State regulators have approved permits for a dredging project to remove a decade's worth of sediment from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and two other waterways on Hilton Head Island, according to a state environmental agency.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still has to issue its own permit before work can begin, but corps officials say they likely will sign off on the project early next month.
Once issued, the Army Corps permit will be effective for 10 years. The permits recently granted by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are valid until Spring 2018.
The South Island Dredging Association, a group of boat slip owners and some Sea Pines residents, has been awaiting the permits since January or February, according to its president, Jack Brinkley. The association applied for the permit from the corps on Sept. 10 after about nine months of research and planning.
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Questions and responses have bounced between the association and regulators, including DHEC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Brinkley has described the process as redundant and drawn-out; regulators say it gives them time to scrutinize plans and allow public comment.
The dredging association wants to pump 300,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, Baynard Cove Creek and Braddock Cove Creek, where South Beach Marina is located. The spoil would be dumped at a 56-acre site in the mouth of Calibogue Sound. Information about how much the dredging would cost was not immediately available Tuesday.
The sediment has made some areas of the three waterways impassible at low tide and has caused the Harbour Town marina to lose business, according to Rob Bender, director of recreation and marine operations at Sea Pines Resort. It also prevents large yachts from entering the marina during the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament.
The Sea Pines project would be the first private dredging project in the state permitted for open-water dumping, according to corps project manager Robin Socha.
"We didn't want to start a precedent for open-water dumping all over the state," said DHEC director Catherine Templeton.
However, she said SIDA helped convince the department that the type of sediment and tide conditions at the mouth of Calibogue Sound make it likely that the sediment will drift into deeper waters with minimal environmental impact.
Socha agreed. The corps was also wary of setting a precedent for dredging projects proposed elsewhere in the state, she said, but the "very dynamic environment" and strong currents of the sound and noncontaminated spoil made the project an exception.
"This isn't going to be happening just anywhere in the state," she said.
If the corps gives its approval next month, the dredging could begin by Nov. 1, when the dredging season begins. It ends April 30.
Brinkley has said permitting delays could make it difficult for the dredging to start on time because only a few companies have the equipment and experience for the job. He feared the companies might be booked for other projects before the permits are issued.
The project is expected to require a full dredging season to complete, he said, so a late start could place the project at risk of not being completed before April 30.
Attempts Tuesday to reach Brinkley for comment were unsuccessful.
In 2003, state and federal regulators halted dredging of Harbour Town Yacht Basin, Gull Point and South Beach marinas, Baynard Cove and Braddock Creek by SIDA after a contractor was accused of dumping sediment into Calibogue Sound before reaching an approved offshore dump site.
The new permits would require 24-hour surveillance and frequent studies of water quality and the sound's floor by state and federal agencies, Socha said.
"There is a great deal of monitoring that is going to be happening."
Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian