Opinion: Why Is the DEP Pushing to Dump ‘Dredge Spoils’ in West Creek?

R. William Potter | August 10, 2018 | Opinion
Stopping the state agency from dumping foul-smelling muck in this community is a perfect chance for Murphy administration to demonstrate its green credentials

Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter
How would you react if the state Department of Environmental Protection granted permits for construction of a massive, open-air garbage dump for tons of smelly river-bottom muck — called “dredge spoils” — directly across the street from where you live?

No doubt you would be stunned and angry. After all, the DEP was created to protect the environment, not despoil it. But what if it was threatening your health and destroying your property values by siting a dredge-spoils dump (euphemistically labeled a “confined disposal facility) in your pristine neighborhood?

Doubtless once the shock wore off, you would do everything in your power to defend yourself, your family, and your property against this threat.

Fighting the filth

That is exactly what a small but determined group of homeowners in the coastal hamlet of West Creek on the shores of Barnegat Bay in Ocean County have been doing since October 2011, when one office within the DEP granted approval for another office in the DEP (later transferred to the Department of Transportation) to build and operate a CDF dump.

These homeowners have been joined and supported in their legal battles — including multiple lawsuits filed by this attorney — by two of the leading environmental groups in the Garden State: the New Jersey Conservation Foundation and Environment New Jersey. In addition, the Save Barnegat Bay Coalition and Clean Ocean Action have also expressed their strong opposition to the West Creek CDF.

The planned CDF dump, which would be encircled 20-foot-high earth berms, would be located directly across a 24-foot-wide road from homeowners. On the other side, it would be adjacent to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, home to dozens of threatened or endangered species.

But there’s an even more significant objection. This CDF is not needed. In fact, all CDFs may be unnecessary.

Taking the green alternative

The DEP is well aware of viable green alternatives to dumping dredge material in CDFs. In this approach, dredge spoils would be “dewatered” before being excavated and trucked to so-called beneficial-reuse sites, such as road construction projects and building foundations. Meanwhile, still more dredge material could be dewatered, excavated, and trucked out — in a potentially never-ending cycle.

The DEP knows better. But its battle to establish the West Creek CDF flies in the face of its own experience and recommended practices.

On April 4, 2018, the DEP announced completion in record time of an $18.4 million project to restore Long Beach Island beaches and dunes with material from dredging a channel for bigger boats to travel through Little Egg Inlet.

In the press release a DEP official extolled this “important project that serves a twofold purpose of repairing beaches and dunes to better protect communities on Long Beach Island from storms, while also clearing shoals that forced the Coast Guard last year to declare Little Egg Inlet unsafe for boating traffic.”

Do it by the book

As far back as 1997, the DEP published a dredging manual that called for the direct application of dredge material for “beach nourishment and habitat replacement” among many other non-CDF uses.

Recognizing that dredge material can be a “beneficial resource,” the DEP and the DOT signed a memorandum of agreement in 2006 committing the two agencies to promote “regional approaches to dredge materials management … and to identify beneficial use opportunities” that do not involve the intermediate step of a CDF.

In 2015 the DEP updated its 1997 manual and stated: “As dredge material can be considered a resource the DEP strongly supports its use, wherever possible, as opposed to exclusive reliance on confined disposal facilities,” such as the planned West Creek site.

Among the “beneficial alternatives” identified by the DEP is the “direct application” of wet dredge material to create “living shorelines” through such measures as “thin layer placement” on eroded coastal wetlands and marshlands that are suffering from pollution and sea-level rise.

As recently as 2016 the DEP’s Office of Science published a study critical of CDFs, stating, for example, that “utilizing dredge material to enhance intertidal wetlands within Barnegat Bay is timely due to the ever decreasing capacity of (CDFs) to accommodate increased dredging needs … These wetlands are an important natural resource that provides ecological benefits … and they serve as a natural buffer to reduce coastal flood risk” from severe storms — including the next Hurricane Sandy.

I could go on and on describing still more studies, pilot projects, and direct-placement options that collectively reveal that CDFs are an obsolete 20th century solution to channel-silting problems that can be met with 21st century alternatives, simply by treating dredge material as a valuable natural resource and not as a nasty waste product to be dumped across the street from homes purchased without any notice of a CDF someday being built in their midst.

This brings us to the fundamental question: Why is the DEP even considering handing out permits to the DOT to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on this monstrosity, leading to another decade of litigation, without reviewing ecologically superior alternatives, such as those listed above?

Gov. Phil Murphy was elected with the energetic support of New Jersey’s environmental community. He has appointed a career environmental attorney, Catherine McCabe, as the DEP commissioner. It’s time for them to live up to their green credentials by rejecting the planned West Creek CDF and fully embracing a rich variety of beneficial alternatives.