Public comment was sparse but skeptical at an EPA hearing in Riverhead Wednesday on a proposed new rule designating just one dredge spoil disposal site in eastern Long Island Sound.
The EPA has proposed closing the Cornfield Shoals dredge spoil site off the coast of Southold Town, but keeping the New London site, about three miles south of New London, open, slightly changing its boundaries and renaming it the “Eastern Long Island Sound Disposal Site.”
While the EPA has said the site will be for “disposal of dredged material from harbors and navigation channels in eastern Long Island Sound in the states of Connecticut and New York,” Long Islanders have been particularly skeptical of the plan due to the fact that there are far more navigable rivers and inlets that need to be dredged in Connecticut than there are on eastern Long Island.
The EPA outlined their plan for little more than an hour at the hearing at the Suffolk County Community College’s Culinary Arts Center in Riverhead before taking a smattering of public comment from the smattering of people who came to speak.
EPA representative Bernward Hay outlined a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement Study performed in anticipation of the new EPA rule, due to be published by the end of the summer.
Mr. Hay pointed out that the dredged material doesn’t stay put in the Cornfield Shoals site or in one other site considered in Niantic Bay, a condition known as a “dispersive site.”
He pointed out that the site selected off New London, about 2.1 square nautical miles, was selected primarily because it was a “containment site,” where sediment does not move.
He said other reasons for the selection of that site include the fact that it was previously used for dredge spoil dumping, there are no shellfish beds or significant finfish habitat, it is in close proximity to waterways that are to be dredged, and the remains of a shipwreck within the site are being excluded from the dumping area.
He said the site is almost entirely in Connecticut waters, though a sliver is in New York waters.
Steve Wolf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who is in charge of management of the sites, said he believes the media has been under the misconception that the dredge spoils contain toxic materials.
He showed attendees pictures of an aquarium where scientists “put sediment in with critters and see how they react to it” before allowing dredge spoils to be dumped. He also pointed out that some toxic elements and compounds, such as arsenic, are naturally occurring.
EPA Surface Water Branch Chief for Region 1 Mel Coté said that over the past eight years, there’s been a 35 percent reduction in the average annual dredge spoil dumping in the Sound.
He added that the EPA has already received 119 comments on the proposed rule, “the majority of which support the action.”
Unlike earlier hearings on this matter held by the Army Corps of Engineers last year, there was only a bit of public comment Wednesday afternoon.
Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker, whose district includes the north shore of Long Island from Mount Sinai to Wading River, said she’s been looking into dredge spoil dumping practices in the Long Island Sound for 12 years.
“It’s taken crates of paperwork and $7 million to find alternate locations,” she said, and while she’s glad to know the area is being reduced, she’d like to know what kinds of contaminants are already under the Sound.
“Let’s find out what’s down there and the effect that it’s having currently with the marine life down there,” she said.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said that 35 percent of the dredge spoil is expected to come from non-federal projects, and asked whether the dredge spoils from those projects will be tested or whether the private companies can be held liable if they dump toxic material into the Long Island Sound.
He also pointed out that toxicity testing isn’t being done on more complex animals, including marine mammals.
He added that the Southold Town Board has pointed out that the rule makes mention of 2.1 million cubic yards of dredge spoil that is expected to come from the Little and Great Peconic Bays.
“We are unaware of any project that involves 2.1 million cubic yards of dredge spoil,” he said. “We think this creates a false needs assessment.”
Former Southold Town Trustee David Bergen said that he’s studied patterns of sediment movement in the Long Island Sound that show that dredged material from Connecticut does move into Southold Town waters. He added that the EPA has designated the Long Island Sound a no discharge zone, which makes their support of dumping of dredge spoils there baffling.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito responded to the proposal with her trademark candor.
“Honestly, you haven’t changed a thing in 10 years. We are dramatically disappointed in the EPA,” she said.
Ms. Esposito said she was happy to see that the amount of dredge spoil dumped in the Sound had decreased, but she wants to see the EPA establish goals for the reduction of the use of open water dredge sites.
She also said she was baffled why the EPA had even considered Niantic Bay as a possible site, given the trouble the bay is already having with excessive heat from the Millstone nuclear power plant.
Ms. Esposito said she was happy to see the Cornfield Shoals site will be closing, but puzzled as to why the EPA had gone to the trouble to simply rename and slightly change the boundaries of the New London site, which will now be called the Eastern Long Island Sound site.
“The EPA recognizes the Eastern Long Island Sound as one of the most biologically diverse sections of the Long Island Sound,” she said, adding that the waters there are breeding grounds for 15 important fish species.
“I respectfully, once again, disagree with the Army Corps of Engineers that this material is not toxic,” she said, adding that material from the mouths of Connecticut rivers “does contain trace amounts” of pollutants ranging from heavy metals to pesticides to volatile organic compounds.
Marguerite Purnell of Fishers Island said she’s been involved in the discussion about where to put the dredge spoils since the mid-1980s, and that at this point she believes the conversation has turned into “the definition of insanity:” doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
“We’re back at the same place again,” she said.
Ms. Purnell said the New London site was first used in the 1950s, after dredge spoil taken out of the Thames River near the Groton submarine plant to accommodate Ohio-class Trident submarines caused paint to peel and other upland contamination when it was placed on land.
“Here we are 40 years later and we’re still doing this,” she said, adding that there is now much better technology than when open water dredge spoil sites were first used.
She added that she takes exception to the idea that the dredge spoil is not toxic, and to the methodology used for toxicity testing.
“It’s just not acutely toxic to tiny aquatic critters and worms,” she said. “There is chronic toxicity.”
“If you designate an open water site, everyone will clamor to use it,” she added. “It is by far the cheapest solution.”
The EPA is accepting written comments here through June 27 and plans to publish their new rule by the end of this summer.