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'Bones Beach:' Hart Island Erosion Unearths Human Skeletons

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Hart Island, a massive burial ground near the Bronx, is eroding, unearthing human skeletons along the shoreline.

Advocates say the city hasn't done anything – until now.

"Skeletal remains are literally just coming out of the earth," Melinda Hunt, of the Hart Island Project, told CBS2's Natalie Duddridge.

On Monday, 174 exposed bones were recovered from Hart Island cemetery. It's a giant potter's field where the East River meets Long Island Sound.

More than one million unclaimed New Yorkers, with no family or money, are buried there, even infants.

But years of storms have eroded the island's shores, unearthing graves.

"Entire skeletons are sort of falling out of the hill onto the beach, and then they're washed away with the tide," Hunt said.

Hunt has been monitoring the situation since the 1990s, demanding the Department of Corrections, which runs the island, do something.

"They know that it's happening, because I learned about it from the correction officers, who referred to this area as bones beach," she said.

Hart Island is only open to visitors by appointment months in advance. So last week, Hunt and a photographer captured pictures from a boat, showing skeletons scattered among the rocks.

Suddenly this week, officials fast-tracked the process.

Video from Chopper 2 shows red flags marking spots archaeologist have found human remains. Once identified, the remains will be re-buried by Rikers Island prisoners.

"Why in the world would an agency that's managing our jails have anything to do with this island?" Council Mark Levine wonders.

Levine wants to transfer control of the island to the Department of Parks and Recreation, so families could freely visit graves of loved ones without an armed guard.

"It's simply wrong that people who are neglected in life, who were marginalized in life in the city are now getting the same treatment in this burial ground," he said.

Late Tuesday, the corrections department told CBS2 it will begin monthly inspections and will also fast-track reconstruction of the shoreline to stabilize the graves.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the city $13 million to use toward repairs, which are expected to start in 2019.

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