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Subways Go Submarine: New York City Trains Get New Life as Artificial Reefs

It might look like an environmental nightmare: Dumping old subway cars off a barge to rust away at the bottom of the ocean. But New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority says its artificial reef program creates marine ecosystems where none existed before -- and provides a useful retirement for its aging fleet.

The program has been met with skepticism from some marine biologists and conservationists, who see it as a way for the MTA to dump its old cars while saving millions in disposal costs. But at least some environmental groups have come around to the program as states gather evidence that the subway trains are bringing new life to otherwise barren stretches of the Eastern seaboard.

Sunk alongside decommissioned ships and other large objects along the East Coast, the old subway cars provide hard surfaces for marine organisms to grow on. The sponges, corals and other invertebrates that quickly colonize the man-made debris attract crustaceans and small fish. These smaller creatures, in turn, bring the bigger fish that feed on them. And that ultimately brings the fishermen, who generate hefty returns for states through angling and recreational diving activity. Jeff Tinsman, Delaware's reef program coordinator, says fishing activity has increased 300-fold near the artificial reef sites where the cars are being sunk.

New Jersey's Clean Ocean Action was among the environmental groups that initially voiced concern that the program might harm the underwater ecosystem -- in part because of asbestos contained in the sunken cars. But the group now supports the program. Staff Scientist Heather Saffert said that while asbestos can be somewhat harmful to marine organisms, the overall benefits to the ocean environment are significant.

Whatever concerns exist, the program will keep delivering subway cars to their watery graves for at least another year.