‘Nobody’s listening’: Dire warnings as BJ’s construction nears starting date
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Carl Alderson remembers how Hurricane Sandy devastated Staten Island in 2012, causing immense flooding and two dozen deaths. Two decades before, he witnessed how a 1992 nor’easter slammed the borough and brought with it ravaging inundation.
In both cases, one fact is “indisputable,” said Alderson, a former Staten Islander and the Mid-Atlantic restoration coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Associations’ Fisheries’ Habitat Restoration Center: The site of the former GATX oil storage terminal, which was a vacant low-lying basin of roughly 650 acres in the Old Place Creek corridor on the borough’s North Shore, helped absorb storm surge that would have otherwise breached into neighborhoods.
Since then, 20% of that receiving lowland has been taken out of the complex environmental equation that works to receive flooding water and absorb its impacts due to multiple developments that have since been constructed there.
Now, a new development, a BJ’s Wholesale Club that includes a gas station and 838 parking spaces, threatens a part of the Graniteville wetlands — a 28-acre plot that is part of the network of wetlands that has demonstrated the ability to protect Staten Islanders in the past, Alderson and multiple advocates have said.
Construction there could begin this year.
The site sits just thousands of feet from the Old Place Creek Tidal Wetlands that were recently rehabilitated — an area that sits adjacent to the Amazon and Ikea warehouses that have been erected in recent years.
The continued march of new construction, Alderson said, will further throw off the environmental balance that delicately dampens the impact of major storms. With less areas to receive water and more areas shedding it because of the developments, that ratio has been altered significantly since Hurricane Sandy hit the Island.
“Your ratio of basins to range has changed, and it now favors more range — more shedding, less receiving,” said Alderson. “And we don’t know what impact that will have necessarily on the next storm.”
The swath of wetlands etched out for the BJ’s Wholesale Club serves as a headwaters to Old Place Creek. While only a small section of the larger ecosystem, it has unique benefits that are not common elsewhere in the area.
The Graniteville swamp, which comprises the area that will be affected by the development, is “soft and permeable” with a “significant amount of tree cover,” said Alderson. Those trees delay water hitting the ground and use root systems to store water.
“That’s a very large benefit that you don’t have a lot of in that watershed,” added Alderson.
Advocates have echoed those sentiments and believe specifically that the destruction of the acres of woodlands, which play a pivotal role in maintaining the nearby wetland ecosystem, could have a net-negative impact on the Island.
Additionally, greenery that grows in these areas absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, while the soil filters pollutants and toxins, protecting indigenous animals and fish, as well as the people living in the surrounding area, said advocates.
A ‘DEVASTATING’ EFFECT
Ellen Banks, the conservation chair of the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group with chapters in all 50 states, said the Graniteville wetlands undoubtedly play an important role in flood mitigation, which led the organization to put forward a resolution opposing the construction.
“We in the Sierra Club consider it very urgent to do anything we can to stop this development,” said Banks, who contended that the measures proposed by the land’s developers to counteract the environmental impact of the construction will not be adequate.
Josif A LLC, the project developer, claims the project will actually enhance the nearby wetlands due to concessions made by the developer to plant additional trees and install bioswales to offset any potential negative impacts on the environment.
Banks said planting trees and installing bioswales, channels designed to concentrate and convey runoff, might be sufficient for normal rainfall, but are unlikely to help in a more severe weather event akin to Sandy.
Alderson explained that manmade infrastructure, however modern, will not perform in the same way naturally-occurring wetlands operate.
“No matter how much additional infrastructure that commercial enterprise builds in, it cannot rival the absorption capacity of 24 acres of a forest, it’s just not physically possible,” he said. “No amount of modernization of systems is going to be able to delay the water coming off the roofs and the asphalt enough to not have some extraordinary negative effect.”
Even without the BJ’s development, the Department of City Planning’s Flood Hazard Mapper shows the northwest section of the borough will gradually experience higher levels of flooding in coming decades.
While the developer’s plans might work during a daily rainfall, Alderson said, a combination of a historic rainfall event and storm surge “would be devastating.”
“If there’s a surge, the water coming into the pipes from rainfall will have nowhere to go,” he said.
Mitchell Korbey, lead counsel to the owner of the site, said the environmental impact of the site has been “exhaustively vetted.”
A FERVENT LEGAL BATTLE
In 2017, the New York City Council approved the development despite an outpouring of concerns from the conservationist community. Then, in October 2019, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approved an Article 24 Permit for the controversial development, paving the way for its construction.
Construction hit a hitch in January 2019, when it was believed that the eastern mud turtle, which is on the New York state list of endangered species, may reside in the area carved out for construction. However, the turtle was not found to be living within the space, the Advance/SILive.com reported.
Velardi-Ward said the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, which took on the case, most recently challenged the Queens Supreme Civil Court’s 2017 ruling that her organization missed the date to file an appeal and contends the DEC should conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) of its own for the site.
The Department of City Planning (DCP), the initial lead agency overseeing the project, conducted an environmental assessment statement in 2016 that “determined the proposed project could have the potential to result in significant adverse environmental impacts.”
After public hearings did not raise any significant issues with the project — hearings that Velardi-Ward said she was not aware of at the time — the DCP issued a completion of its EIS.
“On Sept. 6, 2017, NYC DCP issued the formal set of written findings reflecting that NYC DCP had taken a hard look at the environmental consequences of the proposed project and stated that the project would not result in any unmitigated significant adverse impacts,” the DEC wrote.
“That’s when I got involved in this,” said Velardi-Ward.
In 2019, the DEC received more than 1,000 letters requesting a public hearing on the land, but the agency later said a hearing was not warranted.
Velardi-Ward said courts have since “kept us busy with technicalities rather than presenting the merits of the case” and slammed the “lack of transparency” she contends has surrounded the push to develop on the Graniteville wetlands.
A request to stop work at the wetlands as a court decision is awaited was voluntarily agreed upon by both parties and is expected to halt construction at the location until at least May 1, 2021.
“We have so many reasons to stop this,” said Velardi-Ward. “And nobody’s listening, nobody’s listening.”
The DEC, which said it does not comment on pending litigation, said it “subjects all permit applications to a rigorous review to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”
Despite the legal challenges, Korbey previously told the Advance/SILive.com that the developers “remain confident in our approvals, having received a full and complete sign-off and a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation based on our wetlands protection program and well-designed site plan and having completed the ULURP process and it’s own environmental review and Planning Commission approval.”
“We look forward to providing hundreds of new local jobs with advancement potential and excellent, lower-cost shopping for Staten Islanders,” he said previously.
LONG LASTING IMPACTS OF FLOODING
Flooding from Hurricane Sandy displaced thousands of New Yorkers, and Harriet Festing, executive director of the Anthropocene Alliance, the nation’s largest coalition of frontline communities fighting for climate and environmental justice, said those impacts can last long after a new place to live is secured.
“There’s a strong correlation between flooding and mental health impacts, and depression, and we have many members who are facing depression post-flooding,” said Festing. “Emotionally, those impacts could last forever.”
While some devastation caused by nature is inevitable, Festing said the nation is ”going rapidly in the wrong direction, not just in terms of climate change mitigation but also adaptation.”
“The destruction of wetlands is happening everywhere at a terrible and horrifying rate,” she said.
Despite the city and federal government doling out vast amounts of money to fund green infrastructure, Festing said pieces of the environment are being destroyed elsewhere in a “confusing” practice that stumbles efforts to adequately address climate change.
“People will say, ‘why are you concerned about, this is just one woodlands?’,” but it’s the impact of multiple small environmental concessions that creates issues like dangerous flooding scenarios, said Festing. “That’s why it’s kind of so hard to fight.”