Corps Puts Limits On Dredged Sand Disposal

Sunset Beach town officials are planning to use a privately owned landfill miles away to dispose of dredged sand from a proposed project to improve navigation in Mary’s Creek and Turtle Creek. Image: Moffatt & Nichol/Sunset Beach

OCEAN ISLE BEACH – Getting permission to dump sand in federally maintained dredged material disposal areas may not be entirely impossible, but a nationwide policy heavily restricts access for North Carolina coastal municipalities and businesses that have long relied on the sites.

If the Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District office, along with local and state officials, can come up with ways to work around the policy, all indications are that it could come at a hefty price for non-federal users, including beach towns and private marina owners.

The policy indicates that while non-federal projects may apply to dispose of material on a Corps-maintained site if the project meets specific requirements, most federal projects are perpetual, and therefore “few” sites will have extra space.

Though the Corps’ nationwide guideline is more than a year old – it became effective Feb. 3, 2017 – word of it has gradually spread along the North Carolina coast.

The policy was the final topic of discussion at the state Coastal Resources Commission’s quarterly meeting held last week in Ocean Isle Beach, where one Corps official proclaimed the guideline “hit all of us by surprise.”

Justin McCorcle, an attorney with the Corps’ Wilmington district, explained to commission members that the decision to restrict sand disposal from non-federal projects was made to conserve space within federal dredged material placement facilities, or DMPFs.

“There are some disposal areas where we are going to run out of capacity before very long.”

— Justin McCorcle, attorney, Army Corps of Engineers

The issue stems from cases involving major harbor projects where the Corps has had to find new facilities to place dredged sand because the DMPFs were full, in part, with material from non-federal projects.

Only one of the federal disposal sites in North Carolina is full, McCorcle said.

“There are some disposal areas where we are going to run out of capacity before very long,” he said. “For the most part we’re doing OK.”

There is a distinction between “at capacity” and “full.”

Full means just that – no more room for sand.

When a site is at capacity, the Corps has the option to build higher dikes so more sand may be placed in the DMPF.

There is a limit to how high the dikes can be built so, “At some point those areas run out of space,” McCorcle said.

He said the Corps is examining the federally managed disposal sites in the state, looking at each disposal area and pinpointing potential opportunities to extend beyond the Corps’ 1,000-foot easement at these sites.

Sand in a DMPF can be removed and recycled, which would free up space and open the possibility of a trade-off.

Material excavated from a town-initiated, shallow-draft inlet dredging project, for example, could be placed in a federal disposal site if that town first removes an equal amount of sand from the DMPF.

So, if 100,000 cubic yards of sand is anticipated to be dredged from a non-federal dredge project then 100,000 cubic yards of sand must be removed from the DMPF in which the dredged sand is to be placed.

The Corps has been charging a disposal fee to place dredged material in its DMPFs, which in the case of North Carolina are primarily on state-owned land. That fee would be waived in a sand-for-sand trade, McCorcle said.

Material removed from a federally maintained disposal site could be used for a variety of ways. If sand is beach compatible it can be injected onto an ocean shoreline as part of a re-nourishment project. Sand may also be used to cap landfills or on construction sites.

The sand in the DMPFs is free. Costs associated with evaluating its quality and moving it are not, particularly at disposal sites that cannot be accessed by road.

Sunset Beach plans to offload dredged material at an N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp for transport to the landfill. Image: Moffatt & Nichol/Sunset Beach

Thus is the case for Sunset Beach, which recently applied for a Coastal Area Management Act, or CAMA, major permit to dredge Mary’s Creek and Turtle Creek.

About 16,000 cubic yards of material is anticipated to be dredged in the project, which is being conducted by coastal engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol.

In a letter dated Nov. 1 to the state Division of Coastal Management providing additional information about project plans, Moffatt & Nichol engineers wrote that dredged material from the creeks would be transferred to a dump truck or other type of hauling equipment at a state-maintained public boat ramp. The material will be moved from the boat ramp area and disposed at a landfill in Brunswick County.

This may be the disposal area for a majority of the estimated 105,000 cubic yards of material anticipated to be removed in town’s waterway dredging project, which includes about 3 miles of canals and feeder canals, Mary’s Creek, Turtle Creek and south Jinks Creek. A small amount of material identified as beach compatible will be placed on a portion of the town’s oceanfront.

“Things are still a little fluid because we are still in the permitting process for many other waterways,” Sunset Beach Mayor Greg Weiss said. “Our strong preference is to take the spoils directly from the dredge to its ultimate destination site at the landfill off Old Georgetown Road.”

Greg Weiss

The town’s consultant has been researching possible alternative disposal sites, including one privately owned lot along the Intracoastal Waterway, a prospective location that could save the town money.

“But we’ve really not investigated that further yet to see if it would provide for the environmental safety we’re looking for,” Weiss said.

Todd Horton, the Corps’ deputy chief of navigation, said the Corps is looking into options for the town to use one of its DMPFs. The DMPF in question cannot be reached by roadway, which means the town would have dredge or barge material from the disposal site.

“I’m not sure how council members will react to that but my impression is we will not go back to that alternative,” Weiss said.

The town is among a small number of non-federal projects in Brunswick County and New Hanover County that have been affected by the policy since it was enacted last year.

Coastal engineer Chris Gibson with TI Coastal Services Inc. headed the first project in the state to get hit with the new guidelines.

After much wrangling, Gibson said the Corps permitted the project at Southport Marina a one-time use at a disposal site.

“There’s got to be some way that we can work around this,” Gibson said. “There are places on the (Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway) that haven’t been used in years upon years and they’re not allowing those to be used? I deal with dozens of these projects every year. There really is no viable land. There are a few parcels here and there, but realistically these sites have to be proximate to a marina. You can’t just pump 15 miles.”

“In the not-so-distant future you’re going to see marinas that are no longer going to be viable.”

— Chris Gibson, TI Coastal Services Inc.

The implications of the policy, he said, could be grim for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, or AIWW, industry.

“In the not-so-distant future you’re going to see marinas that are no longer going to be viable,” Gibson said. “In two to three years small dredging companies will start to go out of business. Regionally, it will shut down all of the companies that do this kind of work.”

Each year more than $400 million in expenditures is generated by AIWW-based industries in North Carolina, New Hanover County Shore Protection Coordinator Layton Bedsole said at the CRC’s Nov. 29 meeting.

In contrast, the Corps’ annual budget for the AIWW is about $10 million, he said.

More than 10,000 jobs are associated with AIWW industry, he said.

Those figures were derived from the 2016 N.C. Beach and Inlet Management Plan.

“It appears to me that the Corps of Engineers was putting their deferred maintenance back on the non-federal users in order to continue economic and environmentally sound disposal practices of our AIWW industries,” Bedsole said in an interview following the CRC’s Nov. 29 meeting.

“We need to recognize that this did not come from the Wilmington district and it was handed to the Wilmington district and the initial all-or-nothing approach seems unnecessary especially along the waterways,” he said. “There should be a way that we can determine what are absolutely the Corps’ needs and what areas can be used for the mom-and-pop marinas, for the public accessway ramps, for the residential developments, for the academic research and development, for the nonprofit public use and commercial fishing needs. Surely, it can be better than all or none. I think there are options for the beneficial use of these materials. It will not be cheap to regain the capacity that has been lost over the past 50 years.”

The North Carolina Beach, Inlet & Waterway Association, or NCBIWA (pronounced “N.C. byway”), has formed a dredged material management committee, which is currently looking at ways in which sand dredged from non-federal projects can be used as a short-term solution.

The committee is also inventorying land – local, state and privately owned – that may be available for future disposal use.

“We are working on it,” Executive Director Kathleen Riley said. “First we have to find out what’s out there and we have to find out who owns it. Once we figure out the availability of the sites then we can find a way that we can come to an agreement to use some of that area. NCBIWA looks at the big picture and what we see over time is this will be a big issue at some point for the rest of our coastal communities. We want a long-term solution. That’s important.”

About the Author

Trista Talton

Trista Talton is a native North Carolinian who, shortly after graduating from Appalachian State University in 1996, took her first newspaper job as a reporter for the Hickory Daily Record. She has since migrated to the coast, covering everything from education and local governments to law enforcement, the environment and the military, including an embed with Marines in Kuwait for the start of the Iraq war in 2003. She has been a Coastal Review Online contributing writer since 2011 focusing on coastal-related issues from Onslow to Brunswick counties. She lives with her husband and two sons in Jacksonville.