywhere from 4 ft to 12 ft. Wave force destroyed all ocean front homes [and the] … boardwalk.”

Orr added, “on [the] Bay side, all homes- [the] entire length of peninsula- major flooding. More than 150 homes burned to ground and 400 homes off their foundations or washed into Jamaica Bay.”

Orr also said in her response that CB14 did not feel the community’s voice was being heard by the city on the issue of climate resilience.

Nonetheless, CB14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska said he is cautiously optimistic that the shoreline (Rockaway Beach) will be protected in a series of steps taken by the city over the next several years. He said that the city replaced the seawall on the beachside, and questioned how it would weather another storm like Sandy.

However, Gaska’s bigger concern is that the city and the Army Corps of Engineers will ignore the bayside. He said there was extensive flooding from Jamaica Bay into the area during Sandy.

“You know when the mayor came out with that report, he spoke of putting up these temporary metal kind of water walls to protect from storm surge [on the shore side]. You know something like that needs to be looked at in large factions around the bay,” Gaska pointed out.

“So we're a little concerned — we're a lot concerned actually about the lack of concrete measures to protect our communities that face the bay,” he said.

Gaska said that on the bayside there are only sections of little seawalls (which they call baywalls) and they can easily collapse during a surge. Even though the mayor’s report does talk about raising and repairing bulkheads in some sections, primarily Belle Harbor, Gaska said that it is not enough.

Gaska said his community has done everything they can to alert the city of their needs.“Well, we've commented, we've testified. The community, different neighborhoods have done the same. We've done it through our elected officials. … So I think it's clear unless you've lived under a rock … you know what the issues are here and what the concerns are,” Gaska said.

He added that some homeowners in the area are not going to be able to afford the new flood insurance rates and have decided to leave, which could impact the district economically, an issue that he said has not been addressed by the city. Questions on flood insurance were raised by several boards, including Queens CB10 in Howard Beach and Brooklyn CB15 in Sheepshead Bay.

A spokesman for the city, Jake Goldman, said that while flood insurance has been managed by the federal government, the city was examining the issue closely because of the impact of redrawn flood maps and new federal legislation. “This [the cost] could decimate neighborhoods,” he said. The city would be releasing a study on the issue and suggestions on how to mitigate rising insurance costs, he said.

“Thirty thousand more people will be added to the floodplains,” Goldman said. “We will be working closely with communities once we have the facts.”

We’ll look more closely at the challenges of planning for climate change at the community-based level in Friday’s story.

Special Report: Are The City's Most Storm-Vulnerable Communities Being Heard?


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On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, residents worry about how to prevent the elderly and disabled from being trapped in their apartments during the next hurricane — the city, meanwhile, is proposing a large-scale housing and commercial development along the East River.

In the Rockaways, residents say that the danger of flooding from future storm surges on the peninsula’s Jamaica Bay side needs immediate attention  — the city, though, is focused on oceanside beach reconstruction.

Along the Brooklyn waterfront, small businesses that spent weeks digging out from mud and debris left behind by Sandy say they need assistance with storm-proofing their facilities — not loans, as the city suggests.

Nearly a year after Superstorm Sandy, are City Hall and the city’s neighborhoods on the same page when it comes to planning for climate change and the possibility of another catastrophic storm?

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A two-month investigation revealed striking disconnects in communication between the city and some community boards — the frontline of local government — as New Yorkers face the colossal task of remaking the metropolis to be more resilient to extreme weather caused by climate change.

While the city has proposed ambitious, even groundbreaking, plans to address the challenges, there is a clear gap between what some communities and the current administration perceive to be needs and priorities.

In response to our findings, current and former city officials involved with long-term planning said that while the input of the public had been sought after Sandy, and community boards in particular engaged on the local level, the process had been far from perfect. “The city has been invited by community boards in impacted areas to brief them on the resiliency progress and we will continue to do so at every available opportunity,” said Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s resilience director.

Seth Pinsky, who oversaw an initiative that sought to find ways to make the city more resilient in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, suggested that the dissatisfaction on the part of some of the community boards was unsurprising. “You’re not going to get 100 percent satisfaction from 100 percent of the people in 100 percent of the neighborhoods,” he said.

As part of the investigation, a team of reporters for Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, a digital news platform for the debate around adapting to climate change,  surveyed and conducted lengthy interviews with representatives from 11 of the 18 community districts found in five areas identified by the city as having been hardest hit by last October’s superstorm.

The investigation by Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY also found:

A high level of frustration with the city on the part of some boards. Only five of those 11 boards said they were communicating well with the city on climate change resiliency issues despite the city’s intense focus on the topic and the level of damage suffered in the areas.

And more than half of the boards surveyed said their community’s voice was either not being heard well, or not heard at all, by the city on the question of climate resilience.

An even higher proportion — two-thirds or six out of nine boards surveyed — said the city and their community were not working together well towards local climate resilience needs. And only about half of the boards surveyed said they’d had frequent meetings or other kinds of communications with the city about this pressing problem.

The frustration was clear from one response by Queens Community Board 14, which covers the Rockaways. “[The] city [is] doing what THEY want regardless of what the local community feels,” Chair Dolores Orr said.

Faulty communication between some of the boards and the city has led to a sense that steps are not being taken fast enough to rebuild in anticipation of more extreme weather.

“The mayor’s office is talking. The governor’s office is talking. Army Corps is talking.  But no one’s lifted a hand. Nothing’s been done yet that I can think of. Nothing,” complained Theresa Scavo, chair of Brooklyn Community Board 15, which covers waterfront areas like Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach.

Community Board 6 on Manhattan’s East Side, which is in the three flood zones most likely to be affected in the next Sandy-like storm, said in its response to the survey: “There are serious issues that need to be addressed immediately before the next storm season."

At the same time, other community boards in some of the city’s most vulnerable areas seem unwilling to take on the issue of climate change planning altogether.

As District Manager Robert Perris said, “The environment committee of [Brooklyn] Community Board 2 gives almost no thought to the environment. I am sure few of them have even read media reports about the mayor’s resilience strategies.”

Clearly, communication between the city and residents in vulnerable areas has occurred on multiple pathways since Sandy. The City Council, community groups, and other institutions played an important role in bringing the feedback of local residents back to City Hall.

But New York City’s community boards, all-volunteer bodies of local government systematically located throughout the five boroughs, could — in theory, at least — provide an important way to look at city-community dialogue, and decision-making, related to climate change. Community boards are the city’s most localized form of representative government, and some have environmental committees (although others do not).  

Community Boards: An Explainer

While the boards are an integral part of certain city processes, for instance with  land-use and zoning review, overall they are relatively powerless advisory entities with non-binding votes (See sidebar backgrounder on community boards).

Yet the city does not seem to envision a direct planning role for the community boards in developing its climate change and resiliency strategies. Zarrilli said that the boards, along with local elected officials, should take a “leading role in providing feedback on community priorities and impacts of the plans ... especially as it pertains to the public review process surrounding specific projects.”

The city said that it also established two task forces with representation from community board members and has ongoing conversations with them through the Community Affairs Unit.

A Plan To Protect the City

Last winter, less than two months after Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the storm as “the worst natural disaster ever to hit New York City,” and called for the city to undertake an expansive and expensive effort to examine ways to adapt to possible climate change impacts such as storm surges, inland flooding, high winds and other extreme weather-related issues.

The Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, or SIRR, was charged “with producing a plan to provide additional protection for New York’s infrastructure, buildings, and communities from the impacts of climate change.”

The result, in June, was outlined in a 400-plus-page report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” which extensively documented the physical damage wrought by Sandy and provided a “roadmap” for rebuilding.

The  SIRR report includes summaries of the “priorities” indicated by residents of five target areas: Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront, southern Brooklyn (which includes Coney Island), southern Queens (essentially the Rockaways and communities along Jamaica Bay), and the eastern and southern shores of Staten Island.

Those five areas, the city said, “ultimately suffered the greatest lingering physical damage” from Sandy. Home to 683,000 residents and nearly 42,000 businesses, they are all essentially waterfront communities, sitting along New York Harbor, the Atlantic coastline and Jamaica Bay, or inland bodies, such as Newtown and Coney Island creeks, and the Gowanus Canal.

The city’s scientists say that these areas and others will steadily become more and more vulnerable to future storms and sea level rise.  

Projections released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change earlier this year state that by the 2050s, sea level rise is projected to rise 11 to 24 inches (middle range) and 31 inches (high estimate). The panel noted that, if using its high estimate for sea level rise, “today’s 1-in-100 year flood may occur approximately 5 times more often by the 2050’s.” The panel also projects that the number of “intense” hurricanes in the North Atlantic Basin will also likely increase.

Pinsky, who served as the head of the city’s Economic Development Corp. before departing for the private sector in July, was charged with overseeing SIRR, and said that “public input was a very important part of our process.”

The city’s community engagement effort included meeting with “interest groups,” such as faith-based organizations and labor unions, as well as affected neighborhoods. Public workshops were attended by more than 1,000 New Yorkers, including a number of community board members, Pinsky said.

He said the SIRR team met with principles and staff of over 65 elected offices and over 20 community boards on a regular basis.

Explained Pinsky: “We were not only able to achieve the goals that we set out of frequent detailed conversations with elected officials and the public.  But the quality of the [city’s rebuilding and climate resiliency] plan was significantly enhanced by the feedback we received.” He added that feedback was incorporated when it was “consistent with our principles, realistic and achievable.”

He pointed to public opinion polls that show community satisfaction with the SIRR plan, including a June 27 Quinnipiac poll finding that 74 percent of New Yorkers and 82 percent of Staten Islanders support it. He said there was a positive response from the environmental community but conceded that there will be people who dislike certain elements.

The View From The City’s Neighborhoods

But, as the extensive SIRR report was released, reaction to the city’s feedback mechanism and workshops was mixed.

On the one hand, there were glowing remarks. “The information just flowed from the city ... there was truly an open ear and they wanted to hear the impact,” said Marnee Elias-Pavia, district manager of Brooklyn Board 11, which includes Bensonhurst and Gravesend.

But District Manager Robert Perris of Brooklyn Board 2 had a different view. “We were invited to public forums where we can weigh in on the SIRR report. … I attended a few sessions but I felt like they just presented their ideas to us, but didn't really seem open to our comments,” he said.

“A lot of what was discussed was technical and difficult to follow,” added Tamara Greenfield, who attended the city’s SIRR report meetings with other members of Manhattan Community Board 3.

While the main damage sustained by Brooklyn Board 11 was the flooding of the Belt Parkway, both Brooklyn Board 2 and Manhattan Board 3 experienced major flooding directly in their communities because of the East River storm surge during Sandy. The surge flooded sections of Manhattan Board 3, which covers the Lower East Side, causing building damage and power outages. This led to the entrapment of elderly and other homebound residents, especially in high-rise buildings, said board members. Sections of Brooklyn Board 2, like DUMBO and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, also experienced five-feet of flooding and power outages.

Some have suggested that greater community involvement in climate change planning should have been more a part of the SIRR mix. An analysis of the SIRR report by the Sandy Regional Assembly, which was convened by 200 community, labor and civic groups from the city’s most heavily impacted areas, argued that more neighborhood-led policy development should have been a SIRR recommendation. 

“The SIRR’s analysis of community capacity should not have been limited to “outreach” activities. Instead, it should have included community-based planning and research capacity,” the assembly wrote in July.

In a number of cases, the local community boards did report that they felt the city has been listening.

An example of positive feedback on city–community board interactions came from the tip of Lower Manhattan. Catherine Hughes, chairwoman for Manhattan Community Board 1, said she believes that the voice of her community is being heard in city government, and that the city and community board are working together to adapt to climate change.

According to Hughes, CB1 had several meetings with city officials prior to the release of the mayor’s SIRR report and said that some of its recommendations have been implemented.

Despite that, Hughes remains concerned about flooding in the tunnels, the major arteries that connect lower Manhattan to the outer boroughs.

“I would like to know what are they doing to protect those major underpasses,” she said. Hughes added, “We’re in the middle of the hurricane season and we want to know what is in place for now.”

CLARIFICATION: Gotham Gazette reported that the city is proposing a "large-scale luxury housing development along the East River." However, it remains undetermined how much of the housing will be high-end or "affordable", and there will also be commercial opportunities.

Coming this Wednesday in part two of our three-part series: A closer look at community boards in the city’s most vulnerable areas, and how well the citywide climate resilience process has worked for them.



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