By Kathianne Boniello
To anyone who has strolled along the quiet lawns and baseball fields of Baysides Fort Totten or admired its picturesque view of the Throgs Neck Bridge across Little Bay, mercury contamination is probably the last thing that comes to mind.
But the members of the civilian-dominated Restoration Advisory Boards at Fort Totten come to the base thinking about pollution and have been working with the federal government toward a possible cleanup for several years.
While the Coast Guard RAB has met regularly in the past two years and successfully requested the U.S. Army last summer to study the extent of contaminants in its part of the base, some members said hostility between the federal agency and the groups community leader has hindered the boards work.
With the Coast Guard RAB slated to hold elections at its upcoming March meeting, some members have called for Community Co-Chairman Richard Jannaccio to step down, while others have continued to support him as a fighter for the interests of residents living around Totten.
But supporters and opponents alike agree that an atmosphere of hostility is pervasive within the group.
Fort Totten was decommissioned by the Army in 1995 during a wave of base closures around the country. Mercury was discovered at the Civil War-era fort in 1985 by the Coast Guard.
The Army, which vacated the base in 1995, agreed to clean up the mercury in May 1998 but has since backed off of the promise. The city Fire Department was slated to take over the base as parkland in less than a year and a half.
Because the U.S. Coast Guard owns a small section of the base, both the Coast Guard and the Army have moved to deal with contaminants at Totten by forming RABs. Jannaccio and several others maintain the mercury levels are dangerous to residents and the environment in the long term, but so far tests have not determined the extent of the mercury contamination.
At the groups January meeting, member Larry Ordine accused Jannaccio of employing a slash-and-burn style of leadership and asked him not to run for re-election to the chairmanship. Ordine said the next community co-chairman should use diplomacy as much as possible.
Jannaccio, who has held the post for nearly two years, acknowledged a combative atmosphere during RAB meetings, but said he thought they had been productive in prodding the Army toward a cleanup of the base. He expressed a long-standing frustration about working with the Army.
I try to be effective, he said. If I have to be hostile to be effective, I will be hostile to be effective. If we dont start screaming, nothing will happen.
He described diplomacy as hogwash and said being diplomatic did not help the groups previous community leaders advance the cleanup process.
Joyce Shepard, a long-time Coast Guard RAB member, civic activist and a City Council candidate, said Jannaccio should be on the RAB but not as chairman. While she described Jannaccio as a brilliant, knowledgeable, very caring activist with valid complaints about the Army, Shepard also said he could be picayune on certain issues.
Jannaccio has fought bitterly with the Army and accused U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager David Brouwer of dishonesty, requesting his removal from the project over the summer. Jannaccio has also contended the Army repeatedly withheld information from the community and failed to provide RAB members with information in a timely manner.
I think he spends a lot of his time bitching (at) Brouwer, said Shepard, who described the groups meetings as uncomfortable. I think we could have gotten a lot farther if he didnt.
Ray Beckerman, a lawyer and longtime RAB member, supported Jannaccio.
I think hes done a very good job as co-chair, he said. It could be better. I think the time has come for us to try to move forward move constructively and less acrimoniously.
Gene McSweeney, a RAB member and representative for state Assemblywoman Ann-Margaret Carrozza (D-Bayside), did not speak out for or against Jannaccios chairmanship, but he voiced a concern common among RAB members.
There isnt a meeting that goes by that there isnt some kind of confrontation, he said.
Last spring Brouwer initiated a plan to reorganize the Coast Guard RAB to boost its attendance. Several RAB members accused him of using the reorganization to remove Jannaccio as community co-chairman, a charge Brouwer has repeatedly denied.
Jannaccio, who made an unsuccessful bid for state Sen. Toby Stavitskys (D-Flushing) seat in 1999, frequently has suggested the possibility of collusion between laboratories processing samples from this summers testing and state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Andrew Shakalis, an environmental lawyer from Bayside who joined the RAB late last year and has attended about three meetings, said Jannaccios accusations of collusion were unfounded.
If any lab were to purposefully foul up testing for contaminants, he said, it could face criminal consequences.
In my mind that was such a baseless statement divorced of reality, he said of Jannaccios suggestion of collusion. The lab is federally contracted. They have no incentive to falsify. The grandiose statements did nothing to move the process along.
Sally Praver, another long-time RAB member, said the groups meetings have been repetitious, members have been disruptive and there were some ego problems.
But Praver said she interpreted Jannaccios hostility toward the Army as frustration.
I think he was good he knows what hes talking about. I think hes kept his cool for a long time, she said. I dont see hostility, I see annoyance.
Bob LoPinto, a former community co-chairman of the RAB and former Army Corps of Engineers employee, called Jannaccio an active chairman but said tension has handicapped the Coast Guard RAB.
Everyone has their own opinion, he said. I think we have to learn to agree to disagree. Were a group of individuals and at some point we have to function as a group.
Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.
©2001 Community News Group
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