IF JAMAICA Bay is restored someday to its former glory as a haven for coastal wildlife, it will be thanks in large part to an unlikely hero that some call the Voice of the Marshes.
Dan Mundy, 72, didn't have formal training as a scientist, but as a lifelong resident of Broad Channel and an avid fisherman, he knew better than anyone that something was going terribly wrong in the once-bountiful bay.
The retired city fire captain launched a grueling battle some 15 years ago to save the vanishing marshes. That effort recently yielded a landmark deal between the city and environmental watchdogs. The agreement, to be finalized in the coming weeks, will cap nitrogen discharges in the bay and upgrade waste-water treatment plants.
Mundy was looking forward to a life of leisure after he retired in the mid-1990s. But from his fishing boat he noticed troubling changes in the landscape. Once-pristine waters stewed into rank brown swamps. And the plentiful marshes along the coast were vanishing inexplicably.
"It was like a detective story," Mundy said. "I became obsessed with it after a while."
This was not the place Mundy remembered from his youth. But persuading government agencies to take action would prove a challenge. A conclusive study of marsh loss in the bay had not been performed.
By poring over water quality reports published by the city Department of Environmental Protection, Mundy made a correlation between marsh loss and high levels of nitrogen, which was coming from nearby waste-water treatment facilities.
But his discovery wasn't immediately taken seriously, in part because he lacked the credentials, he said.
"People would look at me like, 'What could you possibly know?'" Mundy recalled.
It wasn't until a decade ago - when the state Department of Environmental Conservation completed an analysis of the region's marshes - that Mundy's movement picked up steam. The study led to a blue-ribbon panel of scientists, sponsored by the National Park Service, confirming the loss of marshland.
But solving the problem was hampered partly because of overlapping jurisdictions between the city, state and federal governments, as well as the Port Authority, said Eric Goldstein, the New York urban director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Another obstacle was scientific certainty. To this day, there is no consensus about the relationship between nitrogen and marsh loss. But that does not justify inaction, said Ida Sanoff, chairwoman of the Natural Resources Protective Association.
Sanoff, who began working with Mundy two years ago, compared the situation to surgeons arguing over a dying patient.
Goldstein credits Mundy for keeping the issue alive.
Mundy admits there is still much "vigilance" ahead in his advocacy of Jamaica Bay. But at a recent news conference to unveil the agreement, he allowed himself a moment to soak in his achievement.
"On one side was the mayor of the City of New York, on the other sides were the commissioners of the DEP and DEC," he said. "And there was Dan Mundy. And, hey, I helped make this thing happen."