Angry protest spurs action on Inkwell Beach sand

Angry Oak Bluffs residents stage protest and attend selectmen’s meeting en masse; quick action promised by town officials.

Protestors took to the beaches Monday morning. — courtesy Ewell Hopkins

Angry about the dredge spoils that were placed on Inkwell Beach in February to stem the erosion from a turbulent winter, a small but vociferous group of Oak Bluffs residents staged a protest at the beach on Monday, demanding action by town officials. The protesters stopped the raking and dispersal of the material by Watercourse Construction of Vineyard Haven.

Highway department supervisor Richard Combra arrived at the site, and after the backhoes retreated, he assured the protesters that the situation would be remedied. At the meeting of the Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday night, town officials assured residents that the dredge spoils would be removed.

Town officials had hoped that the material dredged from the Lagoon channel, which is dark in color and clay-like in texture, would bleach out by summer. But with Memorial Day less than a week away, the material is still dark and clay-like, and warming temperatures were also bringing out a distinctly foul bouquet.

On Tuesday night, some of those who had taken part in the demonstration at the Inkwell attended the meeting of the selectmen. Chairman Greg Coogan quickly diffused the tension in the room by announcing, to a round of applause, that the dredge spoils would be removed from the Inkwell.

“With the help of Liz Durkee and Richie Combra, we’re going to pile up the sand from the Inkwell beach and the highway department is going to truck it to temporary location,” he said. “Where it will permanently go has yet to be determined, but we’ll make sure it’s off the beach as soon as the crews can pick it up.”

After the applause died down, conservation commission agent Liz Durkee addressed the crowd. “I just want to make it clear that this is being moved for aesthetic reasons,” she said.  Ms. Durkee reiterated that the beach nourishment plan twice passed all tests by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which are some of the strictest in the nation.

As she listed the numerous materials that the state tested for, Ms. Durkee was interrupted several times by catcalls from angry townspeople. Mr. Coogan twice had to call the meeting to order. “It is safe beach sand,” Ms. Durkee concluded, to more grumbling from the crowd.

Shellfish constable Dave Grunden, visibly frustrated at the turnaround, asked the selectmen to define what beach nourishment standards should be in the future. “Clearly the people want us to go above and beyond. I don’t know a stricter standard than we have here,” he said. “These beaches are not just for recreation. They also protect the infrastructure of the town and the road. Next time we can just let the beaches erode way.”

Town administrator Robert Whritenour stepped in to calm the waters. “We’re absolutely committed to rectifying the situation,” he said. “I also ask you to respect Liz’s point. We made sure there was no public health risk, although when you look at it and smell it, it’s clear that it’s just not compatible with our beach.”

Mr. Whritenour said that the town is severely constrained by state law when it comes to battling erosion. “We all know there’s beautiful clean sand shoaling offshore but the state won’t let us dig it up,” he said. “We’re working with the state. Storms are getting worse and we want to make the commitment so the beaches will be here in the future.”

Highway department supervisor Richard Combra addressed those in the room and said there were no “shady” motives behind the situation. “We did this with the best intentions,” he said. “We’re doing our best to keep the beach from eroding. Obviously a mistake was made. We shouldn’t have put it there and we’re going to remove it and rectify the situation.” The crowd applauded Mr. Combra.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, who said she was present at the Monday demonstration to lend her support, said she had read a 30-page document on the DEP website regarding beach nourishment. “They’re not looking at color or aesthetics, which explains why it passed the tests,” she said. “But it also states the material should come from as close to the location as possible.”

Mr. Coogan said there were plans to dredge sand from the channel at Little Bridge and place that sand at the Inkwell sometime in early June. However, Mr. Grunden raised a new complication with that previously discussed tactic, namely that there was no FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding in place for the Little Bridge dredging. “So it’s going to be a while,” Mr. Grunden said.

When the selectmen left the meeting room to go into executive session to discuss another hot topic, the investigation into the action of council on aging director Roger Wey, many of those in the room remained.

Newly elected planning board member Ewell Hopkins filled the vacuum and conducted an informal meeting on Inkwell beach. Former selectman Kerry Scott said she had read all the pertinent DEP documents and had concluded that Mr. Whritenour’s assertions were wrong. “It was only approved for a lined landfill or an asphalt plant and we learned that the asphalt plant wasn’t interested,” she said. “It would have cost $105,000 to ship it away. It was cheaper to dump it on our beach.”

Steven Auerbach, chairman of the finance committee, took issue with Ms. Scott’s allegations. “I find it hard to believe that Liz Durkee and Dave Grunden and Richie Combra would dump toxic sand on our beach,” he said. “Their intentions are always for the good of the town. Let’s not go overboard.”