GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 6, 2013

Sand 'mining' eyed as Plum Island remedy

By Dyke Hendrickson
Staff Writer

---- — NEWBURY — Plum Island residents seeking a sustainable solution to havoc brought on by erosion have developed a proposal for a pilot program to “mine” sand so that replenished dunes can protect seaside homes.

Marc Sarkady, who heads the Plum Island Foundation, said that drawings and engineering studies were submitted Wednesday to top officials of the Department of Environmental Protection, including DEP Commissioner Ken Kimmell.

DEP made no decision at the session, held in state offices in Boston, but Sarkady said the decision-makers listened closely.

“This wasn’t just an abstract conversation,” said Sarkady, a Washington-based lawyer who has a home at 50 Northern Blvd. on the island. “DEP officials were open and responsive, and listened attentively and asked questions.”

Gloucester-based state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, whose district includes Plum Island and who has been active in seeking to develop a response to erosion issues there and elsewhere, including across Cape Ann, termed the meeting “a step forward.”

“Officials of the DEP heard from us that we’d like a decision as soon as possible.” said Tarr, who also serves as co-chair of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. “We had a good representation, and (engineer) David Vine and (Northeastern) Professor Peter Rosen did a good job in providing scientific information to support the mining proposal.”

Mining is an exercise in which heavy equipment enters the beach at low tide and scoops up large amounts of sand. That sand is dumped near the high-tide mark in an effort to build up dunes that have been diminished by erosion.

Longtime residents of the island say this practice was carried out effectively in the late ‘70s. One homeowner said that in the past, seaside dwellers dug out depressions that were “big enough to bury a battleship.”

But state officials discouraged the process in the late ‘90s, islanders say. Indeed, as frequently as three months ago, homeowners were required to apply for a state permit just to “scrape” sand toward the dunes.

The idea of mining hadn’t been broached until after the last significant winter storm, which fostered enough erosion-caused damage to ruin numerous houses. Six houses were destroyed and removed, and about 20 are still vulnerable.

As a result of this damage, numerous residents on the Newbury end of the island are earnestly pressing members of the DEP to permit mining as a means to sustain beaches and dunes.

All mining activity would be paid by homeowners, members of the Foundation say.

The pilot program would involve mining of a 400 to 500-foot stretch of beach south of the island groin.

Sarkady said that the results would be studied by local and state officials, and analysis would continue from there.

Joe Story, chairman of the Newbury Board of Selectmen, noted that the idea isn’t new, adding that “it would be another tool in the bag if we could do this mining.”

“It was encouraging that the DEP invited us in to talk,” he added, “and we told them that we are hoping for a decision very quickly.”

North Shore residents in many coastal communities are seeking new strategies to counter erosion following a winter where four storms created an unusual amount of erosion — and subsequent damage of homes. But erosion is not the only phenomenon occurring on the coast. Aerial photos show that great masses of sand have been moving off Plum Island this winter, creating new sandbars and larger beaches in some areas.

Vine, a principal with GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. who worked on the proposal to the DEP, said, “The goal of the project is to restore the dune. We won’t be lowering the beach level.”

The engineer, who lives in Newburyport, said that the size of a depression would not be big enough to bury a battleship, as has been suggested.

But heavy equipment will be involved.

Authors of the proposal say that bulldozers and bucket loaders would be employed to gather sand at low tide, and relocate it to the dunes. The number of machines that would be required has not been finalized.

Dyke Hendrickson can be reached via email at dhendrickson@gloucestertimes.com.