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Assateague Island Project Comes in Two Phases, Both of Which Critics Attack

By Richard Todaro
Capital News Service
Friday, April 13, 2001

WASHINGTON - The ambitious Army Corps of Engineers plan to restore Assateague Island will first require a massive beach replenishment, followed by long-term management of the ebb and flow of sand to the island.

Both phases are being attacked by critics, who say that the first will damage a pristine offshore "oceanic wilderness" and that the second phase is unworkable "nonsense."

Phase one, which has a price tag of $17.2 million, is scheduled to run from this fall to November 2002. It calls for pumping 1.8 million cubic yards of sand on to the beach from Great Gull Bank, an underwater shoal located five miles off Assateague.

"Most of that material is for beach fill, but some goes to constructing additional storm berms," said Patricia Coury, project manager in the Corps' Baltimore district office. "Currently, there is an emergency berm, now located on the northern side of the island. It was built in 1998."

Phase two, the long-term management component, involves dredging 185,000 cubic yards annually from other sources. It is estimated to cost $1.6 million in the first year and about $1 million a year thereafter for the next 25 years.

The sand for phase two will primarily come from the sand shoals that have accumulated around jetties at the Ocean City inlet due to the interrupted sand flow.

The second phase involves the use of a so-called "by-passing" technique, in which a hopper dredge sucks up sand from the shoals. The ship then sails a few miles to the northern tip of Assateague where, in the words of one official, the hull literally "splits open" and deposits the sand -- many hundreds of cubic yards at a time -- into the surf zone.

The sand then flows southward as it would if the jetties were not in place.

Mike D'Amico of the Sierra Club criticized the corps for taking sand for the first phase from Great Gull Bank, which he says is home to a variety of fish species, such as striped bass and summer flounder.

D'Amico said Great Gull Bank is one of the mid-Atlantic "relic shoals created in the last ice age when sea levels were much lower and it is being sacrificed in order to mitigate the negative effects of the 1934 navigation project.

"The Sierra Club finds it unacceptable that the corps is destroying critical marine habitat in what appears to be a mitigation-for-navigation project coupled with a failure to deal with the real problem, which is the trapping of sand on the north side of the inlet," D'Amico said.

"We believe the corps is abrogating its responsibilities to assess cumulative effects, especially on these projects' impact on essential fish habitat, both federally managed species of fish and threatened and endangered fish," he said.

But the web site for the corps' Baltimore district claims that the 1.8 million cubic yards of sand that would be need for the first phase represent just 3 percent of the 56 million cubic yards that make up Great Gull Bank. In addition, only 29 million of the 56 million cubic yards is deemed "usable for fill beach."

As for the second phase, renowned Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey denounced the "sand-by passing" technique as "nonsense." Pilkey said by- passing techniques do not work simply because too much sand goes right back out to sea.

"We hear about by-passing, but it doesn't work. That is because a lot of sand goes out to sea. It is nonsense," Pilkey said. "To a slight extent, they help. Usually, they claim it is going to `solve' the problem, but it can't because a lot of sand is lost out to sea."

He said thousands or even millions of cubic yards can be transported along a jetty and out to sea during a big storm.

Carl Zimmerman of the National Park Service's Assateague Island National Seashore said he has a "great deal of respect" for Pilkey for being an "outspoken critic of projects that don't make sense." But he disagreed that most of the sand is lost to sea, saying the volume of sand that has gathered around the Ocean City Inlet jetties "is pretty reflective of the amount of material that has entered the inlet from the north."

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