Dredging the Housatonic to Replenish Hammonasset -- A Controversy?
I read about it in yesterday's New Haven Register, which did its best to manufacture a controversy about the issue, insisting that there is one despite presenting no evidence.
Take a look at this story. The first paragraph sets things up not as an account of the news – that is, sand will be dredged from the river and used on the beach – but rather as a proposal that has generated opposition:
MADISON — The idea of scooping up a half-million cubic yards of sediment from the bottom of the Housatonic River and dumping it on Hammonasset Beach — arguably the most sacred of Connecticut's beaches — to fix erosion problems, doesn't sit well with a lot of people.
You read that and you might well say to yourself, "That's interesting. I look forward to learning more about why the plan doesn’t sit well with these people."
So you read on. In the next two paragraphs you learn that even though the idea doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, scientists insist that the sediment is clean and that putting the stuff on the beach is a good solution to two problems – the need to dredge and the need to keep a popular beach from washing away. But – and there’s a big but coming -- according to the Register:
Not everyone is convinced.
Now comes the good part – the analysis from the “lots of people” with whom the idea doesn’t sit well and the “not everyone” who remain to be convinced:
Two independent scientists who either reviewed the data or were told about the results mostly agreed with the DEP's assessment, but still had reservations about the project.
Wait a minute. Two independent scientists either reviewed the data or were told about it? That means one independent scientist reviewed the data and one was told about it by the reporter. And they “mostly agreed with the DEP’s assessment”!
The first scientist quoted is Dick Harris, a good, serous guy who lives in Westport and has been testing the water in local harbors for decades:
"Do I feel real good about putting that on the beach? No. Do I see a real problem? No," said Dick Harris, a water-quality expert for Harbor Watch/River Watch at Earthplace in Westport.
"It looks to me that they've done their homework pretty carefully," he added.
Harris said the DEP's data reveal no elevated levels of dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals or pesticides. While Harris typically studies water quality as opposed to sediment quality, he is familiar with sampling methods and said the DEP's data appear solid.
Wow! That’s a devastating critique. They’ve done their homework pretty carefully and the data appear solid. He doesn't see a real problem!
But still the Register says the proposal doesn’t sit well with lots of people. So let's see who else they get to demolish the DEP’s work.
You have to read for a while because the next seven or so paragraphs are devoted to the DEP scientist who explains and justifies the project. And then we get back to Harris, who is worried that perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers won’t oversee the work carefully enough and that the dredging equipment might take some sediment from an area that hasn’t been tested.
Fair point, well worth making. So let's make sure the Army Corps does its job right.
Then we hear from "Elaine LaBella of the Housatonic Valley Association." She has the same concern. But who is Elaine LaBella? I don’t know. The paper only says she’s “of the Housatonic Valley Association.” Is she a scientist affiliated with the association? Is she the organization’s president or an officer? Is she someone who sends them $25 every year? I wish I knew, but I don't. All I know is that she's "of the Housatonic Valley Association" and that she wants the DEP to hold public hearings.
Next we hear from someone who lives near Hammonasset:
Madison resident Herb Gram has a background in physics but he knows his chemistry, too. The environmental activist and member of Citizens for a Clean Hammonasset River said scientists better be absolutely sure the sand is safe.
Gram is involved in a battle to halt a housing development and wastewater-treatment system on land adjacent to Hammonasset Beach State Park. He said the DEP's track record in regulating wastewater discharge permits and Clean Water Act violations throughout the state is troubling. He hopes the same isn't true for the Housatonic dredging project.
My guess is that Herb Gram is one of the two independent scientists referred to higher in the story, probably the one who was told about the testing. He's apparently not an environmental scientist and, like Dick Harris, he doesn't seem to particularly know anything about sediments. He has a background in physics and he knows his chemistry though.
Does he have a big problem with the project? It doesn't seem so. He wants the DEP scientists to be absolutely sure the sand is safe (me too). He doesn't really trust the DEP, he thinks it has a bad track record in regulating water quality, and he hopes the same isn't true for the Housatonic-Hammonasset project. I don't have the same mistrust of the DEP but then again I don't live next to a development project the DEP might approve, so I give him the benefit of the doubt on his mistrust.
But even he doesn't have any real critique of the dredging project -- or at least none that the Register saw fit to print.
And that's apparently it -- the sum of all the people with whom the project doesn't sit well: A scientist who does not see a real problem, a woman associated with a watershed association who wants public hearings, and a man who apparently is a scientist but who has not looked at the data and who hopes the DEP knows what it's doing.
That's what passes in the Register for good environmental journalism, apparently.
The sad thing is that if you get rid of all the bad journalism, there's an interesting story there -- the story of the dredging and beach replenishment project:
According to George Wisker, a senior environmental analyst for the DEP's Long Island Sound Office, the bottom line is this: The corps needs to dredge the river channel and dispose of the sediment somewhere. The DEP needs sand — a lot of sand — to combat erosion problems at Hammonasset Beach. With the recent push to find beneficial uses for dredge sediment and a desire to limit dumping it in the Sound, the plan seemed an ideal solution.
"It would really be a shame if this sand is good quality to just dump it in the Sound," Wisker said. ...
Wisker said his agency conducted extensive testing of the sediment before determining it was clean.
"I think we did a pretty good job," he said.
Wisker said the DEP applied standards used in remediation projects in which humans will have direct contact with the soil as the basis for its sampling tests of the Housatonic. That carries with it a long list of chemicals, including pesticides, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, PCBs and other substances, that must be tested for.
In all, 23 sample cores up to 7 feet deep were taken along the channel where the dredging is to take place. The cores varied in depth depending on how much sediment needed to be dredged in that particular area.
Wisker said the sediment in the channel is mostly uniform because of currents in the river and so the samples should be representative of the entire channel. The mud flats on the sides of the river are a different story. Wisker said those areas are likely to have contaminants.
One section of the river slated to be dredged is at the mouth of Ferry Creek in Stratford, which was polluted at one time with asbestos, lead and PCBs from the former Raymark Superfund site.
While the DEP did not take samples from the channel just downstream of Ferry Creek's entrance to the Housatonic, because not much sediment has built up there, Wisker said sample tests from a previous proposed project revealed no contamination in the channel sediment....
People's initial opposition to the plan seems to be rooted in the pattern of pollution that flows through the history of the Housatonic River. For decades, General Electric in Pittsfield, Mass., released PCBs into the river. Cleanup measures for the suspected carcinogen are still in the works. Of bigger concern to some environmentalists are more local sources of pollution from marinas and storm runoff.
But Wisker stands firmly behind the DEP's data. Only trace amounts of PCBs — at the parts-per-billion range — were detected and far below the remediation standard limit. The tests did reveal slightly elevated levels of PAHs, a combustion byproduct found in industrial waste and backyard barbecues.
In very high concentrations, much higher than was found in the sediment, PAHs can cause cancer. Wisker said the PAHs detected in the sediment likely came from fragments of burnt wood and could be cleaned out in the process of transferring the sand from the Housatonic to the beach.
Meanwhile, no one disputes the very real erosion problems at Hammonasset Beach.
"West Beach has basically vanished," Tammy Talbot, a DEP environmental analyst, said Friday.
The sand is so badly eroded that the high tide line comes right up to the boardwalk, threatening that expensive structure. Talbot said a plan is in the works to bring sandy sediment from Clinton Harbor's dredging project to the beach, but that would only be a temporary problem. The Housatonic dredging project offers vastly more sand.
"That could be the ultimate fix," she said, adding the project would cost between $5 million and $10 million.
A consultant studying the erosion problems at the beach is considering other more permanent fixes, such as new jetties or underwater mats to keep the sand in its place.
Wisker urged people not to jump to conclusions about Housatonic River sediments and the lack of pollution turning up in DEP tests of the sand.
"When you don't find it, that's good. It doesn't mean we didn't do our job."