Talk about a 180. It took around 22 minutes Monday for environmental journalist and filmmaker Ben Raines to shift from enthusiastic support of the Alabama State Port Authority’s (ASPA) proposed Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project to someone calling it “idiotic” and “outrageous.”
What changed? He saw the plan for himself.
During a virtual public meeting in September, ASPA unveiled its proposal to create a 1,200-acre “beneficial use area” for dredge material about a mile south of the Causeway. Touted as a cost-saving measure for the port and an opportunity to reintroduce wetland habitat to an area where it once thrived naturally, ASPA’s 20-year plan is to pump millions of cubic yards of dredge material from the mouth of the Mobile River to a shallow area of upper Mobile Bay, filling in dozens of 40-acre “cells” encompassed by rip-rap containment dikes.
The Port Authority received $2.5 million in Restore Act funds to plan the project and very quietly last week, just in time for the holidays, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a 30-day public comment period on the transformative proposal.
Curiously, although the site’s footprint will be twice as large as Alabama Power’s coal ash pond at Plant Barry and the project will change both the geography and hydrology of the bay, ASPA’s plan has received virtually no media attention, and none of the area’s environmental or economic development organizations have implemented any public campaign in support or opposition.
When first contacted Monday, Raines said he initially learned about the plan years ago, during early discussions about deepening and widening the shipping channel.
“I thought it was a great idea as soon as I heard it,” he said, noting the artificial Gaillard Island nearby was controversial when it was proposed as a dredge disposal site for the Theodore Industrial Canal in the 1980s, but it has since become a “huge success story” for nesting shorebirds and is a common destination for fishermen.
“One of the biggest problems we have is loss of bird habitat and now each year, there are some 30,000 pairs of pelicans nesting on Gaillard Island, with probably 100,000 pairs of gulls, terns, ibis and other birds,” Raines said. “Plus it provides an increasingly rare shoreline — rip-rap but without a bulkhead — that creates fish habitat.”
Raines assumed ASPA’s project was similar, placing the dredged material in water nine to 12 feet deep, well away from emergent grass beds immediately south of the Causeway. But he hadn’t seen it. After Monday’s phone call ended, Lagniappe sent Raines a link to the Corps of Engineers’ public notice. Less than a half-hour later, he called back.
“This is awful,” he said, after seeing a map indicating ASPA intends to dump the dredge in water just two to six feet deep, where Raines knows there are submerged aquatic grasses.
“This is robbing the transition area between the flats and deeper water … that area is all seagrasses and a hugely powerful habitat,” he said. “This is idiotic to me, and the only reason for them to put it there is because it’s closer to the port and probably cheaper. Mobile Bay has already lost 50 percent of its seagrass meadows and the fact they would put this on top of any seagrass in the upper part of the bay is outrageous. The Corps has a long history of doing the cheapest thing possible in the way of saving money.”Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation_VirtMeeting1_09102021 (1)
Mobile Baykeeper had issued no public statement about ASPA’s dredge disposal plan before Lagniappe contacted the group this week.
“We do have some concerns about it,” Baykeeper and Interim Director Cade Kistler said. “My hope is it ends up being a great restoration project, but my biggest concern right off the bat is the impetus is not because it’s the best thing to do for the environment and the best place to do it, but rather the Corps and the port would like to save money on transportation costs for dredge spoils.
“You’re taking a known and substituting an unknown. It sounds amazing in concept and when it works it’s awesome, but there is no guarantee you’re going to get the result you’re hoping for, especially in a really dynamic environment with wind, waves, storms, boats and shifting sands.”
Kistler said he had additional concerns about contaminants in the dredge material, the potential effects of sea-level rise on the project, and the lack of information about details.
“I think there needs to be more time before this project moves forward for permitting as it is now,” he said. “Mobile Baykeeper will have more information on our position and comments for the public to take action on this issue in the next week or so.”
Similarly, the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP) is also quiet about the project. MBNEP Communications Manager Herndon Graddick could only say the project has been in the works since at least 2014, and although the plan has changed, the current proposal is “based on a lot of research” and science. He said the organization intends to submit a letter of support. John Manelos, president of a new statewide water quality initiative called Clean Water Alabama, had not heard of the project when contacted this week.
ASPA Vice President of Internal/External Affairs Judith Adams could not immediately provide additional information about the proposed location of the site or details of the port’s alleged cost savings this week, but said the project has been transparent and vetted by several community partners.
A condition of the permit suggests the site “shall not fill within environmentally sensitive areas including existing subaquatic vegetation beds or existing wetlands,” and an accompanying map indicates seagrass beds are northwest of the site.
Adams noted the Corps’ permit will allow the port to begin construction and suggested the project’s website, uppermobaywetlands.com, can provide subscribers regular updates.
“I believe there is going to be another public meeting. I can’t help it if the damn press won’t report on stuff,” she said. “I’m thinking about putting out a press release to raise awareness.”
At the time this article was published, the project’s website still noted “currently, field investigations, studies and conceptual design tasks are being completed along with public education and outreach.” It does not mention the open public comment period or provide the detailed engineering drawing included in the Corps of Engineers’ permit application. ASPA’s own Facebook page only provides a link to the website and no other details.
“This isn’t something we’re hiding behind or trying to push through,” Adams said, adding there are looming deadlines associated with the Restore Act money. “This permit process will have more public engagement and we’re hoping for in-person meetings.”
Later Tuesday, Meg Goecker of the engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol, said 20 years of data indicates the grass beds are outside the project area and “we have a pretty strong directive to avoid any kind of sea grass impact.”
“We hope the project itself will help the area become more acquiescent so more [sea grasses] can grow, honestly. The whole plan is to be a habitat-friendly project but upfront, we’re definitely avoiding placing material on top of any existing submerged aquatic vegetation.”
Moffatt & Nichol’s Mary Beth Sullivan said from an engineering perspective, building the site in deeper water would result in more expensive containment construction costs.
“It is a balancing act that we’re wanting to be deep enough to provide the capacity, but not so deep that it’s cost prohibitive,” Sullivan said. “We feel we hit that balance.”
The public comment period ends Jan. 3.
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