A time bomb? The US Army Corps of Engineers found that the steam tunnel making up the East Seawall behind Southtown needed repairs. That was in 2001, 23 years ago. Since then, another investigation declared the seawall at risk of “catastrophic collapse” in 2015, but nothing was done. Why?
by David Stone
The time bomb story is a little sordid, featuring political rivals gnashing their teeth in the background and the health and safety of Roosevelt Islanders shoved aside.
As runners knew 15 years ago, the east seawall was the best trail in winter. The steam tunnel that served as the seawall was so warm it melted any ice and snow aboveground. And the low towers along the way released warming steam into the air.
That privilege ended when Goldwater Hospital closed up to make way for Cornell Tech. But a dangerous legacy was left behind because Cornell did not take control of the hospital’s steam plant or its seawall steam tunnel.
And when Health & Hospitals vacated, they left a risk behind because they never did anything about the repairs the Corps of Engineers recommended in 2001.
The Time Bomb
Needless to say, the deteriorating seawall did not fix itself in the meantime. Decades of cycles of hot and cold, storms and natural erosion continue piling up risk.
Like so many public projects, initial good intentions fail while ongoing maintenance is ignored after the triumphant press releases fade. The steam tunnel making up the east seawall was a great idea. Using latent capabilities within the existing power plant at Goldwater, engineers could also provide for the newer Bird Coler facility opening in 1952.
As a runner, I could follow the melt line all the way up past the Octagon tennis courts where the steam cut across Main Street to Coler. This goes all the way back to before the historic structure became the entrance for modern apartments.
But even then, surface upheavals in some sections told the story of ongoing stress underground. The story of why nothing got done about it is nothing short of sickening.
A dispute was long in place between the city and RIOC over which was responsible for maintaining the tunnel. That blew out of proportion when the discussions involved teams led by Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
They hated each other, and neither budged.
RIOC, a state agency, was responsible for Roosevelt Island infrastructure by law, but “Hey, it’s your steam tunnel!”
Juvenile bickering continued into October 2021 – 2 years ago – when RIOC General Council Gretchen Robinson wrote in a purchasing memo, “Over the past several months, RIOC has been in negotiations with the City to determine how the repairs will be made, and also by which entity.
“However, those negotiations temporarily stalled due to election and the impending change of administrations. And, although RIOC is confident that an agreement will be reached with the City, the management team, in consultation with other state government stakeholders, did not wish to wait for such a deal to be struck as the project is a matter of health and public safety.”
Sounds exactly like the RIOC/MTA “negotiations” over OMNY for the Tram. Those continue with a weak RIOC sucking wind behind the MTA and neither concerning themselves with Roosevelt Islanders’ interests.
In the months before she left RIOC, President/CEO Susan Rosenthal fought with Cuomo’s invisible overseers in Albany. A report from Langan Engineering said that the seawall was in danger of “catastrophic collapse.”
A tidal surge, a hurricane or just time could bring the whole 4,000-foot seawall down. But, probably because of the Cuomo/de Blasio standoff, the state shot down her appeal for getting repairs done.
This led to years more of unaddressed, accumulating hazards and contributed to her dismissal, according to court records.
At last, in 2021, the Haynes administration at RIOC broke down the barrier, getting permission to award a contract for a design for rehabilitating the seawall time bomb. The board of directors approved the deal – worth $429 thousand – with Langan Engineering, after competitive bidding.
The problem now is that, as far as anyone knows outside RIOC, nothing’s been done. The design results, if any, have not surfaced. In the meantime, RIOC’s team overseeing infrastructure projects has been decimated.
With RIOC’s administration deep in limbo after a cascade of lawsuits and investigation, paralysis prevails.
And the danger increases for Roosevelt Island with no one looking out for the community. It’s a song we’ve heard before.