Senator Murphy joins with marina owners in supporting dredging plan

Groton – Agreeing that Long Island Sound’s maritime economy is at stake, Sen. Chris Murphy heard from about 30 marina owners and state officials Monday concerned that opposition in New York state could derail a plan for handling dredge spoils from Long Island Sound for the next 30 years.

“We will perish as a shoreline economy” without offshore dump sites for the silt and sand that accumulates in harbors, navigation channels and marinas, Murphy told the group, meeting at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus. Without the ability to dredge periodically, he said, 15 to 20 percent of the state’s navigation channels, marinas and harbors would become too shallow for boats to use in the coming decades.

Steve Karlson, representative of the owners of the Pine Island Marina in Groton and two others on Long Island Sound, spoke for other members of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association at the meeting in stressing that dredging is essential to maintaining a viable business.

“We need to dredge 16,000 cubic yards. We’re losing slips and customers,” he said, referring to silting at the Pine Island Marina that intensified after Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy.

The roundtable meeting was called by Murphy in advance of two public hearings this week on the dredge plan released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last month. The first hearing will take place at the Hotel Indigo in Riverhead, N.Y., on Tuesday, and the second on Thursday at the Omni New Haven Hotel. Registration for both sessions will begin at 5:30 p.m. and the hearings at 6 p.m. Four hearings have already taken place.

The plan calls for keeping offshore dredge disposal sites in New Haven and western Long Island Sound open, but also recommends eight other sites that could receive the material, depending on the particular project. In the eastern Sound, disposal sites at Cornfield Shoals off Old Saybrook and near New London and Fishers Island are slated to close in December 2016. A separate study is underway to find new sites in the eastern Sound for future use. The plan estimates that about 52.7 million cubic yards of material will need to be dredged from the Connecticut and New York sides of the Sound over the next three decades.

The Army Corps is accepting public comment through Oct. 16. Mark Habel, chief of the navigation section, engineering/planning at the Army Corps, told those at the meeting that about 29 percent of the dredged material is suitable for reuse to rebuild beaches, marshes and islands. About 6 percent is contaminated and cannot be disposed of in open waters. The remaining 65 percent is “too silty” for reuse and must be disposed of elsewhere.

Habel said the Army Corps has received 260 letters thus far opposing the plan and a dozen in favor. Much of the opposition is coming from environmental groups and individuals in New York state who argue that the dredge material is polluting the Sound and should be reused.

"We know we have a fight ahead," Murphy said, urging those at the roundtable and others who support the dredge plan to write letters to the Army Corps and attend the upcoming hearings.

Among the 12 letters in favor is one signed by all seven members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation. State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Rob Klee also supports it.

Christian McGugan, owner of Gwenmor Marina and Gwenmor Contracting in Mystic, said opponents of the plan are making “baseless claims” about the environmental harm done by dredge spoils.

Brian Thompson, director of the Office of Long Island Sound Programs for DEEP, emphasized that dredge materials are tested before a decision is made about where they will be put.

“If it’s material that’s not suitable for offshore water disposal, it doesn’t go there,” he said. He added that DEEP “promotes reuse whenever we can,” referring to a project that placed 40,000 cubic yards of dredge material at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

Marine Sciences Professor James O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation, suggested that Connecticut should emphasize to officials at the Army Corps and in New York that it is “actively looking to reduce the amount” of material dumped at offshore sites through reuse.

Bob Ross, executive director of the state Office of Military Affairs, said having unified support in Connecticut will be key to getting the plan passed. After the comment period ends, the Army Corps will craft a final rule by December. In January the Environmental Protection Agency would issue a regulation that would become final by spring, Habel said, meaning the new rules would be effect for the 2016-17 dredging season.

Ross said maintaining the availability of dredge disposal sites is particularly important for the Naval Submarine Base and Electric Boat in Groton. Without disposal sites, the cost of maintaining these facilities could becoming prohibitively expensive, he said.

j.benson@theday.com 

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