Coney Island watchdogs demand DEC revoke permits for ferry project after illegal dredging

Dredging at Coney Island Creek has been going on to make passage for the new ferry route.
Photo by Jessica Parks

A cadre of Coney Island activists diligently monitoring the dredging of Coney Island Creek are calling on the state to end work on the peninsula’s coming ferry landing after new video shows toxic materials being dumped into the waterway.

“Today we are standing here because our worst suspicions have been confirmed,” said Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus at a Nov. 10 press conference on the improper dredging. “The city is telling us one thing — they are keeping us safe — but they are doing something else when they think no one is looking.”

The group, Coney Islanders for an Oceanside Ferry, took to the site that day to expose the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s alleged failure to abide by permit regulations to protect the surrounding area from toxins when dredging in Coney Island Creek to make way for the incoming ferry landing at the westerly edge of Kaiser Park.

“A resident recorded work being done right here behind us,” Frontus told the crowd, “which clearly shows in undisputed terms that materials were being removed from the polluted creek without employing any of the required safeguards to ensure toxins wouldn‘t be released into the air or water.” 

The ferry landing has been a years-long topic of controversy on the peninsula. Environmentalists worry about the toxic sediment being exposed from the dredging and its potential longterm effects on marine life, while residents of the nearby Gravesend Houses fear they will lose their local greenspace to tourists — and say their health is being impacted.

“My voice is going to be heard loud and clear on behalf of everyone in Coney Island who is sick,” said Coney Island resident Charlene Davis. “My asthma has been getting worse since they started this. My question is who accepts responsibility for this? It’s good to issue them a fine, but what about people like me who are getting sick?”

Many others also argue that the landing should be situated on the ocean side of Coney Island, closer to the amusement district.

Representatives for EDC — the quasi-governmental agency spearheading the construction of ferry landings across the city — has told Brooklyn Paper on multiple occasions that they take what is seen at the creek very seriously. This time, they’ve halted any further dredging work with the subcontractor Mechanical and Marine Construction Corporation and launched an investigation into the matter.

“We are committed to safety and protecting the environment in this project, so we take what we saw in that video extremely seriously,” an agency rep said. “NYCEDC mandated Skanska launch an investigation into the incident and work performed by their subcontractor, Mechanical and Marine Construction Corp. As a result, Skanska has informed us the subcontractor is no longer working on the dredging project.” 

Frontus, who represents the People’s Playground in Albany, said at the Nov. 10 press conference that EDC told her office that there was a lapse of supervision at the same time the video was taken.

“In 24 hours, we received an email stating the subcontractor on this project did not follow established protocol due to a lapse in supervision this was our worst fears coming true and indeed it’s a nightmare for those of us who live right here on the peninsula,” she said.

Now, Frontus is asking the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which ensures projects like the ferry landing construction follow city environmental measures, revoke EDC’s permits and take steps to make sure the creek is being dredged properly.

“I am standing here today to demand that the state DEC immediately revoke the permits issued to the City of New York and stop this construction project,” the pol said. “We need to take steps to ensure that this community’s health is protected that is the bare minimum that they could do and it’s the right thing to do.” 

The state agency has so far issued two violations to EDC for work related to the ferry landing. The first violation was issued on Sept. 21, more than three months after DEC received complaints that construction debris was found in a tidal wetland area. The second violation was issued Nov. 9 for falling out of compliance on dredging protocols, though the investigation is still ongoing. 

“The New York State Department of Environment Conservation closely monitors all projects under its jurisdiction for compliance with permits and has been doing so in the case of the City’s Economic Development Corporation ferry terminal project on Coney Island,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to Brooklyn Paper. “DEC is committed to being responsive to community concerns about the ferry project construction and has investigated all complaints received to date. DEC has issued two Notices of Violation for this project to date. Pursuant to DEC’s oversight and enforcement authority as laid out in state law, DEC will conduct robust enforcement when violations are found.”

Assemblymember Mathylde Frontus calls on the Department of Environmental Conservation to put an end to Coney Island Creek dredging for the sake of her constituents.

This isn’t the first time Coney Islanders for an Oceanside Ferry raised alarm over the construction.

The group last month unveiled photos documenting a suspected oil sheen on the water immediately surrounding the ferry landing construction, which the EDC maintained was unrelated to their work, and DEC said couldn’t be confirmed to be oil.

“What is happening here is criminal,” said Coney Island-born business owner and historian Michael Quinn. “The creek contains harmful chemicals from gasoline, coal and crude oil, dyes and raw sewage and leaving vulnerable residents exposed to these dreadful toxins will have long-term effects on their health. Yes, Coney Island deserves a ferry, on the ocean side, as proposed by the EDC back in 2012, where it will ease seasonal traffic and not disturb the neighborhood and cause illness.”

Representatives from both agencies were invited to speak further on alleged dredging issues at an Oct. 27 meeting of Community Board 13, at which an EDC rep addressed environmental protocols which were not seen being taken in the activists’ video.

As part of their permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers, EDC is required to utilize three preventative measures to ensure toxins are not being released into the creek: a turbidity curtain, which surrounds the dredging area to keep any sediment that is dredged up within the barrier; an environmental bucket, which allows the water to drain from the toxic sediment that is then transferred to a disposal location; and the agency avoids work during any spawning seasons of sensitive species in the area. 

In addition to what is required in their work permit, the agency said they employ safeguards to regularly measure the water’s turbidity, or how many particles are suspended in the water, before and after work. In regards to future dredging, it will only be done if there is a serious storm event or some condition that changes the creek dramatically and impedes the ferry’s passage.

Though, if there does need to be maintenance dredging, the EDC rep promised board members that the agency would alert the local panel, which is also in the process of scheduling a meeting with the Coast Guard regarding the recent oil slicks, and with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the creek’s potential Superfund status.

In the meantime, DEC encourages the public to say something if they see something. Locals can reach out to the agency’s “Spills Hotline” by calling 1-800-457-7362.