Improving Dredge Policy in Rhode Island

50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Improving Dredge Policy in Rhode Island

by Chris Cassaday, communications intern

The dredging of shipping channels and marinas is essential for commerce in Narragansett Bay. The challenge doing it in a way that protects the Bay’s unique ecosystems. In 1990s, the Providence River shipping channel was rapidly silting in and becoming unsafe for navigation. The many marinas around the Bay were facing the same problem. But when Save The Bay learned about dredge disposal options that would pose a direct threat to Bay habitats, we sprang into action. Our advocacy against these plans, and for alternatives that would better protect the Bay, forever changed the way dredging projects take place throughout Rhode Island. Now, rather than being conveniently dumped throughout the Bay, dredge material can be used on land and supports economic development in the process.

A Unique Habitat Near Hog Island

Hog Island Dredge Site
The East Passage site, highlighted in blue, where 4.4 million cubic yards of dredged spoils would be dumped.

Nestled in the middle of the Bay between Bristol and Newport, Hog Island is surrounded by deepwater benthic (bottom) habitats that dot the mid and upper Bay. Benthic habitats support a diverse community of invertebrates, crustaceans, and shellfish that live in and on the sediments. A 70-foot depression offshore of Hog Island, roughly 30 feet deeper than average Bay depths, provides a unique cold-water refuge for lobsters and fish in the warm summer months and is a prime area for commercial lobstering and shellfishing.

In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to dredge 5.6 million cubic yards of the Providence River and dump nearly all of it into the depression, creating a mound 430 acres—roughly 325 football fields—wide and 25 feet thick. The Corps predicted that the disposal area would recover over time, but Save The Bay and our allies met that prediction with great skepticism. The Hog Island habitat is intensively fished, and knowledgeable fishermen point to the site as a critical habitat for juvenile tautog. Filling it in would irrevocably jeopardize its value as a temperature refuge.

The Army Corps plan was met with stiff opposition from Save The Bay, as well as several East Bay communities, fishermen and environmental groups. Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Senator John Chafee, and Governor Lincoln Almond joined the rising tide of opposition. “I am gravely concerned about the possible threats to our natural habitat,” said Congressman Kennedy. “…the proposal to dump dredge material into the so-called Hog Island site… is simply unacceptable.”

New Alternatives, New Policy for Dredge Disposal

Several important events followed. First, an offshore dredge disposal site, known as “69B,” was established nine miles south of the Rhode Island coast to accept dredge material deemed environmentally safe for disposal. But state and federal regulatory agencies deemed much of the Providence River shipping channel material too contaminated for open water disposal. As the river continued to silt in, pressure mounted for an alternative. Finally, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a unique new approach: creating giant holes in the rock deep below the bottom of the Providence River where the most contaminated dredge spoils would be dumped and then covered up with cleaner, suitable material. These subterranean sites, known as Confined Aquatic Disposal cells, or CADs, became the solution.

The CAD solution also provided short term relief for marinas, saving them the time and money it would have taken to barge their dredge material out to 69B. But CADs did not address the underlying challenge of preventing future “Hog Island” proposals. So Save The Bay set out to change dredging policy so that Narragansett Bay would be the absolute last resort for dredge disposal. A years-long standoff between Save The Bay and the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association ended when the two organizations worked together with the Rhode Island General Assembly to establish, in law, a “hierarchy” of dredge disposal options. At the top of the hierarchy was “beneficial use” of dredge material on land, for landfill cover and other projects. For example, dredged material was used as a base for the athletic fields of Johnson and Wales University near the Save The Bay Center in Providence

Dredging shipping channels is essential for the marine economy. But it can be a very damaging process. Done correctly, with the environment in mind, it can be beneficial to development projects. Save The Bay has fought to protect the Bay from dredge plans that would have damaged the environment for many years, and will continue to do so to protect the Bay and its habitats from being buried in sedimentary spoils.

*Please note:  Be sure to access the Johnson & Wales University Harborside Campus through the main entrance on Harborside Blvd. Your GPS may suggest taking Ernest Street to JWU’s Shipyard Street entrance, but that route requires a key card for entry.  

From Route I-95 North or South, take Exit 18 (Thurbers Avenue). Head downhill on Thurbers Avenue to US Route 1A (Allens Avenue). Turn right onto Allens Ave. Continue southbound on Allens Ave. into Cranston, where Allens Ave. becomes Narragansett Blvd. Turn left onto Harborside Blvd. at the traffic light by the Shell gas station. Follow Harborside Blvd. through the Johnson & Wales Harborside Campus. At the end of Harborside Blvd., turn right onto Save The Bay Drive. Save The Bay Drive becomes a circular, one-way roadway as you approach the Bay Center. Parking is available in four guest lots after you pass the main building. Enter the building through the main entrance.