The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has extended the public comment period for the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project until Feb. 3. According to a spokesperson, the initial 30-day public comment period, which was opened in early December and encompassed the holidays, was extended “due to media interest, public requests, and the request of the permit applicant.”
The applicant, the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA), is requesting a permit to discharge dredged material in a shallow area of upper Mobile Bay over a 20-year period to create 1,200-acres of wetlands. The proposal has drawn criticism from environmental groups and others, whose concerns include the project’s impact on the existing marine environment, a productive fish habitat adjacent to naturally emerging wetlands and seagrass beds.
According to ASPA Vice President of Internal and External Affairs Judith Adams, the ASPA’s request to extend the comment period provides for increased public and intergovernmental agency engagement.
“This wetland creation project is vitally important not only to the Port, but to community partners seeking environmental restoration and recreational enhancement opportunities,” Adams said in a statement Monday. “As such, we are committed to seeing that everyone has an opportunity to become engaged.”
As Lagniappe has previously reported, the ASPA adopted the project in 2020 after the USACE, the project’s original sponsor, abandoned the proposal after initial studies had been completed and funding had been secured.
Engineering for the project has been funded by a $2.5 million grant from the RESTORE Act, settlement money available as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill. ASPA has touted the project as a cost-saving measure for its handling of dredged material, but also as a benefit for the environment. Currently, material dredged from the harbor is dewatered in one of several containment areas near the Mobile River, before it is trucked elsewhere for reuse or disposal.
“Utilizing dredged sediment to create wetlands rather than losing it to upland or open-water management areas is a wise use of this valuable Alabama natural resource,” Adams wrote. “Benefits resulting from this wetland creation project include improved water quality, more habitat for living coastal and marine organisms, and improved dredging practices that support navigation-related industries and thus the region’s economy.”
But others, including Mobile Baykeeper, the Sierra Club and the city of Spanish Fort, have expressed concerns about public awareness of the project, as well as its resiliency to tropical weather and sea level rise, potential effects to the natural habitat in the project area, and possible alternatives, among other things. One major concern is the presence of subaquatic vegetation (SAV) in the area, which studies have shown as increasing south of the Causeway in recent years.
Last week, retired USACE biologist Glen Coffee, who previously served as a consultant on a project to dredge the San Francisco Bay shipping channel, submitted a letter to the Corps arguing it should be considered a “significant undertaking,” triggering regulations requiring a comprehensive Environment Impact Statement (EIS), rather than a less strenuous Environmental Assessment (EA). Further, Coffee believes the proposal should be subject to a public hearing.
“I fear there will be a concerted effort to pursue an EA for this project to prohibit an objective, comprehensive environmental review, as well as avoiding public participation and discourse in the decision to grant, modify, or reject the permit request,” Coffee wrote. “I am aware that development of the proposed project has been underway with the full involvement of the District staff for over a decade. However, the public has consistently been intentionally excluded from being both informed and involved as it was formulated and alternative sites, if any, were considered and/or rejected.”
In previous correspondence, ASPA has defended its public notice of the project, which includes the project’s application in the RESTORE Act process, but also in discussions during interagency meetings with other community stakeholders since 2011. ASPA also sent letters to 20 local elected officials in May 2021 with a project overview and “multiple ways for concerned individuals to become engaged.”
A press release about the project was circulated the same month and in September of last year, the ASPA held a single, virtual public meeting on the project, which was attended by 18 people.
But when the USACE initially posted the public notice in early December, several elected officials told Lagniappe they were unaware of the plan, while some environmental organizations said they were unaware of the application and comment period. During its final meeting of 2021, the Spanish Fort City Council passed a resolution requesting an extension of the public comment period and on Monday, Mayor Mike McMillan said he was pleased with the result, but he is still waiting to hear more details about the dredge material and other aspects of the plan from the ASPA.
If the ASPA is successful in the permitting process, it anticipates seeking RESTORE Act funding to construct the first, 100-acre “cell” of the multi-celled project some time this year. Over the next two decades, the plan is to create dozens of 40- to 80-acre cells surrounded by rip-rap and filled in with dredged material. Once the material settles, designs call for some of the rip-rap to be removed and tidal creeks to be carved into the wetlands.
The project’s engineers, Moffat & Nichol, have likened the proposal to the much smaller Lightning Point wetland restoration project in Bayou La Batre and the more comparable, 1,140-acre Poplar Island, Maryland, in Chesapeake Bay. The latter project began in 1998 and is nearly complete today.
The USACE notes that any comments received will be considered “to determine whether to issue, modify, condition or deny a permit for this proposal. Comments, both favorable and unfavorable, will be accepted, made a part of the record, and receive full consideration in our evaluation of the proposed work.” All other aspects of the application remain unchanged.
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