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EPA Approves Dredging Plan, Angering Environmentalists

Steve Resler

On Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a 30-year-plan for the continued dumping of dredge material in the Long Island Sound. The Army Corps of Engineers dredges silt and sand from rivers and ports to keep them navigable.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) supports the plan. He says dredging is important to Connecticut’s economy. 

“Connecticut has about 300 miles of shoreline and some of the most valuable ports and harbors in the Eastern seaboard. Dredging is necessary for them to be utilized. That’s an economic challenge. It’s a $9 billion economic challenge because that’s the number of dollars generated by Long Island Sound.”

The dredging plan has support from Connecticut’s entire Congressional delegation, and the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, but it’s a different story across the Sound.

Adrienne Esposito, with the advocacy group, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, says, “You come to New York, 20 assembly members sign a letter saying they hate it, 25 grassroots organizations say it’s terrible, the full entire Suffolk legislature is opposed to it. It’s awful.”

Environmentalists like her and politicians on Long Island point out that most of the dredged material comes from Connecticut, but it’s dumped in water that Connecticut and New York share. They believe that the 30-year dredging plan prioritizes Connecticut’s economy over the health of Long Island Sound.  

What Exactly Is The Army Corps Dumping?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted six public hearings in Connecticut and on Long Island after they released their Dredge Material Management Plan (DMMP). At a hearing in Riverhead on Long Island, environmentalists asked the Army Corps what happens to marine life when tons of silt and sand are dumped on top of it.

When you drop material on the seafloor, everything underneath is smothered.

"I mean that’s just a given,” said Steve Wolf, program manager for the Army Corps. “But within a very, very short period of time, you start seeing things grow, the birds are poking around on it, and that’s essentially what we’re looking for in terms of a recovery of a system after the fact.”

Environmentalists say it could be two or more years before the marine life fully recovers from the dumping. 

What exactly is the Army Corps dumping? According to Bill Toedter, an environmentalist and lifelong resident of eastern Long Island: “It’s thick and brown and smells nasty.”

As a child, Toedter could see one of the Army Corps disposal sites, Cornfield Shoals, from his window. He says the dredged material is actually more than just silt and sand. It can be muddy and dirty. 

“As a kid growing up, I do remember that the last time Cornfield Shoals was dumped in, that the amount of plastics and other materials that were part of that dredge material washed up onto our beaches, and the beaches were filthy. It could be tampon applicators, it could be any variety of trash.”

Toedter remembers a large dredging project in 1996. It was to make room for nuclear-powered submarines to pass through Connecticut’s Thames River. The production and maintenance of submarines is big business in Connecticut. The company Electric Boat, based in Groton, manufactures the submarines and does billions of dollars of work for the military. In order for their submarines to be able to get from the Thames to the ocean, they needed to make the basin in Groton deeper. 

So the Army Corps dredged. And the dredged materials were dumped at a disposal site in the Sound, about a mile and a half from Fishers Island. Toedter says it corresponded with a major lobster die-off. “For two years lobstermen out of Orient, Southold, Greenport and Fishers Island made no living because there were no lobsters there.”

The lobster industry on Long Island has been suffering for decades. Scientists attribute it mostly to chemical pollution or rising water temperatures. But as Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment puts it, dumping is kind of like kicking someone when they’re down.

“Heavy metals introduced into any marine species causes neurological disorders. The lobsters have a hard enough time surviving, but if you add onto that some neurological problems, that decreases their chance of survival.”

The Army Corps says that dredging doesn’t affect lobster production in the long term. But in the appendixes of their DMMP, they only analyzed catch data from Connecticut and Rhode Island, not New York.

Steve Resler is a marine scientist who spent decades working for New York State’s Department of State as a coastal manager. He says, “People will often say the data doesn’t lie, but if you don’t have all the data that’s relevant, you’re not going to know the whole story here.” Resler was part of the team overseeing that 1996 dredging operation, and he’s worked on every dredge material management plan since the 1970s. 

We're getting bad science.

He said, “Little research had been done, and to this day has been done, on the biological effects of contaminated dredge material in Long Island Sound."

Dredging's Past
Reports began coming out in the 1980s that lobsters and crabs caught near Army Corps dumpsites had contracted lobster shell disease, also known as shell burn. That’s when black lesions that look like cigarette burns form on a lobster’s shell. Resler and fishermen from the area believe it came from petroleum in the dredge material.

New York State has consistently asked the Army Corps to study how marine life near dumpsites are affected, but they have yet to do so. They do, however, test the material before it’s dumped to see if it’s suitable for open water placement. Mike Keegan, a project management chief with the Army Corps, said, “There is a very rigorous testing protocol that has to be followed. It includes physical, chemical biological testing.”

If the Army Corps tests the material and finds out it’s too contaminated to put in the ocean directly, it can be capped. That’s when they layer clean sand on top of the contaminated sand. 

“If you take a pile of mud, soft gooey mud, and drop sand on top of it, the mud is literally going to squirt off underneath the sand.” Resler says capping has been ineffective, especially during that 1996 Thames River dredging project.

“When the monitoring was done, there was no accounting for more than a quarter of a million cubic yards of material that had been dumped, both contaminated and capped.

No one knows what did or did not happen.

"What we do know is that the mud was exposed and contaminants were released.”

This was raised by Alexander Treadwell, New York’s then secretary of state, at a 1997 Congressional hearing. Resler said, “He said ‘What is going on here? The federal government has placed material out there that they can’t account for and is claiming that capping is effective at sequestering contaminants. It clearly isn’t.’” Congress asked the Army Corps to “develop a dredge material management plan. The same old story we’ve always had.”

Twenty years later, they still haven’t figured it out.

Looking To The Future 
Environmentalist Adrienne Esposito spoke at one of the public forums on Long Island held after the Army Corps released their plan. She says it was supposed to provide a clear route to ending open water disposal. She said she was counting on an agreement made in 2005 between the EPA, the Army Corps, and the states of Connecticut and New York. The Army Corps was supposed to create a plan that would reduce and phase out dumping.

Of the plan, Esposito says: “…The only thing this does is it decreases dumping by four percent over the next 30 years. Hardly a statistically significant number.”

Stephen Perkins is the director of Ocean and Coastal Policy at the EPA. He says the EPA’s goal is to reduce open water dumping in the Sound and that they’ve amended their rules for disposal sites to achieve that goal. He spoke at a public hearing the EPA held on Long Island after they amended the dredging plan. "The proposed amendments are intended to support the overarching goal of reducing or eliminating open water disposal by establishing standards and procedures that will encourage practicable alternatives to open water disposal.” Those standards and procedures include a permanent “dredging team” that would look for alternatives to dumping as each project comes up. Alternatives like using the silt and sand to restore beaches or marshlands. 

New York’s Department of State says they would like to see more than that to reduce dumping. They want a measurable year-by-year plan to show how exactly dumping will be reduced. New York has the power to reject the plan and could challenge it in court.

The EPA can still modify their ruling and come to an agreement with New York State on how best to manage the dredge material. On Wednesday the agency proposed opening a new dredging site in the Sound. It's about half way between Connecticut and New York.