NYC sea wall study derided by Trump suffers ‘funding lapse’

By Kelsey Brugger | 02/26/2020 01:36 PM EST

The Trump administration has yanked funding for a study of a proposed New York City sea wall that the president ridiculed last month as “foolish” and overly expensive.

This story was updated Feb. 28.

The Trump administration has yanked funding for a study of a proposed New York City sea wall that the president ridiculed last month as "foolish" and overly expensive.

The Army Corps of Engineers for years has been studying five options for protecting the metropolitan area from dangerous floods, including a $119 billion sea wall to combat wind-driven surges during powerful storms.


The Army Corps confirmed this week that there had been a "funding lapse" for the study, which was scheduled to be released as a draft report in late summer. Newsday first reported the funding lapse.

"The study did not receive federal appropriation funding in the Corps fiscal year 2020 work plan," the agency said in a statement to E&E News. The sea wall study, it added, "has to compete for funding all of the other studies in the Corps of Engineers National portfolio."

"We will continue to work with our partners in New York and New Jersey to ensure further coastal storm risk reduction measures for the region," the Army Corps said.

The study, which has been underway since 2016, has been exploring a range of ideas to prevent the region against future storms that scientists expect to intensify with climate change. The ideas included "combinations of shoreline structures, such as beach nourishment, levees, floodwalls and seawalls, and storm-surge barriers," according to the Army Corps.

Not clear is whether the study is dead or whether New York and New Jersey states can salvage some of the federal work that’s already been done.

After The New York Times last month published a front-page story on the project, President Trump attacked the project, saying a "massive" sea wall off Manhattan would be outrageously expensive and environmentally unsound (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

"It will also look terrible," he tweeted. "Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!"

After the tweet, Army Corps spokesman Michael Embrich told E&E News the agency was in the "very early phases of this study."

"It could be found that all or none of the features mentioned in the interim report are environmentally acceptable or economically viable," he wrote via email, adding that there would be further opportunities for public comments.

The funding freeze was welcomed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which rarely finds itself on the same side of an issue with Trump.

Kimberly Ong, an NRDC senior attorney, said "there’s no question" that the New York area is "in serious need of protection from the climate crisis," but called the Army Corps’ proposal "half-baked" and useless in protecting against sea-level rise, increased rain or extreme heat.

"Instead, their short-sighted plan was narrowly designed to address only storm surge by constructing a massive, inflexible and costly sea wall, which risked exacerbating flooding in some communities," Ong said in a statement.

Yet Robert Freudenberg, vice president of environment and energy programs at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association, which has been involved with the study, said environmental groups like NRDC have made the effort better by weighing in.

He also noted that about half of the $19.4 billion allocated for the study has already been spent. "That is a lot of it spent for nothing," he said. "Is it responsible to stop something that has already been using taxpayers’ money?"

Some of the work might be able to be repurposed by New York and New Jersey, he said, but everyone has really been waiting for the interim report that the Army Corps was scheduled to release this summer.

To be sure, the idea of a sea wall has always prompted a "raging debate" in the city. Yet he said he "could only speculate" that the funding lapse could fit into a pattern of Trump taking away funding for projects in the Northeast, where he said the president’s support is low.

"I would be looking for next: How does the congressional delegation respond?" he said. "Is there something Congress can do? I’m not sure the way forward."