The planned Coney Island ferry landing site (photo by the author)
Coney Islanders asked for a ferry. Instead the City is providing the community with a deadly toxic brew of lead, dioxin, mercury, PCBs, and pesticides.
At a February 12 Brooklyn Community Board 13 meeting, the New York City Economic Development Corporation made the surprise announcement that the originally proposed ferry dock at West 33rd Street on Gravesend Bay had been replaced by a new site in Kaiser Park that, when constructed, will destroy the single most environmentally sensitive and vulnerable area in all of Coney Island.
The Kaiser Park site on Coney Island Creek requires an extensive dredging project in the narrow channel adjacent to Calvert Vaux Park, the former industrial dump and landfill that is known to contain long-buried toxic materials. The City's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), revealed that core samples drilled last fall at the channel found that "sediments in the eastern dredging area contain contaminants of concern exceeding Class C thresholds, including thresholds for arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], and dioxin, which can be associated with chronic and potentially acute toxicity to aquatic life."
Class C is deadly, and the effect of these carcinogens on humans was glossed over in the EIS. Construction and operation of the ferry dock will bring these toxins to the surface. The EIS only covers impact caused during construction and ignores future impact to the community after project completion. Kaiser Park is being sacrificed.
These disturbing findings have not deterred the City's choice of the Kaiser Park fishing pier site. It turns out that the final Coney Island ferry site was not "decided by science," as officials promised. Thousands of people who signed petitions requesting a ferry were not told it would be located in Kaiser Park — they believed it would be on the ocean side.
The City's plan to move the dock to a vulnerable restored estuarine habitat with a small pier and a beach used by school children for marine education, and for kayaking and fishing, was apparently made long before the Environmental Impact Statement was released in late January 2020. The City's report describes construction impact, but not the long-term impact to the community, public parks, or the environment after completion of the project. The report also neglects to analyze the impact on Kaiser Park from automobile and foot traffic for the ferry.
Kaiser Park is the Central Park of Coney Island, a neighborhood refuge for playing and picnicking. The EIS compiled a list of the ferry's negative impacts to the park including noise: "adverse impact at Kaiser Park is unavoidable...and that no feasible and practical mitigation measures have been found." Noise and pollution impacts at the park caused by the ferry's diesel engines are being ignored.
The EDC downplays the effects of the dredging project, claiming that it will be handled in a "safe" manner, with the toxic materials removed using "Best Management Practices" for hazardous waste removal. Hazardous material removal is never perfect, and the larger problem is that buried contaminants and chemicals can migrate and leach from the adjacent sediments along Calvert Vaux Park into the low point of the newly dredged channel.
Ferries docking and turning in the narrow channel will stir up other toxins now buried under a cap of clean sand that covers the creek's bottom. No cleanup of the entire creek bottom, or mitigation of any kind for that matter, has been proposed or cited by the City's EIS report. Several years ago, hazardous material removal and remediation in a small area of Calvert Vaux Park for construction of soccer fields cost the City millions of dollars. Similar hazardous materials remain buried alongside the narrow channel that will require constant dredging for the ferry.
Of the two contested sites, the West 33rd Street site had much to recommend it. It's a straight shot from Gravesend Bay to the dock, avoiding the need to enter Coney Island Creek and according to the EIS, "does not require dredging restrictions or special handling." The 33rd Street site called for a pier with "public amenities" including benches and access for fishing. This location would have provided needed community benefits but was rejected.
EDC officials said the 33rd Street site was too exposed for a ferry, but this isn't true. The site is similar to the Bay Ridge ferry dock, which has similar exposed orientation. Skanska Construction, the multinational marine construction company building the City's ferry docks, has the engineering ability to construct any kind of dock in any kind of environment. The City just doesn't want to spend the money to do this project the right way, a decision that will prove more expensive in the long run, while jeopardizing the health of the surrounding community for years to come.
The endangered Kaiser Park location has come a long way. When I was growing up in Coney Island in the 1950s and 1960s this site was one of the most polluted parts of the creek, downwind from a now-closed sanitation department incinerator and across from the once active dump that is now Calvert Vaux Park. During the last 25 years, the site has been restored with sand dunes, native plants, a new shoreline, and a horseshoe crab spawning beach. This location is used as an outdoor schoolroom by environmental groups including the Coastal Classroom, Billion Oyster Project, New York State Marine Education Association, Coney Island Beautification Project, Coney Island History Project, and Partnerships for Parks.
Kaiser Park provides the safest public access to Coney Island Creek, a place to conduct research, monitor horseshoe crabs, and launch rowboats, kayaks, and underwater robotics. Future stewards of Coney Island Creek, mostly youth of color from the neighborhood, are being denied their classroom.
The pier and adjacent sand bar are also known as the best fishing spot for a local community of subsistence anglers. Fish caught at this location – striped bass, bluefish, and albacore – are coming from the ocean and considered safer to eat than the fish that live in the creek. All educational and recreational activities will be forced to end with the construction of the ferry dock.
The remote ferry location has made few residents happy. The amusement businesses in central Coney Island lobbied for years for an oceanfront ferry only to have it placed in the West End, far from their businesses. West End residents have expressed valid concerns about the impacts caused by thousands of seasonal visitors being stranded in their neighborhood without a viable means of transportation to or from the ferry dock. A temporary jitney has been proposed but seems impractical.
Many in the community feel the dock sites were chosen to serve the newly constructed high-rises located three blocks away. The City has offered no mitigation or increased enforcement to protect the public parks and environmentally sensitive areas surrounding the dock.
The ferry has also been touted as a "commuter line" benefitting NYCHA residents, but it actually doubles the fare to Manhattan, as most passengers would have to take the subway from the Wall Street terminal and pay an additional fare because there is no free transfer. When questioned about tourists and visitors using the ferry to get to Coney Island attractions, an EDC ferry official told me that "they'll take it once" before realizing that it's not for them.
Most New York City ferry docks are located in former industrial areas attached to hard bulkheads. Coney Island will be the only dock located at a small beach where people are now swimming, fishing, and boating. It's the only ferry line that will transit an extremely narrow channel with inherent navigational risks. The mouth of Coney Island Creek is in constant transition with drifting sands from beach nourishment on the ocean side. The proposed ferry dock at Kaiser Park fishing pier will expose the surrounding community to toxic materials in the air and water unless mitigation is implemented.
Last summer local residents held a demonstration at Kaiser Park after hearing a rumor that the City was planning to move the dock from 33rd Street to the Kaiser Park fishing pier. Officials from the EDC and Skanska Construction vehemently denied the rumors. Seventy-five local residents, most living on West 33rd Street, signed a petition demanding that the City not build the dock at the fishing pier, contradicting the City's insistence that most locals did not want the dock at West 33rd. At a February 2020 community board meeting, EDC officials could not answer a simple question of when the final decision had been made to move the dock to Kaiser Park.
The only concession made by EDC officials so far is a promise to make repairs to the fishing pier that the ferry dock will be attached to, actually a required repair as the pier is falling apart and has been condemned in the past. The representative claimed at the February meeting that people will still be able to fish there, and that the ferry would not disrupt anything. But a more truthful Skanska representative told me last July that "people will be able to fish there but they won't be catching anything."
A false narrative is being circulated, implying that community members concerned about negative impacts at Kaiser Park do not want a Coney Island ferry. Nothing is further from the truth. Coney Island desperately needs a ferry, but the project has to be done right.
This project requires an independent impact assessment, as well as remediation and mitigation to protect the long-term health and well being of the community and the Coney Island Creek estuary. These issues must be addressed before construction begins.
It’s not too late to make your voice heard, too: written comments concerning this project will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Monday, March 16.
Charles Denson is Executive Director of the Coney Island History Project, and author of the book “Coney Island: Lost and Found.”