Letter: Town, state rushing into a project that could harm Westerly beaches

Letter: Town, state rushing into a project that could harm Westerly beaches

At the Westerly Town Council meeting of Nov. 20 I voiced my concerns about the proposed Winnapaug Pond dredging project. I am not against the dredging project. The pond certainly needs to have the built-up sediment removed. My main  concern is the quality of the dredged material scheduled to be pumped onto our two Westerly beaches and the incredible last-minute rush to push this project, but I also will address other concerns.

In a letter dated Nov. 15, 2017, sent to the Westerly Town Council by Lisa Pellegrini, the town’s director of development services, she indicates that the town was awarded $2,785,000 in grant funding from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to install emergency watershed protection measures to relieve hazards and damages created by Superstorm Sandy in Winnapaug Pond.

The EWP submission included 32,000 cubic yards of sediment. That original amount was later reduced to about 20,000 cubic yards.

The dredging project required permitting from the state Coastal Resources Management Council. According to the letter, there were discussions as to what to do with the dredged material. The letter did not identify the parties in these discussions or whether any Westerly town officials were included. The letter included various recommended uses for the dredged material: 1. beach renourishment, 2. salt marsh restoration, 3. a thin, sprayed layer of dredged material in various locations on the marsh.

The letter further stated that a company, GZA Geoenvironmental Inc., was contracted to provide design and engineering work required for permitting. The company collected the site data and provided the engineering drawings and maps. Looking at the drawings and maps, it was clear that it had already been determined that the dredged material would be pumped onto the Westerly town beaches. Who made this determination?

The test data of the material samples was very detailed in describing what the material was — rock, gravel, sand, or fines (silt or clay) — and how much of each of these were in each sample. It also detailed the physical particle sizes of the material. Sizes varied from about ½ inch to very small particles of less than half the thickness of a human hair (.007 thousands of an inch). These small particles of silt were as small as .0029 thousands of an inch.

There are 15 pages of data in this report that show the material details. It can be found on the Westerlyri.gov website, under Government, then Bids & RFPs; it’s the first of nine line items. The rest of the project requirements can be viewed there as well.

The test result data sheets confirm how much of each material is present in each sample taken where the dredging is to take place. Percentages of the very small particles, defined as silt, ranged anywhere from 1.3 percent to 56 percent. Eight of the 14 samples had content of silt far higher than 10 percent. Many of the test samples were almost 50 percent silt.

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management  regulation — DEM-0WR-DR 02-03 page12, section — states that dredged material containing more than 10 percent silt cannot be used for beach nourishment. With that being the case, how can this plan, as written, go forward?

Also in the same letter, it is noted that the final project scope includes about 20,000 cubic yards of dredge material for beach renourishment of the two beaches. The permit applications were submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Enviromental Management, the Coastal Resources Management Council, and the Army Corps of Engineers on Nov. 9. The project was sent out to bid on Nov. 13. That is only two business days later! Were all of the permit applications approved before sending this out to bid?

According to the same letter, bids for this project will be opened Nov. 27 and a  contractor will be chosen Nov. 30, allowing just three business days to review the qualifications of the winning bidder on a project of this magnitude.    

There is language in the requirements for the contractor to qualify that the dredged material meets local and state requirements. How is it going to be validated that the material contains less than 10 percent silt? Another serious concern is the allowed finish date of the project of July 1. That means one third of the beach season could be lost. That’s a lot of lost revenue as well. And, an extension to that date could be allowed if needed.

The engineering study remarked that the dredge material samples were similar to the existing beach sand material. The material presently on both the Town Beach dunes was placed there after Superstorm Sandy.

It is not naturally occurring beach sand. One of the discussed uses for the dredged material was marsh restoration. That choice was not selected because the permitting process would take too long. A photo showing the proposed marsh restoration area is just opposite the old Town Beach and known locally as the “clam flats.” It appears that someone on this project thought the area was filled in with sand from Superstorm Sandy. Not so. Much of that area at low tide is mostly bare sand flat and has been for as long as I can remember, back to the 1950s. Luckily, it appears that perceived permitting delays may have saved that area from being buried in dredged material.

Also at the Town Council meeting, Ms. Pellegrini stated she would look into the issues I raised. I sincerely hope she does, and I hope she finds alternative choices for placing the dredge material. I hope the Town Council and town manager look closely at the details of this project and do their due diligence.

Maybe there is a possibility that an extension can be requested for the grant so that a more suitable use for the dredged material can be found. My wife, Sharon, suggested it could be stockpiled and used for winter sanding of roads. It has a little salt already built in. An idea to be considered. Or, could it be pumped out into the ocean and let nature spread it on the bottom? After all, that’s where it came from.

Our beaches provide enjoyment for thousands of people. The dredging project must not be allowed to contaminate our beaches with the dark, gray silt that compacts like hardpan clay.

Hopefully the town can find other uses for the dredged material. I hope more people look at this project and ask questions and voice their concerns before the town makes what I feel would be a terrible mistake.

John Ornberg




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