- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2008

CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. | They carried commuters across New York City for 40 years, but in less than two hours Thursday, 44 subway cars from the Big Apple were sunk off the coast here, becoming part of a large artificial fishing reef.

About 6 miles off Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore, a specially rigged crane dropped the 16-ton cars, one by one, off a barge and into about 65 feet of water. The impact each time created a loud smack and sent thick spray into the air.

The steel shells, stripped of their doors, windows, seats, plastics and asbestos, joined surplus Army tanks and 50 other rail cars from New York that had been similarly deployed here several years ago as part of Virginia’s man-made reefing program.

Five more loads of subway cars will be sent to the ocean bottom in the coming years, under a contract between the state and the New York City Transit Authority. Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina and Georgia also utilize New York’s old subway cars in this manner.

The transit authority saves money by not having to scrap or landfill its obsolete cars, and Virginia gets a cheap - if unlikely - material to create marine habitat and attract fish, scuba divers and sports fishermen to its coast.

“It’s environmentally acceptable, stable and has proven to be highly popular and successful,” said Mike Meier, reef program manager for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Mr. Meier has overseen the placement of 23 artificial reefs in the Chesapeake Bay and offshore waters since the late 1970s, giving Virginia one of the largest collections of alternative reefs on the East Coast.

But the program is not without its critics.

Some commercial fishermen worry that mounds of concrete and construction scrap are taking up too much space in the Bay and have increasingly snagged their fishing nets and damaged their boats.

Offshore, meanwhile, some scientists and environmentalists question the value of discarding rail cars, military vehicles, old ships and other debris as if the ocean bottom was some kind of underwater junk yard.

“Unfortunately it’s one of these things where people take a very superficial view — drop something in the water and a bunch of fish come and that’s wonderful,” federal fisheries biologist Jim Bohnsack told Newsweek magazine in a recent article titled “Are artificial reefs good for the environment?”

“The reality,” Mr. Bohnsack added, “is not so simple.”

Previous studies have indicated that black sea bass have the potential to spawn on offshore reefs, Mr. Meier said, and that the state may at some point declare a site off-limits for a year or so to give nature a rest.

Michael Zacchea, who devised the reef alternative for the New York City Transit Authority, recalled viewing footage of one site off the coast of South Carolina. Before subway cars were deployed, he said, the bottom “looked like the Sahara desert; I mean, there was no life there.”

Within a year, though, the cars had become bastions of aquatic bounty, Mr. Zacchea said — sea turtles, fish, invertebrates, plant life. “It had become an oasis in the desert.”

Mr. Zacchea has worked closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers since 1999 to design a regulatory system that purges most contaminants from old subway cars and allows for their sinking.

It takes about 138 hours to prepare each car for submersion, he said, including a steam power-washing of the interior and exterior. The first cars went overboard off the coast of Delaware in 2001, followed by another batch in Virginia in 2003.

Since then, Mr. Zacchea said, the program has “really taken off.” More states have embraced it and media outlets from Japan, Germany and across the United States have produced stories and documentaries on the recycling initiative.

On Thursday, a crew from the Discovery Channel was filming the Virginia deployment and a French journalist was shooting footage for an upcoming show.

The day began in Ocean City, Md., where Mr. Zacchea and Virginia officials boarded a boat and motored two hours south to the reef site off Chincoteague. There, the boat met a barge that had chugged down from New York the previous day, stacked with the 44 subway cars like giant Legos.

Workers dropped buoys to mark where the cars were to be sunk. Then, working in a wide circle, a crane stabbed its forks under each car, swung to the side of the barge, and flipped the stainless steel hulks into the dark-green water. They hissed as they fell quickly to the bottom.

A companion boat, which one transit official called “the pooper scooper,” followed behind and netted any loose debris - a steel spring, a rubber hose, a shred of insulation material - to keep the site clean.

Mr. Zacchea grinned as he watched the operation.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now, but it still excites me to see all this come together,” he said. “Either I’m easily entertained or this is interesting stuff.”

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