A Surfers’ Turf War
A few years ago, energy industry executives who wanted to build natural gas plants in the New York region came up with a way around the perennial wall of neighborhood opposition to their plans. Place the projects in the open sea, far from troublesome neighborhood councils and community boards.
But there was a hostile constituency they didn’t expect in such an urban corner of the nation: surfers, who have mounted an aggressive effort to block plans for several natural gas projects scheduled for the coastal waters of New York and New Jersey.
The latest action is called for this weekend at 90th Street in Rockaway Beach, where a large group of surfers is set to paddle into the ocean to hoist signs protesting a proposed 60-acre natural gas terminal 13 miles off the coast of Long Beach, Long Island.
The project — protesters call it “Insanity Island” — will receive shipments of liquefied natural gas from tankers and then process and pump the fuel to the mainland through pipelines. The company behind it, the Atlantic Sea Island Group, says it will be safe, secure, and bring much needed jobs and fuel to the region. Company officials acknowledged that it would make a small but permanent mark on the horizon at several area beaches.
Protest organizers said they are less worried about the effect the project may have on the quality of their waves than they are about its effect on the ocean environment. They say the manufactured island would draw added ship traffic; could hold the potential for treacherous leaks; and may even provide a tempting target for terrorists.
The fight has months if not years to go as the project makes its way through the cumbersome approval process of the federal Maritime Administration, which has official say over its future. But Gov. David A. Paterson of New York and Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey have veto rights. So surfers, teaming up with nearby fishermen and environmentalists, are hoping to persuade one of them to block the project. So far, they have had no luck.
But their protests are getting some notice. Some officials, including Assemblywoman Audrey I. Pheffer, a Democrat, and City Councilman Eric Ulrich, a Republican, have agreed to attend Saturday’s waterborne protest — though not, it is suspected, on surfboards.
Executives at Atlantic Sea Island said that they were well aware of the surfers’ complaints, which they dispute. “To suggest that surf conditions would be adversely impacted is a fiction,’’ said a spokesman for the group, Gary Lewi, who predicted that government studies on the project will support the company’s contention that the island poses minimal risk. “The surfing community is going to have to come face to face with science.”
So it goes, a battle off the coast of New York City between a big gas company and a vocal group of surfers, part of a growing community. While New York has always been known for its mix of races, religions, cultures and subcultures — and its Broadway theaters, museums and restaurants — it is also something of a growing surfing destination. And those who take their boards out in all seasons, though mostly in summer, have their own sets of issues related to a less-heralded feature of the area, the ocean and its waves, that are often ignored. Hence, City Room’s new Waves feature.
“Our community is both much bigger and far more diverse than people give it credit for,’’ said Chris Wade, the chairman of the Surfrider Foundation’s New York City chapter and one of the organizers of Saturday’s protest. “The average outsider who doesn’t surf has stereotypical ideas of who a surfer is and where they live and we defy those stereotypes here in New York.”
He added, “We’re a big group of people that has a great camaraderie about the ocean and I think that’s underrepresented and often misreported.”
As the summer progresses, Waves will seek to cover and chronicle surfing life in New York and other nearby parts. In the meantime, for more information in the fight over the Atlantic Sea Island Group project, you can get the company’s side here, and Surfrider’s critique here. The Maritime Administration’s description of the project and approval process can be viewed here (scroll down to Safe Harbor Energy/Atlantic Sea Island Group LLC).
Waves is an occasional City Room feature chronicling surfing in and around New York City, and the issues important to local surfers. Its author, Jim Rutenberg, is a Washington correspondent who grew up surfing in New Jersey and continues to surf regularly on eastern Long Island. Ideas and comments are welcome at Wavesnyt@gmail.com.
By Jim Rutenberg