You dredge, deepen and extend the New Haven harbor channel to bring in bigger ships leading to more efficient business.
Then you take the sand, silt, and other stuff you’ve hauled out of the depths and use it to shore up washing away beaches, to create new shellfish habitats and salt marshes. Who knows? Maybe you even find three of Fort Hale’s three missing 1779 cannon.
That rosy picture of an invigorated harbor all depends on one big “if”: If the dredged out material is biologically safe —non-toxic, and suitable for such beneficial uses.
That maritime hope tinged with anxiety animated a public information session convened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ports of Authority of the state and city.
About 50 people gathered in the auditorium of the Nathan Hale School Wednesday night for a status report on the “National Environmental Policy Act Scoping New Haven Harbor Navigation Improvement Feasibility Study and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”
That mouthful is a $3 million study, shared equally by the feds and the state, with no cost to the city, to deepen New Haven’s main harbor channel from its current 35-foot depth to depths up to 42 feet.
The study has been in the works for about a year and a half. The purpose is to come up with a recommendation to Congress on improvements aimed at bringing a more competitive maritime infrastructure to the harbor, while not harming and even enhancing the harbor through environmentally sensitive use of the dredged up stuff. The eventual project would cost an estimated $40-$80 million.
The draft of the study will be published in the spring, with more hearings around the time of its release. If approved, the recommendation would go to Congress in 2019, but work would not begin until 2023, said the moderator of the evening’s proceedings, Mark Habel, chief of the Corps’s Navigation and Environmental Studies Section.
The current main channel was dredged in the 1950s when ships were smaller. Today’s petroleum and dry bulk cargo vessels often have to wait for high tide to enter the harbor, or off-load, technically called “lighter” their cargo, out beyond the breakwater before entering the channel. In addition there is a bend in the current main channel that is dicey for the big ships to navigate.
Nearly everyone at the gathering agreed that straightening the channel will bring a more competitive maritime infrastructure to the harbor. The plan was cautiously praised by about a dozen members of the public who spoke after formal PowerPoint presentations.
“I’m all for this,” said Ned Taylor, president of Fort Nathan Hale Restoration Projects, Inc, “I want more business in New Haven. I’m worried about the material dredged up. Where you going to put it? I’m worried about pollution. There are signs that the shellfish are polluted. The fishermen are telling me the worms are gone.”
He pointed out that Fort Nathan Hale juts right out close to the channel and his crews have to deal with the 1950s era muck each time they put in a bench post. Still he was very much for the project. If the dredgers came across some 1779-era cannon, at the water’s bottom, they’re likely the ones missing from the fort, he added.
Taylor’s concern about pollution was reflected in the comments of many others. It could not be allayed, at least not yet.
While extensive core samples have been taken and were described in detail at the meeting, Corps marine ecologist Todd Randall reported that the biological and chemical tests from the samples are not yet available. They are to be analyzed and be included in the draft of the study, to be published in April.
Preliminarily, Randall said, the silty sand that would emerge would not be appropriate for beaches, but would work well in layering several sites in the harbor, near the breakwater, for example, and perhaps at Sandy Point, to make them more suitable habitat for oysters and other shell fish.
Of particular concern to Morris Cove area residents was whether—and with what kinds of dredged material—the large “borrow pit” right off the Pardee Seawall might be filled.
In 2011, neighbors rallied against a Corps plan to utilize the pit as a site to dump 250,000 cubic yards of dredged material from Bridgeport’s harbor. Neighbors feared that when storms come and low-lying houses suffer flooded basements, poisons will drift in on the waves.
Habel said the Corps has plans to fill the pit only with silty sand and only if it passes all the tests required by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“I’m delighted to see for the first time the plan to fill the borrow pit with clean fill,” said Renata Dix.
“As long as that borrow pit is there, somebody is going to fill it. We heard you [ in your protest against the proposed Bridgeport dump]. We are not going to put material in there that the Connecticut D.E.E.P. doesn’t approve,” Habel assured the audience.
Right now the plan is to take material immediately adjacent to the borrow pit and bring it up to the levels around, he added.
More than one speaker referred to old-timers who now catch flat fish that are tinged with petroleum. Activist Chris Ozyck cautioned that what is good for business for the Port of New Haven is not necessarily good for the city’s residents.
Michael Pimer, the city’s harbormaster for the past 16 years, offered strong approval. His son Bob, a pilot and tug boat captain, termed the plan “a godsend.”
City Parks and Recreation Outdoor Coordinator Martin Torresquintero asked the Corps’s staff to take into consideration the increasingly popular paddling sports in the harbor and the impact of the plan on wildlife, especially the new arrivals to the area like bald eagles and snowy owls. He urged a clear delineation of the channel when its route is complete. Kayaks and motored boats don’t mix, he said.
Morris Covers Julia Merk and Linda Pinsky were more pessimistic than their neighbors. Merk asked the presenters if they are comfortable supporting this project “in water your kids played in.” Even though Randall and several other presenters answered in the affirmative, Merk said she was disappointed. The absence at this information session of the results of the chemical tests of the to-be-dredged material showed a lack of transparency and bad faith, she added.
Pinsky, a nurse and self-described lover of Morris Cove, took a firm stand against the plan: “Please stop polluting it. Move on. Go to other harbors. We don’t need more boats polluting, throwing bottles [overboard] that wash up on our beaches. We want a quiet, sleepy beautiful town to make money from tourism.”
The Corps has done maintenance dredging of the current channel every decade or so since it was last deepened in the 1950s, and it would continue to do so, maintaining the new channel, along with a “turning basin” in front of the ship terminals, also in need of deepening.
If the project is ultimately approved by Congress, depending on the depth of the channel decided upon, the cost of the actual work would run between $40 and $80 million.
More details on the project along with the draft of the study, when it is published in April, are available on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New England District site: