The Ferry Point Fiasco

by Anne Schwartz, Jan 22, 2008

In June 1998, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced the creation of a world-class golf course at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx. For decades, Throggs Neck politicians had envisioned fairways replacing the local eyesore, an overgrown former city garbage dump that had been transferred to the parks department.

"This is ... a wonderful example of the public and private sectors working together," Giuliani said. For little public outlay, the city would get not only a Jack Nicklaus-designed course with striking views of the Whitestone Bridge and the Manhattan skyline, but also a banquet hall and two public parks, one a waterfront esplanade. A partnership led by J. Pierre Gagne, a developer with a longtime dream of building the golf course but no track record in similar projects, would invest $22.47 million and then pay a yearly concession fee of $1.25 million after the course opened in 2001.

But by 2006 -- eight years and numerous missed deadlines later -- Ferry Point Partners had made little progress aside from taking in a million cubic yards of dirt, sand and cement. The site was a bleak expanse of rubble, oddly shaped hills and muddy roads. The project's estimated cost had nearly quadrupled. High levels of methane gas were detected, requiring the city to pay millions of dollars for environmental remediation. People who bought new houses adjacent to the promised golf course saw their investments plummet. At that point, the city finally ended its contract with Ferry Point Partners and began planning the parks itself.

A year later, an audit by City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. charged that, over the years, the parks department had lost millions of dollars by failing to oversee the project properly.

On January 11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller Thompson said that the city itself would finance the building of the golf course. As the administration picks up the pieces of this project, however, the environmental and engineering problems of building on a former landfill remained unaddressed.

"Looking back, it was probably overly optimistic to think that a developer with his own equity could build a golf course and golf house and two community parks and recoup his investment," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "The city took a chance on a good deal for the public and it didn't work out. There is no bad guy in this scenario."

A Brownfield by Any Other Name

For decades, suspicions of environmental contamination swirled around the former Ferry Point dump, located on wetlands along the East River. Methane fires frequently broke out in the heat of the summer. Residents complained of foul odors, blowing debris and health problems.

At the time the landfill operated, industries routinely discarded chemical waste in city dumps. Moreover, illegal dumping continued at Ferry Point for years after it was closed in the 1960s. Other city sanitary landfills of the same vintage are listed by the state as hazardous waste sites. Environmental groups have tried to get records from the city of what was dumped at Ferry Point but have not succeeded.

Even ordinary garbage oozes a toxic cocktail, known as leachate, into groundwater and nearby waterways, as rain seeps through batteries, old cans of paint, bug spray, oven cleaner and other household chemicals. Rotting garbage also generates methane and other gases, which can reach combustible levels and, even at low levels, disperse toxic chemicals.

Federal and state laws now require the tracking of hazardous waste from "cradle to grave" and the careful engineering of solid waste landfills to prevent contaminated liquids and gases from leaking out. Once closed, landfills must be sealed with an impermeable barrier and covered with topsoil and vegetation.

Because the Ferry Point landfill stopped operating before these laws were passed, the city has not been legally required to seal it or make it comply with current standards. The rules at the time simply required covering the dump with two feet of soil.

Ordinarily, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regulates projects involving solid and hazardous waste, including brownfields reclamation. But because the Ferry Point dump was exempt from the law, the parks department was made the lead agency in charge of determining whether there were any environmental problems. Before approving Ferry Point Partners' initial plans, which included adding a thick layer of construction and demolition debris to be sculpted into the contours of the golf course, the parks department required an Environmental Assessment, a quicker, less thorough review than an Environmental Impact Statement.

For the assessment, a consultant hired by the developer tested 15 samples of soil and subsurface taken over 222 acres. Although the tests detected methane gas and various hazardous chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, DDT, lead, arsenic and PCBs, the Department of Environmental Conservation determined that levels were too low to be a health threat, and the parks department gave the project a green light.

In 2000, after the golf course was approved, residents of a housing project across the street from the site, concerned about the project, alerted the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York Public Interest Research Group.The organizations promptly sued to require the city to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement. They charged that the Environmental Assessment did not look into the history of the dump, test for contamination of the groundwater or the East River, or address the possibility that construction could force methane to migrate to the basements of houses near the park. The suit was ultimately dismissed because the deadline for filing was missed.

Responding to questions about the proper remediation of the landfill recently sent to the Department of Environmental Conservation, citizen participation specialist Thomas Panzone wrote in an e-mail, "Ferry Point does not call for the reclamation of a site. What it does call for is for the planning of a golf course on top of a landfill."

Building on a Dump

In order to landscape the golf course without digging into the old dump, the contractors had to cover it with fill. The most economical option was construction and demolition debris, or C & D. But by taking in the debris, Gagne, through his subcontractor, Laws Construction, essentially would have been operating a construction and demolition landfill, which brought it under state solid waste regulations. This required a special permit and monitoring to make sure the debris was free of junk like pipes and radiators, as well as chemical contaminants.

Starting a process that would continue for the next eight years, construction companies began dumping truckloads of dirt and debris from demolished buildings.

As environmentalists had warned, the debris' weight began squeezing pockets of potentially explosive methane toward residential areas. To address this, the Department of Environmental Conservation required the construction of venting trenches and the monitoring of methane levels. (The agency, did not, however, test for chemicals that tend to migrate with the methane.) One trench runs along the edge of the community park, where children from the housing project still play even though a mountain of fill has swallowed up much of it.

"Had they done the proper EIS, they would have discovered things like this," said Leslie Lowe, who headed the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance when the lawsuit was filed.

The fill also compacted the spongy layers of trash and wetland below, so more of it was needed. A change in the design of the course, from traditional to a links style with rolling hills, also called for more fill. Every time the amount was increased, Gagne had to go back to the Department of Environmental Conservation for a new permit, requiring a lengthy approval process. Over time, the agency tightened its requirements for the quality of the fill.

Three permits were ultimately issued, the last in November 2005, allowing a total of 2.54 million cubic yards of debris. The city allowed Laws Construction to charge tipping fees to contractors who needed to get rid of debris, for a total of $15.13 million so far. In a November 2006 article in the Daily News, Gagne said that Laws kept the fees to cover its expenses, although it is hard to believe it cost that much for a small crew with bulldozers to push debris into little hills.

"The more they dumped, the more they compressed, and they have never been able to contour as they said," Lowe said recently. "Our engineer spotted this from the get-go. He said, 'I don't think they will ever be able to build this golf course.'"

Some local residents wonder if the city ever intended to build a golf course or whether it just needed a place within city limits for the construction industry to dump its demolition debris at lower cost. They also point out that the tipping fees provided an incentive for the developer to take in as much fill as possible. Dismissing these theories as absurd, Benepe said, "The only grassy knolls were on the golf course."

The Cost to the City

The city repaid Ferry Point Partners $7.2 million for building and maintaining venting trenches, installing monitoring wells and other costs of remediation. The analysis by the city comptroller determined that the cost should have been just $1.3 million. The comptroller's audit claimed that the city also improperly repaid capital improvement costs that the developer was required to cover.

Benepe vigorously disputed the findings. "It is completely wrong that the city overpaid for remediation," he said, adding that the audit showed no understanding of environmental obligations: "We generally agree with most of what the comptroller does when he audits us. In this particular case, we believe there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of both the contract and the city's responsibilities regarding environmental regulations."

After reading about the audit, Lowe, along with four other people who had worked on the earlier lawsuits, wrote in an unpublished letter to the New York Times, "In its haste to award the contract, parks couldn't take the time to do the proper testing and analysis. Doing the right thing then would have identified the real cost of the clean-up and protected the community and environment, thereby saving the project from the 'environmental complexities' in which it is now enmeshed."

The comptroller's audit faulted the parks department for forfeiting $3 million in concession fees because of missed deadlines and for allowing the subcontractor, and not the city, to keep the fees for the disposal of construction debris. In addition, the audit noted, the parks department ended the contract "without cause," requiring it to pay Ferry Point Partners an additional $7 million.

"It is simply astounding that after failing to perform any significant work at the site, Ferry Point and its contractors are walking away with millions of dollars," said Thompson.

Benepe said the city decided to reach an agreement with the concessionaire rather than risk protracted litigation. He said, "The most important consideration was to get this project moving."

The Future of Ferry Point

In an effort to do just that, the parks department has already begun to plan the two public parks slated for Ferry Point and has put out a request for proposals to build the golf course, although no cost estimate has been released. In a joint press release with Bloomberg announcing the new golf course plan, Thompson said, "As my office has done over the last several years, we will continue to monitor the progress of any work at the site."

Laws Construction remains at Ferry Point, continuing to accept truckloads of debris. The company is a subcontractor to an independent monitor the city hired to make sure it is in compliance with the Department of Environmental Conservation permit, according to city spokesman Jason Post.

Henry Stern, who served as parks commissioner under Giuliani, said, "Looking at the larger picture -- looking at the hundreds of acres and the golf course -- it's hard to believe that the environment would not be enhanced by replacing a garbage dump with a golf course."

The local community board and elected officials are pushing hard for the completion of the golf course. "My neighborhood feels that a golf course is a win-win," said Councilmember James Vacca. "Has our patience been tested? Yes. But if the end result means we're going to get a better project, I think the wait will be worth it."

Certainly, daunting environmental problems remain.

Driving on the Hutchinson Parkway service road along the edge of the golf course site, Dorothea Poggi, a longtime resident and founder of Friends of Ferry Point Park, pointed out brown liquid oozing from the ground. She said that no agency has tested the liquid seeping out of the ground and sidewalks near the site, as well as the runoff coming from Ferry Point every time it rains. Also, no one has tested the streams that flow underneath the former landfill or checked to see if toxic chemicals are being vented along with the methane.

Asked about the testing of waterways under or near Ferry Point, Panzone of the Department of Environmental Conservation said in an e-mail that the agency "conducts inspections at the site. While inspection observations have been limited to stormwater runoff at the site, we urge members of the public to notify our office if they observe a more serious condition, and we will investigate."

It does not appear that the city plans to take a closer look at the environmental and engineering problems associated with building on the former dump. No further environmental assessment will be conducted, according to Post. Residents also wonder whether the city will require a drainage system to address runoff and prevent erosion, which has been a continuous problem now that the site is many feet higher than the surrounding landscape.

In addition, it is not clear whether there will be coordinated oversight by all of the city and state agencies responsible for solid and hazardous waste disposal and environmental safety. "I'm not so sure the project was mismanaged solely by the parks department," said Christian DiPalermo, executive director of the parks advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks. "Really, the city itself seems to have dropped the ball."

DiPalermo noted that the Sanitation Department has primary responsibility for turning the mammoth Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island into a park. "Sometimes the parks department gets a responsibility that is really outside their expertise -- and their budget," he said. "This seems to be outside of the parks department's realm."

As the city has already learned, it is a complicated job to put tomorrow's golf course on top of yesterday's trash.