The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Mobile District, the federal agency tasked with reviewing the permit application for the Alabama Port Authority’s (APA) proposed 1,200-acre Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project, may itself benefit from the transformative disposal site if it’s approved, staff members acknowledged this week in response to a series of questions sent by Lagniappe.
As Lagniappe previously reported, the Corps and Port are among the members of the Mobile Harbor Interagency Working Group (IWG), which began to discuss “beneficial use” of dredged material from the Port of Mobile and federal navigation channel in 2011. Reportedly, existing upland dredge disposal sites along the Mobile River are at or near capacity, and as authorities began to consider a project to deepen and widen the federal navigation channel, a long-term solution was also sought for maintenance dredge material.
Although other options were considered, sometime around 2014, officials settled upon the proposed Upper Mobile Bay site, in shallow water about a mile and a half south of the Causeway. As the project’s sponsor, the Corps initially sought and obtained $2.5 million from the RESTORE Act’s federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council to design and engineer the site, but the agency disclosed this week it abandoned the project due to “administrative costs.”
Instead, the Port Authority adopted the proposal, and eventually secured the same funding through the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, the RESTORE Act’s statewide administrator.
As the Port Authority explained, the proposed wetland creation project is unrelated to the USACE’s ongoing channel widening and deepening project, but both agencies have now acknowledged material dredged in the future, from Port Authority public berths, private berths and the deepened and widened federal navigation channel may eventually be disposed of in the project area.
Each agency has its own responsibilities to dredge certain areas, and the Corps is responsible for the main federal navigation channel. Each year, it removes approximately 5.7 million cubic yards of sediment from Mobile River, Mobile Bay and Dixie Bar near Dauphin Island.
Prior to 2013, the Corps reported, material it dredged from the bay was transported to the Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site (ODMDS) utilizing hopper dredges.
“This method is not the most efficient for dredging in the upper bay and was found to ‘starve’ the bay of needed sediment,” Corps Public Affairs & Media Relations Chief Dustin Gautney wrote. “By placing dredged material in the open water sites, the material remains in the bay which is more environmentally sustainable.”
But more recently, like the Port Authority, the Corps has maintained a 30-year capacity at upland disposal sites through “aggressive annual maintenance activities.” Disposal sites at capacity may continue to be used if material is repurposed or removed, Port Authority Vice President of Internal and External Affairs Judith Adams explained, but it is an expensive process.
Gautney said the Corps hasn’t participated in an IWG meeting since 2014 or 2015, but “continually attempts to identify beneficial use opportunities.” He also acknowledged the agency may eventually use the site.
“In the future, USACE will collaborate with ASPA and may utilize the Upper Bay Wetland Site,” he wrote. “If used, dredged material will be tested for its physical, chemical and biological make-up to determine its suitability for placement.”
In response to questions last month, Adams said “it’s just too early in the planning process to consider negotiation of contracts,” but should the Port Authority accept dredged material from other agencies, it “will have to be permitted for ‘open water disposal’ by EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] standards.”
The project has come under fire from environmentalists who argue it will destroy an already productive marine habitat in two to six feet of water where wetlands have an opportunity to appear naturally. There were also concerns about submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) adjacent to the project area, but permit restrictions prevent the applicant from impacting sea grass beds.
As a part of the project, the Port Authority reviewed submerged aquatic vegetation surveys from 2002 to 2019. They also conducted 70 soil borings for a geotechnical survey, mapped the elevations of the bay bottom and performed a cultural resource assessment. But opponents are seeking a more comprehensive environmental impact study.
Among other things, the Corps is expected to independently evaluate the project for a public hearing and either an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or less strenuous Environmental Assessment (EA) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Gautney said as the permitting agency, the Corps is a “neutral party in the request and will take consideration from all comments, inquiries, etc., before making a decision to either approve or disapprove of the permit request,” and he further explained the considerations for a rigorous environmental impact study.
“A federal agency prepares an EA when the impacts of a federal action are unknown, uncertain or not likely to have a significant impact on the human environment,” he wrote. “A federal agency prepares an EIS if a proposed major federal action is determined to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. In cases where the significance of environmental impacts is uncertain, the Corps will proceed with its environmental analysis and prepare an EA to determine if a Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI) is justified. If a FONSI is justified, the Corps will conclude its evaluation and issue a permit decision. If a FONSI is not justified, the Corps will continue the NEPA environmental analysis and prepare an EIS before issuing a Record of Decision.”
Gautney further explained there is “no specific category or type of project that automatically requires preparation of an EIS,” but in determining the significance of an action, “the Corps must consider the potentially affected environment and the degree of effects.”
“Evaluation of the potentially affected environment includes consideration of physical and ecological resources, socioeconomic impacts, and setting (national, regional or local),” he wrote. “Significance varies with the setting of the proposed action. Evaluation of the degree of effects includes consideration of short/long-term effects, adverse/beneficial effects, effects on public health and safety, and effects that would violate federal, state, tribal or local law protecting the environment.”
Last week, the Corps extended the public comment period on the Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project until Feb. 3.
This page is available to our subscribers. Join us right now to get the latest local news from local reporters for local readers.
The best deal is found by clicking here. Click here right now to find out more. Check it out.
Already a member of the Lagniappe family? Sign in by clicking here