Permit violations halt Sengekontacket dredge project

The original dewatering site on the Sengekontacket shoreline did not comply with conditions of the dredge permit, according to federal regulators. — File photo by Steve Myrick

The dredge crew working in Sengekontacket Pond missed 12 work days in November, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took note of two violations of the dredge permit and asked that the project be halted.

Already tightly scheduled, the two-week delay means the $1.2 million project will not meet the January 15 permit deadline.

“That’s not going to happen,” dredge foreman Ed Hardy said Wednesday. “It was tight to begin with, this put it way over. The areas around the bridges are the most critical, they’ll be done.”

Town officials say they interpreted the permit conditions differently than the Army Corps. They say they based decisions on the least environmentally intrusive way to get sand out of the pond.

During a visit to Martha’s Vineyard on November 10, Army Corps permit project manager Erica Mark observed the dredging operation in action.

“The town was supposed to be dewatering on Sylvia State Beach,” Ms. Mark said in a phone conversation with The Times. “They chose to set up on the pond side. They were supposed to be operating above mean high tide and they were not.”

She notified Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton about the compliance issue and asked him to halt the project. Mr. Dutton said the town voluntarily stopped the work. Over the next few days, Mr. Dutton worked with the Army Corps to resolve the issues.

“We’ve worked it out so they’ll begin dredging on the southern edge of the channel,” Ms. Mark said. “All of their activities have to be above the high tide mark.”

After moving the dredge barge and other equipment near big bridge, dredging resumed November 24.

Site questions

The Army Corps is the lead federal permitting agency for dredging projects. The agency issued its permit for the Sengekontacket project on April 15, after a long process of evaluating the impact of dredging the popular salt pond.

After more than a year of delays, dredging began in late October. The dredge crew set up a dewatering site just east of little bridge, on the narrow strip of barrier beach between the Beach Road and the pond. The dredge spoils, pumped through a large pipe, flowed out on the pond shoreline. A trench formed with concrete “jersey knee” barriers routed excess water back into the pond. An excavator moved the wet sand to another pile for a short time to let the water drain out. Trucks transported the sand to town beaches.

The federal permit sets conditions on the dewatering site.

“Dredge slurry shall be dewatered in a dewatering pit/trench constructed on Sylvia State Beach,” the permit states. “This will allow the suspended sediment to settle and the water to percolate through the sand back to the Atlantic Ocean. The scheduling of dredging and dewatering shall be such that the capacity of the dewatering pit/trench is not exceeded under any circumstances.”

Town administrator Michael Dutton, representatives of the Oak Bluffs conservation commission and the shellfish department, along with the dewatering contractor, decided to establish the dewatering site on the pond shoreline, a site they interpreted to be part of the beach, according to Mr. Dutton.

“We looked at the fact that there was already bridge construction going on there,” Mr. Dutton said. “It was going to be easier to restore and do less damage to the dunes.”

He said the Army Corps indicated they would agree to amend the permit to allow dewatering at the site chosen by the town, but that process would take two to three weeks, and put the project even further behind schedule.

In the end, the town and the Army Corps agreed to move the dredge to the opposite end of the dredging area, and set up a new dewatering site on the Nantucket Sound side of the road.

Historic concerns

Ms. Mark’s original purpose in traveling to Martha’s Vineyard was to discuss a dredge issue with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). According to Ms. Mark, pieces of wood dredged up from the pond in the early days of the project prompted the tribe to notify the Army Corps, as required by the permit.

Ms. Mark emphasized the most recent discovery of wood pieces had no bearing on her request to halt the dredging project, and the tribe made no request to stop the project. She said the location where the wood pieces were found makes it less likely they are of any historic value.

“Based on my conversations with the tribe and my conversations with the town, it doesn’t appear it would be anything,” Ms. Mark said. “They were pieces of wood that could potentially have been parts of a fish weir. It didn’t seem to be in a place where a fish weir would be installed. They’re not asking to shut down dredging.” Ms. Mark said the tribe is still evaluating whether the wood pieces have any historical significance.

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, the Corps is required to consult with federally recognized tribes and work to avoid, minimize, and mitigate any effects on either historically or culturally significant resources.

The tribe expressed such concerns during the Sengekontacket dredge permit process, after some items described by the tribe as artifacts were dredged from the pond during an unrelated 2008 Edgartown dredging project in another part of the pond.

At that time, tribe historic preservation officer Bettina Washington said the items were not authenticated by any scientific methods or evaluated by any recognized experts. She refused to describe the items, and no Oak Bluffs officials ever saw them.

As a result of the tribe’s concern, the Army Corps included specific conditions in the Sengekontacket dredge permit to allow tribal representatives to monitor the project. Oak Bluffs was required to conduct an underwater archaeological survey of the dredge area before dredging could begin, When the project is completed, a post-dredge underwater survey is required. The survey cost the town $24,999, an amount that must come from the appropriated project funds.

Costly project

Oak Bluffs voters authorized $500,000 for the project at the 2009 annual town meeting. Town officials expect dredging of the channel between Big Bridge and Little Bridge to improve circulation in the pond. They hope it will improve water quality. State officials closed the pond to shellfishing in summer months, beginning in 2008, because of bacterial contamination.

Oak Bluffs intends to sell the sand dredged from the pond to offset costs above the amount authorized by voters.

Through an inter-municipal agreement, Oak Bluffs contracted with the town of Edgartown to do the dredging, using Edgartown’s town-owned dredge and personnel.