LEWES, DEL. - Four months after Ocean City officials abruptly scrapped a plan to sink hundreds of old New York City subway cars off the Maryland coast, 27 of the 17-ton transit vehicles splashed into the Atlantic yesterday to provide a home for fish and other sea animals 19 miles from the Delaware shore.
Lewes and Delaware officials celebrated with champagne from the deck of a ferry, the Cape Henlopen, as the first of the 40-year-old cars was shoved from a 200-foot barge into the dark rolling water. A New York transit official promptly reeled in a sea bass, as if to demonstrate the cars' value as a fish magnet.
Ocean City officials canceled a contract in April that would have allowed the transit authority to dispose of all its surplus cars in Maryland waters, stating fears that the subway vehicles might contaminate the ocean with asbestos and other toxic pollutants.
Officials here say the environmental concerns that scared Maryland resort officials are unfounded, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agrees.
The cars, said William C. Muir, regional oceanographer with the EPA, will make good artificial reefs, creating habitat for fish and other sea animals. Asbestos, contained in epoxy on the inside walls of the vehicles, will harm neither humans nor fish, said Muir, who inspected the cars before they were shipped.
"I think that with Ocean City, it was a case of wanting to avoid any sort of controversy," Muir said. "I think there are valid concerns by environmental groups who don't want the ocean to become a dumping ground. But these reefs won't cause environmental problems. ... They create the kind of habitat we need on this part of the East Coast."
According to Muir, every state along the Atlantic coast has a program to develop artificial reefs.
No regrets in O.C.
Opponents in Ocean City said yesterday that they have no second thoughts. Although the project was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, reports that the cars contain asbestos alarmed Greg Hall, president of the Ocean City Reef Foundation, which persuaded the Ocean City Town Council to back out of the contract.
"I hope sincerely that we were wrong about those cars," said Hall, whose foundation has supported the sinking of everything from derelict boats, barges and army tanks to create fishing reefs off Maryland's coast. "There's a good chance we were wrong, but even if it was one in a million, we were not willing to take that chance. I hope everything works out well for Delaware in the long term."
The sinking saves New York's transit authority millions in disposal costs while helping Delaware boost its artificial reef program.
"From the beginning, we had two options - recycling the cars or doing it the old-fashioned way by melting them down for scrap metal," said Joe Hofmann, the New York transit system's senior vice president for subways. "We could save $20 million with 1,300 to 1,400 cars. We hope that as Delaware gets its program going, we'll hear from other states."
The transit authority, Hofmann said, is negotiating with officials in Virginia and South Carolina who are interested in using the subway cars to create reefs.
Delaware officials say their reef program has been a boon to recreational fishermen and divers, pumping more than $400 million into the state's economy.
The offshore site that will receive 400 of the New York cars is one of 11 reefs created off the Delaware coast during the past six years. The 1.3-square-mile area is 80 to 90 feet deep, providing sufficient clearance for ships to pass over, even if the 50-foot-long transit cars are standing end up on the ocean floor. "People imagine that that many cars will create some kind of island out there, but with 400 cars on a site that size, it's one car for every 4 or 5 acres," said Jeff Tinsman, program director for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
`Cause to celebrate'
Tinsman served as host to nearly 300 natural resources employees, local politicians, reporters and photographers who crammed the 350-foot ferry that made the three-hour round-trip to the reef site. Hoffman then mugged for cameras with the bass he reeled in.
"There's plenty of cause to celebrate today," said Jack Ferrera, New York state chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. "I'm really thankful to the state of Delaware for doing the research to take away a lot of the apprehension out of this program. When you get down to it, ... artificial reefs are good for the environment."