End of the line: MTA uses retired subway cars from 207th Street Yard for artificial reef program
Written with Zack Seward
First published on January 5, 2009 in the Manhattan Times
Dumping old subway cars into the ocean may seem like bad news for the environment. But by all accounts a Metropolitan Transportation Authority program doing just that is greatly improving sea life along the eastern seaboard.
The MTA artificial reef program takes worn out subway cars and drops them onto the ocean floor. Over 2,400 cars have been sunk off the coasts of six states, from New Jersey to Georgia.
“It’s the ultimate form of recycling,” said Mike Zacchea, who oversees the program for the MTA. “You’re getting a useful life above ground and at the end of its original life you create another life for it, creating habitat for marine life.”
But the journey to the bottom of the sea begins in Inwood.
At the MTA’s 207th Street maintenance facility the subway cars are stripped of everything from seats to signs. Workers also remove liquid pollutants like motor oil, coolant and grease.
What remains in the cars, however, is asbestos. The 40-year-old cars were built with the harmful material in their flooring.
“The issue in all of these cars is that they were built during a time when asbestos materials were commonly used in constructing subway cars,” Zacchea said. “So that presented a disposal problem.”
The MTA started the program in 2000 when the transit agency had to get rid of its entire fleet of “redbird” trains. Before tougher asbestos laws they could sell the cars for scrap. With the new laws, the process of removing the asbestos became expensive.
Zacchea came up with the idea to sink the subway cars after reading about a similar program from the 1980s that sunk military tanks. Artificial reef programs like the MTA’s are meant to create marine ecosystems on stretches of seafloor that are naturally barren.
But also, dumping the cars out at sea was the cheapest way to get rid of them. For the first fleet of redbird trains alone the MTA saved about $12 million.
For the states that receive the cars the program is also a moneymaker. Along with sunken tanks and ships, the subway cars provide hard surfaces for underwater plants to grow on. These smaller organisms then attract fish to the sites, which in turn attract fishing and diving activity.
Delaware’s reef program coordinator, Jeff Tinsman, says that his agency has seen a 300-fold increase in fishing activity since the program began.
Initially the program had its critics. Environmental groups expressed concern that the asbestos would be harmful to the marine environment. Most, including New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action, now say that its effect is minimal and the benefits to sea life are significant.
The latest batch of cars left Inwood in December, joining the 2,380 that already litter the ocean floor. The 44 stainless steel trains that used to run up and down the city’s lettered lines, headed to their final destination: a site 26 miles off the coast of Delaware. They’re now part of the Del-Jersey-Land Artificial Reef.
Nearly 500 more cars are on tap to be sunk by September 2010 and the MTA says it plans to continue the program.
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