South Island Dredging Association has a permit to dump dredge spoil into inshore waters, and it will be up to state and federal regulators to make sure the operation goes as promised and a very clean Calibogue Sound stays that way.
The dredging association has its state permit in hand, and a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to follow. Officials from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Corps of Engineers say allowing dumping so close to shore won't be precedent-setting. Calibogue Sound's strong currents and the type of sediment to be piped to the mouth of the sound make this project an exception.
But forgive us some continuing worries, based on the dredging association's track record with its 2003 project and the failure of these same regulatory agencies to adequately monitor that project.
The agencies halted the project before it was finished, accusing the dredging contractor of improperly dumping spoil into Calibogue Sound, instead of an approved offshore site. The project manager was later acquitted of federal criminal charges, and the dredging association -- facing fines of nearly $500,000 -- settled a lawsuit with state officials, paying $50,000 but admitting no wrongdoing.
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Testimony from federal officials in the criminal trial showed that the project did not get the oversight it needed. Requiring an inspector, who was paid by the dredging association, and then letting reports sit untouched on a desk, as one Corps of Engineers official testified, was wrong and did little to instill confidence in the permitting or oversight process.
This go-round the dredging association plans to dredge about 300,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and from Baynard Creek and Braddock Cove Creek, where South Beach Marina is located. The dredge spoil will be piped 2 miles to 3.5 miles -- depending on the specific dredging location -- to a 100-acre site about 4,600 feet from Hilton Head Island, near the island's toe, and about 8,100 feet from Daufuskie Island.
The operation is expected to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- weather and mechanical issues permitting -- until the dredging is completed. The permit allows work from Nov. 1 to April 30.
Among the issues to be monitored are the depth of the sediment deposited on the sound floor, particularly any mounding of the sediment; water quality, including the amount of suspended sediment in the water; and the impact on aquatic life. Measurements will be taken before, during and after dredging.
An inspector is to be present during all dredging and placement activities; daily written reports are to be submitted to the Corps of Engineers. Dredging must halt if a survey conducted a month after the work starts shows a significant accumulation of sediment at the discharge site. It's not clear from the state permit exactly what "significant" means, only that it will be determined in consultation with the permitting agencies.
It's not yet clear whether the work will start this November, assuming the corps permit comes through as expected and the permits are not challenged in court. Jack Brinkley, the association's president, has expressed worries about finding a contractor to do the work within a relatively short time frame. The project is expected to take the full six months to complete, so it's important to get started on time.
But it's very likely Harbour Town would be the first area to be dredged, as it was in 2003. That is the critical portion of this work, as association officials and politicians at every level have been telling us for the past 10 years. The other creeks and marinas could wait until the next dredging season. The state permit is valid for five years and the federal permit for 10 years.
Most importantly, the dredging association and state and federal regulators must make sure the work is done right. All of these plans and special conditions mean little if they're not followed. No one wants to see this project set precedent for the wrong reasons.