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Suffolk Closeup: Going to war with the Army Corps

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

“Save Montauk” — “No More Army Corps”

These were some of the signs as widespread opposition greeted the Army Corps of Engineers project to put “geotubes” at taxpayers’ expense of $8.9 million on the beach at Montauk.

With the start of the Montauk work, there was civil disobedience by protesters seeking to stop bulldozers and arrests. And there was a multitude of complaints at an East Hampton Town Board meeting drawing 250 people.

The situation sends an important message about the Army Corps’ even bigger shoreline project: Reactivation of its more than 50-year-old scheme, now with a taxpayer cost of $600 to $800 million, to try and “fortify” the south shore between Fire Island Inlet and Montauk.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based group Defend H20, has been tirelessly challenging the Montauk project. Defend H20 is a key plaintiff in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to stop the placement of what he describes as 14,000 “concrete-like building blocks that weigh 1.7 tons each.”

As heavy equipment under Army Corps contract began excavating gaping holes in the Montauk shoreline last week in preparation for dumping of the “geotubes” — essentially bags of hardened sand — the basis of the project became obvious to many people.

“I think everybody got a major dose of reality when they saw the primary dune being carved out,” Thomas Muse, environmental director of the eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and also a plaintiff in the Defend H20-led lawsuit, told the packed East Hampton Town Board gathering last week. “Let’s please pause the project.”

It should be cancelled. And promptly.

This project and the larger Army Corps scheme were pushed through in a hurry in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

The Army Corps scheme was one I began writing about when I started as a journalist on Long Island in 1962.

It was stopped when knowledge was gained regionally and nationally about the science of coastal geology. The plan called for massive sand-dumping along the south shore and construction of rock jetties or “groins” —a concept of “hard” coastal structures determined to be highly damaging to the shore they were supposed to protect. The Army Corps’ scheme underwent a “reformulation” but still wasn’t getting far until Sandy struck and massive amounts of federal money became available for various post-Sandy projects.

Mr. McAllister wrote in a formal “declaration” to the court as part of the pending lawsuit that putting geotubes on the Montauk shore is “explicitly prohibited” by East Hampton Town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan.

He blasted the Army Corps’ contention that the tubes would serve as a “dune.” He said this “ignores” the “common sense, and facts … This is excavation and construction of a geobag wall.” And like groins, the geotubes cause “adjacent property” along the shore to suffer from “accelerated erosion.” Moreover, the beach at Montauk itself will end up drastically narrowed, not a sand beach at all but a huge pile of sandbags.

Suffolk politicians at all levels, from town to county to state to federal, have boosted the Montauk project with one exception: Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D- Cutchogue). He refused to join his 17 colleagues last year in a measure to have county taxpayers join with those in East Hampton in paying for “operation and maintenance” of the field of geotubes.

Thus Shelter Islanders would be among those paying for the Montauk sandbags.

“I am very familiar with the processes of coastal erosion and the dynamics of the shoreline,” said Mr. Krupski, whose district includes Riverhead and the North Fork, in a letter to fellow legislators. For 20 years he was a member of the Southold Town Board of Trustees — 14 years as president — that oversees the shores and adjoining waters of Southold Town. “I believe Suffolk County should not endorse a project that hardens the shoreline,” he said. “This is a project that, one, is sure to fail and cause accelerated erosion to adjacent properties, and two, puts the maintenance on the shoulders of the entire county.”

“The Corps and the Shore” is a landmark book by coastal geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Katharine Dixon about the Army Corps. It explains how with roots in the Revolutionary War it became an entity to build military fortifications, but through the years its power has been widened to include civilian work.

It details how with “arrogance” the Army Corps has pursued highly destructive shoreline projects, working in flat-out contradiction to coastal science. And there is a big follow-up-the-money aspect. The Army Corps district offices, the book notes, “receive funding based on the cost of their projects.”

It’s high time that civilian work be taken from the Army Corps and given to a new agency that respects the environment and has a commitment to comply with science.

This new agency also should not profit, as does the Army Corps, from the work it orders.

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