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Plan to bury contaminated sediment in Newport Harbor goes to Coastal Commission

Newport Beach has spent four years and roughly $2 million on a plan to dig a hole the size of six football fields at the bottom of its harbor, a hole that U.S. Army Corps crews can use to bury contaminated sediment dredged up from nearby channels.

City officials insist the plan, which is expected to take three more years and cost the city at least another $10 million to complete, is the most practical and environmentally friendly way to clear the harbor’s channels and get sediment — which contains elevated levels of chemicals such as mercury and DDT — out of open waters.

But the proposal faces growing opposition from environmental organizations and a group of residents led by tech mogul Palmer Luckey. That group, which has spent more than $100,000 of their own money investigating the project and exploring alternatives, argues that the push to dredge in this fashion is being rushed. And opponents are worried about the project’s long-term effects on water quality and protected wildlife.

“We understand that the harbor needs to be dredged and that you have to do something with this material,” said Lauren Chase, a staff attorney with Orange County Coastkeeper.

“I’m just really troubled that we seem to be relying on mid-20th century technology,” Chase added. “Surely we’re at a stage in the world where we can do something better with this toxic sediment than just bury it.”

Now all eyes are on a Wednesday, Sept. 7 meeting of the California Coastal Commission, when the agency is scheduled to vote on a key permit for the project.

If the commission approves the permit, it will keep the project on track for Army Corps plans to start dredging this fall. Otherwise, those plans might be delayed and the city might need to do new testing, with current results only valid through the end of this year.

If the agency denies the permit, opponents hope the city will pursue alternatives to a project that Chase’s team describes as “underwater pollution lasagna.”

Why the plan is needed

The federal government manages Newport Harbor, and the Army Corps regularly gets permits to dredge the underwater sediment that’s brought in by tides and boats and storms. Otherwise, the accumulated sediment and debris can pose problems for boats and limit full use of the harbor, which is home base for more than 10,000 vessels.

Most sediment gets hauled to and released at designated spots in the ocean, miles offshore, where it settles on the seafloor. Clean sand also can be used to replenish eroded stretches of the coast, either by depositing it directly on the beach or just offshore where it can be brought in by the tides.

But if sample testing shows that sediment has elevated levels of harmful chemicals, federal laws say it can’t be dropped in the open ocean. So, while the Army Corps will dredge such sediment up, it relies on local governments to come up with solutions for storing that material.

The Army Corps last dredged portions of Newport Harbor a decade ago, according to Chris Miller, a manager with Newport Beach’s Public Works department. The city got lucky that time, he said, noting that the Port of Long Beach was doing construction then and had open pits on site. Newport arranged for the contaminated sediment from that round of dredging to be hauled via barges to the port, where it now sits under stacks of cargo containers.

This time around, Miller said, there’s no room at the ports in Long Beach or Los Angeles. And other possible dumping sites, local landfills, also have been ruled out because of environmental and practical concerns. Still, the contaminated sediment has to go somewhere.

This year, the Army Corps received funding and permits earlier to dredge 879,900 cubic yards of material from the Lower Newport Harbor. While nearly 88% of that material was deemed to be clean enough for ocean disposal, at a site six miles offshore from Newport, testing showed that 112,500 cubic yards of it was contaminated.

Some samples showed sediment with five times more mercury than the threshold considered safe, Chase noted. The chemicals are thought to be remnants of industries that used to operate near the bay and ongoing runoff from the surrounding watershed.

With no port or landfill space available, Miller said the city started working on plans to build a confined aquatic disposal site, better known as a CAD, to store the contaminated sediment.

The current plan

In plans it submitted to the Coastal Commission, Newport is asking that Army Corps crews be allowed to dig a CAD that’s 590 feet wide, 590 feet long and 46 feet deep in the center of the lower harbor, directly between Bay Island, Lido Isle and Harbor Island.

To create that pit, workers will clear an estimated 282,400 cubic yards of clean sand, most of which will be used to help replenish nearby beaches. They’ll then take the 112,500 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, drop it in the pit and cover it with a layer of clean sand that will serve as a barrier. That process is expected to take six months.

The red diamond on this map of Newport Harbor shows the location for a massive hole the city is proposing to dig into the seafloor to bury contaminated sediment dredged from nearby channels. (Image courtesy of Friends of Newport Harbor)
The red diamond on this map of Newport Harbor shows the location for a massive hole the city is proposing to dig into the seafloor to bury contaminated sediment dredged from nearby channels. (Image courtesy of Friends of Newport Harbor)

Eventually, the city aims to have three feet of clean sand on top of the CAD. But first, they saw an opportunity to give harbor residents and businesses — who often ask to dredge around their own properties to add docks or other facilities — an option to add sediment from those projects to the CAD. The city’s plan calls for adding another 50,000 cubic yards of that material to the underwater pit, with priority given for sediment that’s too contaminated to be dropped in the open sea.

Those projects will take time and require their own permits, though. So, for at least two years, the CAD will only have one foot of clean sand on top of it. Then, after those other dredging projects are permitted, and additional sediment is added, the final three-foot barrier will be added to the top.

That two-year (or longer) window is what particularly worries Chase, since one foot of sand isn’t enough to prevent boat anchors from potentially stirring up the contaminated material.

To reduce the chances of that happening, the city’s plan calls for temporarily deactivating the harbor’s two-year-old western anchorage area, between Lido and Bay islands. That means, for at least a couple of years, the harbor would revert to having only one mooring spot.

The alternatives

Opponents — including members of the Friends of Newport Harbor group, which was spearheaded by Luckey and received city approval last year to study the issue — have a range of concerns with the project.

“It keeps me up at night. I lose sleep over it. I shed tears over it,” said Shana Conzelman, a Lido Island resident and volunteer director with Friends of Newport Harbor.

“They say they’re cleaning up the bay,” she added. “But they’re just consolidating it all into one huge area, in the middle of an earthquake zone.”

While Miller says sediment testing was “rigorous” and followed all regulations, Brent Mardian, a marine scientist hired by Conzelman’s group, says, “There were just so many steps missed.” With more sampling that goes wider and deeper, Mardian thinks the city might actually have less contaminated sediment to worry about.

The Army Corps also won’t be able to dredge in that area again, Conzelman pointed out. So she worries about what the area will look like a couple generations down the line.

Instead, Conzelman’s group proposed several alternatives that involve moving the sediment on land, with proposals to develop projects around the sites that would add amenities for both residents and visitors.

Their favored plan calls for using the material, with lining and treatment as needed, to build a more substantial seawall in Newport’s Lower Castaways area, on land now owned by the city. They then recommend adding a park, maybe the city’s first visitors center, or a small launching spot for kayaks and stand-up paddle boards.

Miller said the city reviewed that option and doesn’t believe there’s enough space in Lower Castaways to hold all of the contaminated sediment. Plus, he said, the council has never voted on what to do with that land, so it’s technically not currently available for such a project.

Chase said she’d like to see the city thoroughly analyze promising options for cleaning the sediment rather than just moving it.

But before even getting to issues with the CAD, Chase said her organization is concerned that the Army Corps didn’t properly analyze how its dredging will impact endangered species such as the green sea turtle. They’re pushing for more analysis, and Chase said they’re ready to mount a legal challenge if needed.

Both groups also have concerns about stirring up these harmful chemicals both during dredging and in the process of putting contaminated material in the CAD. If mercury gets resuspended in the bay, Chase said, it could make its way into plants and fish and on up the food chain.

To limit such problems, Coastal Commission staff is proposing conditions of approval for the project permit that include requiring the Army Corps to place silt screens around the area and not to work during extreme tides.

Residents who want to weigh in on the project have until 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, to submit written comments to the Coastal Commission by clicking the “submit comments” button at the end of item 13(b) on the online agenda for the upcoming meeting. They can also voice comments by attending the meeting online or in person in Pismo Beach.

Newport also is still waiting on permits from the state water board and Army Corps. But since Coastal Commission permits are generally considered the hardest to get, if the project sails through that process next week, Newport will be well positioned to get final OKs later this month and for work to begin this fall.

Source: Orange County Register

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