Fire Island debris removed -- and on time

The final piles of debris that were collected The final piles of debris that were collected from Fire Island are removed from Robert Moses State Park in Fire Island. (March 31, 2013) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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A post-Sandy mission to remove several thousand tons of storm debris from Fire Island was completed on schedule Sunday despite doubts the cleanup project would finish before a federally protected bird started nesting on island beaches.

The last piles of debris -- chunks of homes, boardwalks and mounds of Sandy garbage -- were trucked off the island from the Field 5 parking lot of Robert Moses State Park Sunday, said officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw the cleanup project.

Pressure was on to meet the deadline before the nesting season begins for the piping plover, a small bird that settles on East Coast beaches in the spring.

Fire Island Association president Suzy Goldhirsch said that despite a slew of obstacles, the cleanup was a "textbook case of how to get a job done."

"There were a lot of smiles on the beach this weekend," she said. "Good weather and debris disappearing in record time, and everyone is very happy."

Cleanup equipment will remain on Fire Island until later this week, said Corps spokesman George Stringham.

The cleanup started March 4, more than four months after superstorm Sandy slammed ashore on Fire Island, decimating its dune system, sweeping houses out to sea and damaging roughly 2,200 homes. A series of protests that cropped up each time the federal contract was awarded to a new company delayed debris removal by about six weeks, stoking fears that the mounds of trash wouldn't be removed in time for the piping plover deadline and the start of the summer season.

At a homeowners' association meeting March 7, a fed-up James Mallott, the mayor of Ocean Beach, asked residents to hire local Fire Island carters to remove their storm debris instead of depending on the Corps.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency tasked the Army Corps with the Fire Island cleanup Nov. 24. The Corps first gave the contract to Central Islip-based DS3 Enterprises Inc., on Jan. 25 for $8.8 million.

Then the flurry of protests began, pushing the project back and frustrating the Corps and Fire Islanders as the March 31 deadline loomed. The contract was awarded and then withdrawn from three companies over the course of a month.

Eventually, the cleanup contract went to California-based Environmental Chemical Corp., the Corps' primary contractor for the Northeast, for $10.1 million.

That contractor then hired Edgewood-based Coastal Environmental Group as the lead subcontractor. Coastal, which had also been hired initially as DS3 Enterprises' main subcontractor, had a plan in place.

But that plan relied heavily on trucking the debris across the Robert Moses Causeway and less on using barges, said Coastal Environmental project manager Charlie Smithers. The trucking idea was thwarted though, because initially the contractor wasn't allowed to use heavy vehicles over the bridge or use the Field 5 parking lot as a staging area.

"No matter what we did, we had a constraint," Smithers said.

When crews finally began chipping vegetative waste and consolidating debris into temporary storage areas, they met with a nor'easter that left several feet of flooding in some communities. Two weeks of cold, wet weather followed.

"You have the human element to it, so when it's cold, people can't work in bad weather constantly like they can in decent weather," Stringham said.

Progress was slow, and residents grew impatient. The Corps announced it would begin 24-hour barging and cleanup operations. Stringham said the Corps issued several warnings to the contractor to work faster or face a possible cut in pay.

"It was basically saying you need to pick this up or else," he said. "It was a combination of relying solely on barges to get the debris off and the lack of visually seen progress."

But last Monday, Smithers said Coastal was informed it would be allowed to use its heavy trucks on the Robert Moses Causeway and stage huge piles of debris at Field 5.

Weather improved, and round-the-clock debris clearing operations in hard-hit Fire Island neighborhoods began to pay off: "It was a perfect storm of goodness as opposed to badness," he said. "The original plan was realized in the last five days of the project."

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