Weeks after a contract was awarded for the reconstruction of Ortley Beach's boardwalk, environmentalists again expressed concerns to Toms River councilmembers about the Brazilian wood slated for the project.
The $953,760 contract awarded on April 10 to fix the boardwalk devastated by Superstorm Sandy includes the use of Brazilian Garapa wood, which township officials have said is harvested in a documented and sustainable manner. But some said at a Tuesday night Township Council meeting that any deforestation is bad for the environment.
"We don't think this is an environmentally smart decision," said Gregory Auriemma, chairman of the Sierra Club's Ocean County group.
Auriemma said that deforestation contributes to climate change, which in turns leads to an increase of destructive storms like Sandy. Other American woods or composite material could have been good alternatives to the Garapa, he said, while questioning whether the wood really was harvested sustainably.
"Unless you want to pass an ordinance to fly me down to Brazil, nobody's going to check whether or not they did what they said they were going to do. It's a piece of paper," Auriemma said, referring to a certificate given to the township indicating that the wood was harvested properly.
Township engineer Robert Chankalian has said that the wood is GPS tagged and harvested selectively, meaning entire tracts of lands are not leveled and seeding trees are left to grow.
Brazilian authorities are involved in certifying the wood is harvested sustainable, according to township officials.
"We've been provided with a chain of custody," Chankalian said.
"We feel that we're on very firm ground and are correct" in using the wood, township attorney Kenneth Fitzsimmons said when the contract was awarded to Tekton Development Corp. of New Brunswick.
Using the Brazilian wood rather than a composite material saves the township about $10,000 on the project, Chankalian said, since fewer joists are required to support the wood boards.
The township also faced a charge of racism by Rainforest Relief member Tom Mahedy, who was the only activist to speak at the council meeting when the contract was awarded two weeks ago. He said that the trees are cut with no concerns for the indigenous people living there.
"This is also a question of racism, because you don't care about killing brown people because we want their stuff, we want their trees," Mahedy said, stirring up the audience.
"That's inappropriate and we're not going to stand for it," said Council President George Wittmann after banging his gavel to regain order at the meeting.
"From those who have experience in the rainforest, who have lived in the rainforest, they would tell you that their homes are being destroyed," Mahedy said.
"Your comments are despicable, for you to say that," Wittmann said.
A video of the exchange is available in this article's media box to the above right.
Township officials have said they plan to have the beach open between 3rd and 5th Avenues by Memorial Day, making the boardwalk's completion important.
The contract requires the northerly 600 feet of boardwalk — the area by the 3rd Avenue parking lot — to be complete by June 1 of this year. That portion is being focused on first because the township said it plans to have the beach area there open this summer. The remainder of the reconstruction must be completed no later than Aug. 15.
"The remaining area was less time critical since access to that area will be contingent upon the reconstruction of Ocean Terrace/Avenue," Chankalian said after the contract was awarded. "We will of course shoot to have things done earlier."
A FEMA reimbursement to Toms River of between 75 to 90 percent of the cost to reconstruct the boardwalk is expected, but the exact percentage has not yet been determined.
"The boardwalk rebuilding project is important because it will start to bring a sense of normalcy back to the Ortley Beach," Mayor Thomas Kelaher said following the awarding of the contract. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, but the boardwalk is one of our landmarks that residents, and visitors alike, expect to see as they approach the beach area."
Belmar was slated to use Ipe, harvested from rainforest trees, to rebuild its boardwalk but switched to another wood after pressure from environmentalists.