Take the “R” train to the reef

Doesn’t it seem odd that such an urban symbol – a subway car – would serve as the foundation for a marine environment?

It’s not so odd for Redbird Reef. Situated off Delaware’s coast, the project began in 1996, taking its name from the old “Redbird” subway cars (remember all the graffiti on them?) donated in 2001 by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). To start the reef, 619 of the obsolete subway cars were sunk. With each car measuring 51’ x 9’, the redbirds made a substantial foundation for an artificial reef.

Redbirds have been sunk off the coasts of Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia. The subway cars reputedly help:

  • expand the capacity of the reef,
  • enhance fisheries habitat, and
  • increase fishing and diving opportunities for recreational anglers and divers.

Redbird reef, environmental concerns, waste dumping, MTA, man-made marine environments, recycling subway cars

How does this work?

Subway cars make ideal reef material because voids and cavities in their structure provide the perfect sanctuary for reef fish. Within weeks, blue mussels, sponges, barnacles and soft corals attach to the structure, and after a year, the reef resembles a productive, natural habitat. The man-made habitat is actually 400 times richer than the natural ocean bottom, according to a report from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

“The continued development of Redbird Reef supplies literally tons of ideal food for reef fish,” said Jeffrey Tinsman, reef program manager with DNREC Fisheries Section. “Each addition of subway cars increases the reef’s capacity to support, for example, black sea bass and tautog populations.”

What about the environment?

The MTA is responsible for the cleanup and dumping. It costs $17,000 per carriage to rid old wagons of asbestos, greases and any other buoyant materials that might be harmful to the marine environment. Sounds like a big outlay for little return. In actuality, it’s a cheaper alternative than complying with regulations for asbestos disposal on land.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that this particular type of asbestos is not dangerous. That’s allowed the MTA to turn more than 2500 subway cars into artificial reefs and save nearly $34 million dollars in the process.

Really? What do the environmentalists think?

Not everyone is happy as a clam. No long-term studies are in place about the effects of the subway cars and the asbestos on the marine life or the oceans.

Experts claim that asbestos, even at small levels – safe enough for humans – causes harm to aquatic life. When the metal on the cars corrodes, blue mussels attach themselves directly to the asbestos, and fish that eat the mussels get exposed to the poison.

There is also concern that projects of this kind could set a precedent for dumping asbestos in the ocean as a cheap alternative to safe disposal.

End of the line?

As of the end of 2009, New York trains will no longer find their final resting place on the ocean floor.

The old redbirds were made of steel, and have been successful for Delaware’s reef. But the later stainless steel subway cars disintegrate and cause more environmental problems than they solve. Given that, there’s no longer a financial incentive for the MTA to continue the reef project.

Environmentalists believe that the reef program (and other ocean-dumping initiatives) are not about good, but about greed, and deem all the reef programs a complete failure.

It sounds as though the program should have been stopped after the all of redbirds were sunk. Shouldn’t experts have known that the newer cars would not hold up the same way? I’m leaning towards the enviros on this one. The continuation of the program screamed of greed. How about you?

Photos: Tim Shaffer for The New York Times

2 Responses to “Take the “R” train to the reef”

  1. Holly Martin Says:

    Asbestos is one hell of a health hazard that is why we have removed all asbestos based insulation in our homes..”

  2. lg Says:

    Interesting. I believe that the USS Olympia, a ship docked in the city of Philadelphia for over 30 years, may face the same fate as these old rail cars. . . . . .

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