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Source: Hartford Courant

New Federal Long Island Sound Dredging Plan Divides Connecticut and New York

Should material dredged from Connecticut harbors be dumped in Long Island Sound?

BY GREGORY B. HLADKY
CONTACT REPORTER

Posted: February 8, 2016
Originally Published: February 8, 2016

HARTFORD — No one doubts that some Connecticut seaports and marinas need serious dredging if they hope to survive, but the issue of what to do with the muck that's brought up has created a divide wider than Long Island Sound.

A 30-year dredging plan released last month by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been greeted by applause on the Connecticut side of the Sound and angry denunciations from New York.

The big point of controversy is where to put tens of millions of cubic yards of sand and sediment expected to be dredged up over the next three decades, and how much different disposal methods might cost.

Federal officials say it's environmentally and economically reasonable to continue dumping most of it in four mid-Sound disposal areas — a decision Connecticut officials fully support. Connecticut's shoreline economy could suffer tens of millions of dollars in lost economic activity without dredging, local officials warn.

New York agencies, lawmakers and environmentalists insist the new federal plan essentially ignores the intent of a 2005 agreement between the two states to end disposal of dredged materials in the open waters of the Sound.

Connecticut officials argue there was never any formal agreement to end mid-Sound disposal of this sludge. They point out that the 2005 letter signed by then-New York Gov. George Pataki and then-Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell only set the "goal of reducing or eliminating the need for open water disposal."

"We didn't think [complete elimination of open-water disposal] was practical," said George Wisker, an environmental analyst with Connecticut's Office of Long Island Sound Programs. He said completely ending the use of those mid-Sound disposal sites "was not something we saw as actually feasible."

"I think [the new federal disposal plan] is an attempt to really try to comply with the intent of the two states when they signed that letter a number of years ago," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. Courtney called it "totally unrealistic" to think that open-water disposal sites wouldn't be needed, and said he believes federal officials "have done a good job of balancing the economic and environmental realities."

The western-most disposal site is off Darien; the central site is opposite New Haven; the Cornfield Shoals disposal location is between the mouth of the Connecticut River and Long Island's North Fork; and the eastern disposal site is off New London.

Connecticut officials say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now has about three months to create formal rules for implementing the Army Corps of Engineers' plan. Wisker said major changes in the plan aren't expected, despite the protests from New York.

The new federal plan does call for alternative methods of disposing of dredged sand and mud when possible. Courtney said his reading of the plan is that there "is a bias built in" that favors alternative disposal methods such as beach and wetlands restoration.

"This plan identifies a range of environmentally sound alternatives for the handling of materials created by dredging projects," Robert Klee, Connecticut's commissioner of energy and environmental protection, said in a statement, "including beneficial uses such as beach nourishment and marsh restoration, as well as continued use of open water sites in Long Island Sound."

"Much of the sediment taken from Connecticut waterways is fine-grained, however," Klee added, "and since reuse alternatives often are not feasible, open water sites must remain available for the foreseeable future."

The cost of those alternative disposal methods is usually "more time consuming, more costly" than simply dumping it in those mid-Sound sites, according to Curt Johnson, executive director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and Save the Sound.

The nonprofit Save the Sound is in a delicate situation regarding the dredging controversy. It's a dual-state environmental organization with members in New York and Connecticut, and Johnson's comments on the Army Corps of Engineers' plan reflects the complex nature of the situation.

"This is not just a Connecticut story, it's a New York story too," said Johnson. He said his group recognizes that some dredged materials may need to be carefully disposed of in open-water locations, but wants a far greater emphasis placed on finding and using environmentally safer alternatives.

"Let's not close down the open-water disposal," said Johnson, "but we have to move toward beneficial reuse" of dredged sand and silt. He added that failure to use such materials to revive eroded marshes, islands and dunes can also have long-term costs. Restored shoreline areas can act as buffers during major storms, easing flooding problems and protecting inland areas, he said.

Other environmental groups, including the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, have flatly condemned the continued disposal of dredged material in the open-water sites, comparing it to using the Sound as a garbage dump.

Adding to the difficulty of finding alternative disposal methods is the problem that lots of the materials dredged up from places like Bridgeport's harbor are not suitable for environmentally sensitive areas like salt marshes and beaches. Toxic sludge from dredging can't legally be disposed of in the Sound, Wisker points out, and must be trucked to landfills or treatment centers.

But federal experts reported that less polluted materials can be shipped out to the four open-water sites, dumped and then safely capped with clean sand and other materials.

Johnson said studies have found "short-term impacts" on the Sound's environment from such open-water disposal operations. "But we haven't seen signs or evidence of long-term damage," he added.

In putting together the new plan, federal experts looked at every potential dredging project on both sides of the Sound and estimated the total amount of material in need of disposal could reach 52 million cubic yards. Wisker said that, because of expected funding shortages, the actual amount of sand and silt that is likely to be dredged up is "one-third to one-half" of the overall total.

The differing New York-versus-Connecticut attitudes about dredge disposal results in part from the reality that most of the questionable sludge will come from Connecticut's side of the Sound. Long Island doesn't have any of the major industrial harbors like Bridgeport or New Haven that are likely to need deeper shipping channels, and the costs of dredging Connecticut harbors is likely to be far more expensive than smaller projects on the Long Island side.

By one federal estimate, the dredging plan for Bridgeport's harbor could cost about $40 million. The last time Bridgeport's shipping channels were mucked out was in 1964.

A proposal several years ago to dump some slightly contaminated sludge from Bridgeport's waters off a section of New Haven's shoreline drew heated protests from New Haven residents.

It's not clear how much of the cost of dredging would be covered by the federal government, and how much by states, municipalities and local businesses like marinas. Connecticut recently set aside $20 million for dredging projects over the next five years.

Courtney said the Navy has also made it clear that substantial dredging will be needed through New London to keep the channel open and "submarine traffic viable" to the Navy sub base in the Thames River.

The dredging issue has also created a rift between several of this region's members of Congress who are normally allied on environmental issues.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York has condemned the Army Corps of Engineers' plan and said he'll push federal environmental officials to revise the dredging disposal rules. But Schumer's fellow Democrats from Connecticut, like U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, are in favor of the plan.