Sand dune opponents invoke Zika fears in bid to stop project
MARGATE — This shoreline community has tried everything it can think of to prevent protective sand dunes from being built along the beach, invoking lost views, wrongly seized property rights and damaged tourism prospects.
Now that those big-picture issues have failed to kill the project, Margate is using a mosquito to make a questionable claim: that the dunes will help spread the Zika virus.
Six homeowners are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection in a lawsuit due to be heard Tuesday, contending among other things that puddles or ponds that would collect behind the dunes would allow water to stand for days, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
"This project will seriously degrade Margate's beaches and jeopardize public health and safety in the process," said Jordan Rand, an attorney for the homeowners. "Ironically, the proposed plan to reduce storm damage will simply cause it in a different way."
But the kind of mosquito that spreads Zika isn't a problem in New Jersey. In the U.S., the mosquito is concentrated in states along the Gulf Coast. The only cases spread by local mosquitoes so far have been in Florida and Texas. And the argument has not been raised by any of the other Jersey shore towns seeking to block the project.
Jon Miller, a coastal expert with Stevens Institute of Technology, doubts the drainage claims.
"I'd say it's pretty unlikely," he said. "Sand in and of itself has a very high capacity to drain. If you go to the beach and pour your bucket of water onto the sand, it drains almost immediately."
A state judge ruled in April that the dune project does create "a drainage issue that needs to be resolved." Bob Martin, the state environmental protection commissioner, says New Jersey will address any drainage concerns that arise from the dunes.
Rand did not respond to a request for details on the lawsuit's claim that drainage problems could help transmit the Zika virus.
The lawsuit offers no assertions to support that claim other than saying that Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes, and that mosquitoes breed in standing water. Rand would not say what, if any, evidence he plans to introduce at trial.
A contract for the project was recently awarded, and the state has condemned the private property it needs, leaving the latest lawsuit as potentially the last hope of opponents.
Zika isn't a concern for most people. It causes only a mild illness, at worst, but can cause severe brain-related birth defects if women are infected during pregnancy. Except for the cases in Miami and Brownsville, Texas, all the infections in the U.S. have been connected to travel to countries with Zika outbreaks, mostly Latin America and the Caribbean.
Scientists say the possibility of the dune project causing Zika transmission is remote at best.
"If outbreaks of Zika virus should occur in New Jersey, they are likely to be limited," wrote researchers at the Center for Vector Biology at Rutgers University.
Margate relies on wooden bulkheads to protect against ocean flooding, and even though the storm surge during Superstorm Sandy washed over those bulkheads, the town maintains its worst flooding damage came from the back bay at the other end of town.
The six homeowners' lawsuit claims that because the dunes will increase the elevation of the beach, storm water that now flows through scuppers, or openings in the bulkhead near the ground, will have nowhere to go, and will collect in what they alternately describe as puddles, ponds or even "a lagoon" up to a mile and a half long and three feet deep that could persist for 36 hours, even without a major storm.