U.S. Army Corps terminates Menemsha channel dredge contract

A new contract will be issued, and the Coast Guard is expected to press J-Way to remove its dredge and pipe from the channel or face fines.

The J-Way dredge remains anchored in the Menemsha Pond channel, where it stopped pumping sand on Jan. 31. J.B. Riggs Parker

With the start of the busy summer boating season on Martha’s Vineyard just around the corner, and dredging equipment still afloat in the narrow, sand-clogged Menemsha channel, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Monday that it has fired dredge contractor J-Way Southern of Avon, Ohio, for the company’s failure to live up to the terms of its $2.2 million contract to dredge the channel within the specified time frame.

Craig Martin, project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, told The Times, “We’ve terminated the contractor for default. He did not complete the project on time within the period of performance that he had signed the contract for.”

As in projects of this type, J-Way was required to purchase a payment bond and a performance bond — essentially insurance — to protect vendors and the Army Corps. Mr. Martin said it would now fall to the bonding company to rebid the project and complete the important dredging project.

The most immediate problem is the equipment — a dredge and more than 1½ miles of pipe — J-Way left when it stopped work on Jan. 31. The towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark are exploring their options to force J-Way to remove the equipment. The Coast Guard is also involved.

In a brief conversation with The Times Friday, Al Johnson, J-Way Southern owner said, “I can tell you that in our opinion, it’s just another fight.” Mr. Johnson said he spent $600,000 putting the project in place, and then was not allowed the two and a half weeks he estimated he needed to complete the project, to protect a winter flounder resource that few local fishermen said even exists.

Mr. Johnson said “the easy fix” for the government was to terminate his contract. “I kind of saw this coming,” he said.

Mr. Johnson did not respond to follow up phone calls to his office on Monday or Tuesday.

When completed, the dredging will clear a swath in Menemsha Channel eight feet deep at low mean tide and 80 feet wide, from the jetties at Menemsha Harbor entrance, past West Basin and the red nun, past Long Point, known locally as Picnic Point, into Menemsha Pond.

Project foundered on flounder

J-Way’s equipment has sat in the pond and along Lobsterville Road since the dredge project came to a grinding halt at the end of January, when the Army Corps of Engineers shut down the project in order to comply with the conditions of a permit issued by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), which stipulated that work had to stop on Jan. 31 to allow for the migration of winter flounder. The original state permit deadline was Jan.15, 2016, but the DEP had extended it to Jan. 31.

J-Way Southern had asked for one more month to complete the project, contending that the winter flounder population was limited and any harm would be outweighed by completing the project. The Army Corps of Engineers asked for a three-week extension. DMF and DEP officials said no to any extension.

Before J-Way was forced to stop dredging, thousands of cubic yards of sand was pumped through miles of pipe and deposited along Lobsterville Beach, where it was moved by bulldozers to shore up eroded dunes. That pipe is still in the channel and lying along the roadway.

The bedeviled project was originally scheduled to begin in October 2014, but delays in securing state and federal permits pushed the project back to 2015. Early last October, Hurricane Joaquin delayed the J-Way Southern crew’s departure from a job in Georgia. Work on the pipeline from Menemsha Channel to Lobsterville Beach began in October. A total of 300 pipes had to be fused together. Dredging began in earnest on Jan. 2, but came to a halt when the impeller, a crucial piece on the dredge, seized and cracked, something Mr. Johnson said he’d never seen in his 52 years in the business. But the delay set crews back only a few days, and when work resumed, it went faster than expected: an average of 2,400 cubic yards of sand a day.

In addition to nourishing Lobsterville Beach, 3,000 cubic yards of the high-quality Menemsha Channel sand was earmarked for Squibnocket Beach.

Get back on track

Bret Stearns, director of the Wampanoag Tribe natural resources department, said he was disappointed to learn that the contract had been lost. Mr. Stearns, point man in the effort to have the channel dredged, said that the tribe had enjoyed a good working relationship with J-Way in the early stages of the project.

He estimated the project had provided more than 15,000 cubic feet of high-quality sand for Lobsterville Beach, of which half, he estimated, was lost to winter storms. The tribe recently planted 19,000 stems of beachgrass, he said, furthering the restoration of the dunes.

Mr. Stearns said the goal now must be to remove the equipment and get the project back on track “so the channel can be dredged as it should be.”

Who will be responsible for completing the project remains a question. It is not inconceivable that J-Way could bid to complete the project.

While not ruling that out, Mr. Martin said the Army Corps will exercise some oversight. “We don’t want to be in the same position we are in now, just a year removed,” he said. “I’m not sure of our current position on J-Way completing the project, given that he couldn’t complete it the first time around.”

Mr. Martin said J-Way knew the dredge window when he received the contract in July 2015. “He believes there were extenuating circumstances that prevented him from starting, which we disagreed with,” Mr. Martin said.

Although it might make logistical sense to allow J-Way to complete the project, Mr. Martin said, concerns remain.

Mr. Martin said the Army Corps has been asking Mr. Johnson for several months to move his equipment: “He believed he was coming back in the fall regardless of what we said.”

Mr. Martin said the Army Corps is now working with the Coast Guard to make him move. “There is a definite safety concern for pipe in the water, especially as summer boating traffic begins to pick up,” he said. “There are no lights on the pipeline. There are lights on the dredge, but they don’t appear to be lit.”

“He tells folks, ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it,’ and then does not follow through on his actions,” Mr. Martin said.

Despite the difficulties, Mr. Martin takes the long view. He said long after the project is completed, the problems will be forgotten and the benefits of a deeper channel will remain: “The need is still there; we still intend to come back and complete the project; that is not going to change.”

In April 2014, following an extended period of review and analysis, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would move forward with a multimillion-dollar plan to dredge the channel that leads from Vineyard Sound through the jetties at the entrance to Menemsha Harbor and on into Menemsha Pond, and repair both jetties.

Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), citing a report from the Woods Hole Group, applauded the decision. Tribal and town officials said the pond would benefit from improved circulation.

Chilmark opposed dredging. Chilmark officials worried about the effect on the scallop fishery, and the potential for more and larger boats to use the federally designated channel to enter the pond. However, those town concerns were not enough to outweigh the Army Corps mandate to protect navigation through the federal channel.

Army Corps officials said in 1945, Congress designated Menemsha Pond as a harbor of refuge for ships seeking protection from severe and inclement weather conditions. Since that time, a number of dredgings and jetty repairs have been completed in Menemsha Creek in order to allow vessels safe passage.