Superstorm Sandy washed away beaches and sent raw sewage and diesel fuel into waterways, leaving an environmental repair bill for New York and New Jersey exceeding $100 million.
The harm to wildlife and habitats probably will be extensive given the strength and duration of the storm, Larry Ragonese, press director for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said yesterday in an interview.
“We’ve lost beaches,” Ragonese said. “We’ve lost dunes. We’ve lost wetlands. We’ve lost habitat for endangered species. The environmental impacts are tremendous.”
Officials are working to contain about 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel that leaked from a storage tank into the Arthur Kill, the tidal strait that separates New York and New Jersey, he said. Most fuel has been contained, Ragonese said today.
State officials say they are concentrating on restoring electricity and other basic services to residents affected by the storm, which at its peak knocked out power to 8 million homes and businesses in the mid-Atlantic and New England. The storm is blamed for more than 70 deaths in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.
Restoring or repairing a beach can cost $5 million to $8 million a mile, said Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist whose clients include the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, a group made up of coastal communities.
Beaches south of Atlantic City, near where Sandy made landfall late Oct. 29, don’t appear to have suffered as much damage as coastlines and barrier islands to the north, Marlowe, who represents the New Jersey beach town of Avalon, said in an interview. The state has about 130 miles of Atlantic coastline.
Marlowe said he didn’t expect the total beach-repair costs to exceed $100 million, which he said is about the amount Congress appropriates to the U.S. Corps of Engineers each year for coastal restoration projects nationwide. His total excluded costs for environmental remedies beyond the beaches.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said the state issued emergency declarations to expedite construction permits and speed work in coastal areas. A statement from Cuomo’s office said Fire Island, Moriches Inlet, Cupsoque County Park and Long Beach in Suffolk and Nassau counties, among other areas, were significantly damaged by Sandy and need of restoration.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster for New York and New Jersey, a state he said yesterday “got hit harder than anybody,” making both eligible for U.S. aid. Federal assistance includes money to restore and replenish beaches that communities, such as those on the Jersey shore, depend on for tourists and economic growth.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated more than 90 percent of the beaches in New Jersey and on New York’s Long Island suffered erosion from Sandy, though the extent of the damage had yet to be measured.
Delaware’s beaches recently underwent a $30 million restoration that included adding sand and building dunes to protect shoreline communities from a storm surge. Those improvements helped limit Sandy’s damage to resort towns such as Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, said Collin O’Mara, Delaware environment and energy secretary.
In New Jersey, among the biggest concerns raised by environmental groups is pollution on federal Superfund sites that were flooded by Sandy’s surge leeching into water systems or elsewhere in ecosystems where they can linger for years.
“Some of the most-toxic sites in America are along these waterfront areas,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. “In floodwaters you have a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals and raw sewage.”
One Superfund site is a seawall made of lead slag, a byproduct of metal smelting, on the Raritan Bay, which borders New York’s Staten Island. Tittel said the wall was breached in Sandy’s storm surge.
More than 630 calls were placed to a spill hotline managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation after Sandy came ashore, the agency said.
Steve Apfelbaum, who studies how ecosystems recover from disturbances such as hurricanes or wildfires, said storms similar to Sandy carry oil, solvents, paints from homes and heavy metals like arsenic or mercury from industrial sites to waterways.
Storm surge can stir up toxic soil sediments and it can take three years or longer for an affected area to return to pre-storm conditions, Apfelbaum said. The number of fish may decline and birds will have more difficulty creating nests, he said.
“There are all sorts of repercussions associated with what we’re seeing on the East Coast,” said Apfelbaum, who co-wrote a book on restoring ecologies and teaches an ecology course at Harvard University.
South of New Jersey, environmentalists were concerned that Sandy might add to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. Storm water flowing through sewers typically accounts for about 20 percent of the pollution dumped in the largest U.S. estuary, said Josh Tulkin, Maryland director for the Sierra Club.
“There’s just a lot of gross stuff: trash, syringes, condoms, plastic bags,” that the runoff carries into the Bay, Tulkin said.
Overall, pollution flowing into the Bay is less troubling than expected in part because drought conditions in areas of the drainage basin allowed creeks and streams to absorb more of Sandy’s rains, said Bruce Michael, director of resource assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s not nearly as bad as it could have been if we had gotten a direct hit,” he said.
The flow of the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary into the Chesapeake Bay, is forecast to be 155,000 cubic feet a second, or about 20 percent of the rate after Hurricane Irene last year, the USGS said. The record is 1.1 million during Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
“We are simply grateful for the health of the Chesapeake that Sandy didn’t follow Irene’s example,” USGS Director Marcia McNutt said.
While storm damage was concentrated in New Jersey and New York, beaches from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the south shore of Long Island were affected.
“It’s the geographic extent that is really incredible here,” said Hilary Stockdon, a USGS spokeswoman.
USGS said 91 percent of the beaches on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, had some erosion. More than half were forecast to have had “overwash,” which occurs when storm surge or waves push sand inland instead of out to sea.
Overwash erosion makes it harder to beaches to recover naturally, because normal tidal currents can’t push the sand back to shore, Stockdon said.
Gene Pawlik, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the federal beach restoration program, said beaches that have been restored are eligible for more aid. He said it was too early to estimate the potential costs.
“We’ve had very little opportunity to do any sort of assessment yet on our coastal restoration projects,” Pawlik said.
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