UNION BEACH, N.J.—On a chilly Wednesday morning in Leonardo State Marina in New Jersey, the sun shone bright, a crisp breeze blowing through the air—a perfect day for a boat ride. There were, however, no boats heading in or out of marina slips. Nearly all the boats were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.
Instead, men in hard hats gathered around in what was once a grassy park where residents enjoyed the ocean view to monitor the burn off from a propane tank found in the nearby woody marsh.
As someone lit the flame, a contractor jokingly asked, “Did you guys bring the graham crackers, marshmallow, and chocolate?” getting hearty laughter in response from the United States Coast Guard members monitoring the burn off.
After nearly two weeks of combing mile after mile of the coastline in New York and New Jersey, the moment provided a little comic relief from days filled frantically trying to discover, assess, and cleanup all potential environmental threats to the 1,245 miles of shoreline affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The U.S. Coast Guard, in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEA), set up the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command on Staten Island to manage the environmental cleanup efforts.
They are attacking the problem by land, air, and sea. Each day teams comb the affected shoreline on foot, checking the waters for spills and debris. For harder to reach places, helicopters are sent up and hazardous debris is located by air and plotted on a map to be given to the ground team.
The unit is not only cleaning up the likely pollutants such as oil, natural gas, or chemicals in drums from nearby factories, but from unlikely suspects as well. Household items, such as containers that hold heating oil, which once may have provided heat for a nearby home, are a potential threat when left leaking in the middle of the road.
In areas where the streets are lined with nothing but debris, hunting out the orphaned containers is a skill. “You have to have an eye for these things,” Micah Forbes, project geoscientist for Weston Solutions, said. “It’s like finding a needle in a hay stack.”
Forbes is contracted by the EPA and goes out with members of the Coast Guard to deal with any problems affecting the land, while the Coast Guard handles all containers affecting the water. Going out as a team eliminates jurisdiction issues, as both bases are covered.
The goal for everyone is to get it cleaned up—and quickly. “Everything is done with a sense of urgency,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle, a public affairs specialist.
Once an item is identified it is documented, photographed, and logged into a system. If the item is an immediate threat, it will be given a high priority, however if it something as simple as hauling it away, lower priority is given.
Each evening a report is given to the commanders and a task list is created for the following day. Every morning teams are given their assignments and fan out in one of eight geographical divisions in the affected zone.
Their schedules are constantly in flux, rarely knowing where they will be from day to day. “We go where the debris is,” Petty Officer Molle said.
The cleanup team from the Coast Guard is trained to look for environmental threats, and neutralize them—but it’s hard to look past the personal items strewn along the coastline for miles.
“This is not a dump, it is a person’s belonging,” Petty Officer Molle said. “It is like walking in their homes.”
In Union Beach, the hardest hit area the team had worked in, pictures littered the shoreline. “That is what makes it sad,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Justin Brown, a response member with the Hurricane Sandy Pollution Response Unified Command.
The team from the Coast Guard tries not to get caught up in the loss that surrounds them by keeping a light heart—joking about making ‘smores during propane burn offs or about the number of times they have eaten pizza during the week (almost every day).
Even though it is their job, they are happy to help. “Everyone who joins the Coast Guard has the desire to help,” Petty Officer Brown said, “It is an important job and we will be here until the job is done.”
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