New York Times, November 3rd, 2015
The sleek military transport vessel inched up to the edge of the marshland and flipped down its front gate, as if to discharge troops.
Instead, a lone scuba diver stepped off the decommissioned Navy craft and dragged heavy straps out to a 22-foot Catalina sailboat, the initial steps in pulling the abandoned vessel from the waters off City Island in the Bronx.
The sailboat, a red day-sailer named Lady Rage, had been left stranded there by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and never reclaimed, one of hundreds of storm-strewed boats littering city waterways three years after it barreled across the region.
It was hauled away on a recent weekday as part of a new initiative by New York City to remove the many unwanted vessels sunken in the waters around the city or languishing along the shorelines. Work began this summer on a project to finally start cleaning up New York’s watery graveyards.
Hurricane Sandy exacerbated what has been an intractable problem for decades: the large numbers of abandoned boats polluting some of the nation’s busiest waterways.
“They are navigational, environmental and public safety hazards,” said Nate Grove, a senior manager for the 14 public marinas managed by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
After Hurricane Sandy, the city had about 115 boats that posed immediate public safety hazards removed from waterways, he said.
But many more remain. Mr. Grove put the tally around 600 citywide, but he said a precise count was unavailable in part because no single agency was responsible for taking them away. Recreational boaters, environmental advocates and even government officials have long complained that it was a nearly impossible task.
Lisa Scheppke, the local restoration project coordinator for the American Littoral Society, a conservation group, said extensive surveys of the waters and marshlands of Jamaica Bay revealed 133 abandoned boats and wave runners, and an additional 132 boat fragments.
John Lipscomb, a patrol boat captain for Riverkeeper, an environmental group, said discarded boats were one of the organization’s biggest issues.
“It’s a regulatory no man’s land: No one wants to deal with these boats, and there hasn’t been an easy way to get any of the regulating agencies to pay attention to them,” Mr. Lipscomb said. “The problem is, these boats are mostly fiberglass, and in the old days, a wooden boat would rot away.” Fiberglass boats, he added, endure “for the rest of time.”
The Army Corps of Engineers removes abandoned vessels that block federal navigation channels, like those in the East and Hudson Rivers, while the United States Coast Guard moves recreational boats that pose environmental risks, primarily because they are leaking fuel, or that impede commercial traffic. That still leaves plenty of boats closer to the shoreline or in less heavily trafficked waterways.
Compounding the problem are the layers of bureaucracy required to remove a boat, including the issuance of environmental permits and the legal filings needed to declare vessels abandoned property.
“It’s a horrible fact of these bays and inlets that there’s no real mechanism to get rid of them,” Dan Mundy, vice president of the environmental advocacy group Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, said of the boats. “Right now, it’s nobody’s job. You ask anyone and they’ll tell you, ‘Nobody does this.’ ”
The recession has contributed to the problem. Boaters who do not have the money for dock fees, maintenance and gas, and face a poor resale market and expensive disposal costs, can simply remove the state registration and hull identification numbers to make the boat untraceable and then leave it at a dock or along a shoreline.
It is a crime that carries large fines, but it can be difficult to prosecute.
In Jamaica Bay, for example, it is simple to get rid of an unwanted boat, Mr. Mundy said. “They just wait for an east wind and push it out so it floats toward Brooklyn,” he said. “Anyone who has a junky boat, half sinking, is inclined to let it go instead of paying a few thousand dollars for a Dumpster.”
Mr. Mundy said he had long had more success removing beached boats by persuading local towboat companies to help him move them to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, where they are picked up by city sanitation workers.
“After Sandy, nobody really addressed the boats,” he said. “Everybody looked at each other, and no one had a mechanism to remove them.”
Until now. After years of work, New York City has developed a contracting system to streamline the removal process and make it easier to comply with regulatory requirements, allowing workers to start chipping away at the large inventory.
“Everyone who tried to do this for decades was trying to figure it out on their own,” said Keith Kerman, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, who along with Mr. Grove, of the parks department, developed the contract.
The first phase of the city’s project, financed with a $2 million federal grant, is focused on the removal of more than 50 boats in several pressing areas, including Eastchester Bay in the Bronx, College Point in Queens and Shell Bank Creek and Gerritsen Creek in Brooklyn. The city is applying for part of another $2 million federal grant to expand the cleanup to other notorious boat graveyards, in Coney Island Creek and the Arthur Kill along the North Shore of Staten Island.
The sailboat near the City Island Bridge was one of the boats recently removed by a crew from Custom Marine, a salvage company based in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., that the parks department hired for the first phase of the cleanup. Its mast had jutted several feet out of the water at low tide but remained submerged at high tide; local boaters learned to steer clear of it and had attached a large foam float to the boat as a warning.
After Mr. Grove’s workers noticed fuel leaking from an abandoned sailboat at World’s Fair Marina in Flushing, Queens, he was able to contain the spill and have the vessel quickly removed. Without the contract with Custom Marine, the process could have taken a year, involving the solicitation of bids, the awarding of a contract and the arrangements that had to be made for the work.
After nonresponsive agencies ignored a 25-foot motorboat beached for weeks near their waterfront properties, homeowners along a Gerritsen Beach inlet in Brooklyn resorted to calling news outlets, and word reached Mr. Grove. He had the boat removed within hours.
Still, the contracting process does not resolve the thorny issue of what agency is responsible for removing the boats, in part, it seems, because no one wants to assume the cost.
The parks department hired Custom Marine after the company came in with a low bid and an impressive fleet of barges and cranes, which included the decommissioned military landing craft. Designed as amphibious assault and transport vessels, the vehicles can haul up to 80 tons and need only a few feet of water in order to float. A front gate that flips down allows equipment and cargo to be easily moved off and on. Boats are plucked from the water and taken to local marinas to be sent to waste transfer stations.
Dwayne Reith, the owner of Custom Marine, who bought the Navy landing craft from a military salvage auction, agreed to set a fixed price list for the city, based on the size and condition of the castoffs. The average cost for removing and disposing of a typical pleasure boat is about $2,000, but higher if it is completely submerged.
The prices are lower than what the city would confront if it had to put out bids for individual removal jobs, said Mr. Grove, adding that, “We now have a standing contract, an agreed-upon price list, saving time and money.”
Also, Mr. Reith is now on standby to make emergency removals.
“He’s ready to go, and we know exactly what it will cost us,” Mr. Grove said, calling the contract a safeguard to help the city in the immediate cleanup after future storms without it falling prey to “storm chasers,” or high-priced contractors that are often hired out of desperation.
Still, some jobs are too big and expensive for the city to tackle immediately, such as the two working barges sitting abandoned in Flushing Bay, shedding chunks of flotation foam.
Kenneth Wells, a spokesman for the Army Corps in New York, said it was “in the process of evaluating the next steps” regarding the barges.
If the barges were squarely in the channel, he said, it would fall to the corps to remove them, but their being on the “sideslopes” creates a “gray area” in terms of that responsibility.
Mr. Lipscomb, the patrol boat captain for Riverkeeper, expressed impatience. “They’re a hazard and they are active pollution sites, and it’s apparently nobody’s problem,” he said. “Here in the greatest city on earth and they can’t manage this.”
“You get a nor’easter and these things are going to move again,” he added.