Resort kills subway car reef plan

1,300 from New York were to be sunk off Ocean City

Environmental concerns

Group was worried asbestos would harm artificial reef's habitat

April 28, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of old New York City subway cars were supposed to be sunk off the coast of Ocean City under a contract signed last week.

But environmental concerns have killed the plan, which was designed to boost the resort's ambitious artificial reef program and save New York millions in disposal costs.

After daylong meetings yesterday, Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. and the Town Council sent a letter to New York transit officials canceling the contract, which had authorized the dumping of as many as 1,300 of the 40-year-old cars.

The contract, signed by transit and resort officials April 19, began to unravel this week when members of the nonprofit Ocean City Reef Foundation had second thoughts about asbestos in the wiring and walls of the cars.

"Based on the reef foundation's information, the mayor and council have unanimously decided to withdraw the offer to accept up to 1,300 subway cars," Mathias said. "We're notifying them that it was unanimous. I hope we can resolve this amicably."

The plan to sink the cars had been approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency, which said asbestos in the cars presented no health hazard to humans or marine life.

But members of the reef foundation - which over the past decade has worked with Ocean City to oversee the sinking of everything from army tanks to concrete blocks and derelict ships in five sites off the Maryland coast - feared that asbestos would harm the habitat such artificial reefs are designed to promote.

Coral, mollusks and other invertebrates attach themselves to the reefs, encouraging the growth of underwater grasses. The areas are designed to offer fish sanctuary from huge commercial trawlers while improving fishing for local anglers and party boat operators.

Board members said they became concerned when a New Jersey task force rejected a similar deal, and they became more alarmed when they discovered numerous Internet sites questioning the safety of dumping cars containing asbestos.

"The New York deal was a huge opportunity, and we pursued it vigorously," said Joseph T. Hall II, an Ocean City councilman who is also a reef foundation board member. "We knew there was some asbestos, but we've learned that there is more in these cars. This is a big disappointment, but I think maybe it is best for Ocean City to quietly back away."

Albert O'Leary, a spokesman for the New York transit authority - which could have saved an estimated $10 million to $13 million disposing of the cars at sea - said the agency is unlikely to challenge the decision.

"The bottom line is that if these cars aren't suitable for reef material, we'll have to get rid of them in some other way. We aren't going to force it on anyone. The irony is that [Ocean City already has] similar things in the water. Are they going to pull those up?"

Bonnie Smith, a spokeswoman for the EPA's regional office in Philadelphia, said similar artificial reefs have been created in coastal waters around the country for at least 50 years. Many, she said, have used mothballed military ships.

Ocean City officials also worried that adverse publicity would upset tourists.

"Public perception needs to be taken into account, even if you have all the scientists telling you it's OK," said Hall. "If the perception is negative, it's not worth the risk for the town of Ocean City or the state of Maryland."

Last year, the reef foundation authorized the sinking of a surplus Coast Guard buoy tender and a clam boat that had been abandoned in the West Ocean City harbor. The foundation solicits reef material and oversees the dumping, but the permits for five reef sites from three-quarters of a mile to 19 miles off the Ocean City beach are held by the town government.

Mathias and foundation board members said the incident has not diminished their enthusiasm for creating artificial reefs, which they say are vital to the city's charter fishing industry.

"What we're all about is improving marine habitat," said Capt. Monte Hawkins, a foundation board member who owns the OC Princess, an 88-foot charter boat. "This ocean was once teeming with so much life, species that just aren't around any more."

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