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The Army Corps of Engineers and the Montauk Shore

Posted on November 24, 2015

“Save Montauk” “No More Army Corps”

These were some of the signs as widespread opposition arrived—at long last—to the Army Corps of Engineers project to put “geotubes” at a taxpayer expense of $8.9 million on the beach at Montauk. With the start of the Montauk work, there was civil disobedience—protesters seeking to stop bulldozers—and arrests. And there was a multitude of complaints at an East Hampton Town Board meeting drawing 250 people.

The situation sends an important message about the Army Corps’ yet bigger shoreline project—reactivation of its more than 50-year-old scheme, now with a taxpayer cost of $600 to $800 million, to try to “fortify” the south shore between Fire Island Inlet and Montauk.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based group Defend H20, has been tirelessly challenging the Montauk project. Defend H20 is a key plaintiff in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking to stop the placement of what he describes as 14,000 “concrete-like building blocks that weigh 1.7 tons each.”

As heavy equipment under Army Corps contract began excavating gaping holes in the Montauk shoreline last week in preparation for dumping of the “geotubes,” the basis of the project became obvious to many people.

“I think everybody got a major dose of reality when they saw the primary dune being carved out,” Thomas Muse, environmental director of the eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and also a plaintiff in the Defend H20-led lawsuit, told the packed East Hampton Town Board gathering two weeks ago. “Let’s please pause the project.”

It should be cancelled—and promptly.

It and the larger Army Corps scheme were pushed through in a big hurry in the wake of super-storm Sandy. The larger Army Corps scheme was one I began writing about when I came in as a journalist on Long Island in 1962. It was stopped as knowledge was gained regionally and nationally on the science of coastal geology. The plan called for massive sand-dumping along the south shore and construction of rock jetties or “groins” —a concept of “hard” coastal structures determined to be highly damaging to the shore beyond them. The Army Corps scheme underwent a “reformulation” but still wasn’t getting far until Sandy struck and massive amounts of federal money became available for various post-Sandy projects.

The putting of “geotubes” on the Montauk shore is “explicitly prohibited” by East Hampton Town’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, declared Mr. McAllister in a formal “declaration” to the court as part of the pending lawsuit.

He blasted the Army Corps’ contention that the tubes would serve as a “dune.” He said this “ignores” the “common sense, and facts…This is excavation and construction of a geobag wall.” And like “groins,” the bags of hardened sand would cause “adjacent property” along the shore to suffer from “accelerated erosion.” Moreover, the beach at Montauk itself will end up drastically narrowed—and not be a sand beach at all but a huge pile of sandbags.

Suffolk politicians at all levels—from East Hampton to Suffolk County to state to federal—have boosted the Montauk project with one exception: Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski of Cutchogue. He refused to join his 17 colleagues last year in a measure to have county taxpayers join with those in East Hampton in paying for “operation and maintenance” of the field of “geotubes.”

Thus all Suffolk County residents will be paying towards the Montauk sandbags.

“I am very familiar with the processes of coastal erosion and the dynamics of the shoreline,” said Mr. Krupski in a letter to fellow legislators. For 20 years he was a member, 14 years president, of the Southold Town Board of Trustees which oversees the shores and adjoining waters of Southold Town. “I believe Suffolk County should not endorse a project that hardens the shoreline,” he said. “This is a project that, one, is sure to fail and cause accelerated erosion to adjacent properties, and two, puts the maintenance on the shoulders of the entire county.”

“The Corps and the Shore” is a landmark book by coastal geologists Orrin H. Pilkey and Katharine Dixon about the Army Corps. It explains how with roots in the Revolutionary War it became an entity to build military fortifications—but through the years its power has been widened to include civilian work. It details how with “arrogance” the Army Corps has pursued highly destructive shoreline projects—work in flat contradiction to coastal science. And there is a big follow-the-money aspect, too. The Army Corps district offices “receive funding based on the cost of their projects,” the book notes.

It’s high time that civilian work be taken from the Army Corps and given to a new agency with respect for the environment and a commitment to comply with science.

The agency also should not profit, as does the Army Corps, from the work it orders.