Plans to remove a decade's worth of sediment from three Sea Pines waterways, including the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, have received final permit approval from federal regulators.
The South Island Dredging Association -- a group of boat-slip owners and some Sea Pines residents -- can now begin seeking bids from dredging contractors for the job. The permits allow work from Nov. 1 to April 30.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the permit late Wednesday. The project received required state permits about two months ago.
"We're delighted we now have the permits," said Jack Brinkley, president of the dredging association.
The group has begun soliciting bids from contractors and could make a selection by the end of this month. That choice will also need the state and federal regulators' approval.
But finding a qualified and affordable dredging contractor so close to the beginning of dredging season could be difficult, Brinkley said.
"We would have liked to have had the permits earlier," he said. "You've got to have somebody that has the competence for the job in your opinion, but also in the opinion of the regulators."
Brinkley said he wouldn't have an estimate for the project's cost until bids are submitted. The association will shoulder about 90 percent of that cost, with Sea Pines Resort paying the remainder.
A total of about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment will be pumped from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, Baynard Cove Creek and Braddock Cove Creek -- where South Beach Marina is located -- to a 100-acre site at the mouth of Calibogue Sound, where plans call for it to be washed away by outgoing tides.
It's the first private dredging project in South Carolina to be given a permit that allows open-water dumping, according to corps officials. The dump site is about 4,600 feet from Hilton Head Island and about 8,100 feet from Daufuskie Island.
The corps' permit is valid for 10 years. Two other permits from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are valid until spring 2018.
'A COMPLICATED ISSUE'
The dredging association applied for the permits in September and had hoped to receive them about six months ago. But a volley of questions and answers continued for months between the association and the regulatory agencies, including DHEC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Brinkley has called the process drawn-out, but corps spokesperson Glenn Jeffries said the agencies have worked "rather quickly ... for such a complicated issue."
Jeffries said the corps was concerned that approving the Sea Pines dredging would set a precedent for other projects looking to dump spoil in inshore waters.
However, Calibogue Sound's strong currents and the type of sediment to be pumped make this project an exception, Jeffries said.
Still, the dredging operations will be watched closely by regulators. An inspector must be present during all dredging and dumping, and daily reports are to be submitted to the corps.
Among the conditions monitored will be the depth of sediment on the sound floor, water quality and the impact on aquatic life. Measurements will be taken before, during and after dredging.
If something goes wrong, state and federal regulators could halt the work, as they did in 2003. Then, the dredging contractor was accused by the regulators of improperly dumping spoil directly into the sound rather than taking it to an offshore site.
The project manager was acquitted of federal criminal charges, and the dredging association settled, paying $50,000 of the nearly $500,000 in fines it had faced. The association admitted no wrongdoing.
This year's project will be Brinkley's last, he has said. Hilton Head Island officials began preliminary discussions last month about whether the town should help oversee future projects.
Councilman George Williams, who represents Sea Pines, said town staff might be best qualified to step into that role.
"Had it not been for Jack holding this thing together for so many years, we wouldn't have a permit today," Williams said Saturday.
"Going down the road, we need some of the institutional knowledge to be there" for future dredging projects, he said.
Council members agreed during a planning workshop in June that the issue, including how to pay for future projects, needs more study and discussion.
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian