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Saugatuck River Dredging on Hold

Posted on October 25, 2016

By Chris Marquette, Westport News

Levels of potentially harmful chemical compounds have been found in the sediment of the Saugatuck River, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to require further testing before the town can have the waterway dredged.

The Saugatuck River has not been dredged in 47 years, but has been a “high-priority item for Westport’s citizens” since First Selectman Jim Marpe entered office in 2013, according to Town Operations Director Dewey Loselle.

Dredging plays an important role in the town’s Downtown Master Plan because it would provide access for boats to navigate the river, even during low tide. The plan calls for a barge restaurant south of the Saugatuck River Bridge and a public dock south of the Post Road Bridge near Jessup Green — the endeavors are contingent upon dredging.

The further testing puts a hold on the town’s plans to dredge 25,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Saugatuck in hopes of making the river more navigable from the Post Road Bridge to the harbor. The river was last dredged in the winter of 1969-70, when a similar amount of sediment was deposited into a disposal site in Long Island Sound, according to Jack Karalius, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project manager for the Saugatuck dredging.

According to a report commissioned last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the Saguatuck sediment were found to be beyond accepted criteria.

PAHs are “highly potent carcinogens that can produce tumors in some organisms at even single doses; but other non-cancer-causing effects are not well understood,” according to the EPA’s website.

They can also be quite damaging to marine life. “Fish exposed to PAH contamination have exhibited fin erosion, liver abnormalities, cataracts, and immune system impairments leading to increased susceptibility to disease,” the EPA has found.

Harmful, but often found

Although PAHs can be quite harmful to the environment, they are often found in rivers across the state.

Curt Johnson, executive director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Save the Sound program, said, “PAHs are not unusual to be found in sediments in Connecticut rivers.”

He noted that roofs, roads and parking lots contain PAHs in the asphalt, and those compounds are often in the sediment in more urbanized areas, like Saugatuck.

“PAHs tend to be contained in asphalt-like materials,” Johnson said.

Save the Sound has an interactive feature called the Sound Health Explorer. Users can pick a site, like the Saugatuck River, and see, for example, how much of the river basin is covered by impenetrable materials such as asphalt, stone or rooftops, which creates runoff, rather than allowing water to be absorbed into the ground. The Saugatuck River contains 12.9 percent impervious surfaces while the Norwalk River contains 13.4 percent, according to the Sound Health Explorer.

“Thirteen percent of the Saugatuck River is basically asphalt — roofs, parking lots and streets,” Johnson said.

”Once you get over 10 percent impervious surfaces, it’s not unusual to start seeing impairments (increased PAHs). It’s not unusual. It’s not surprising to me,” Johnson said.

New test, new results

In 2004, the Corps of Engineers spent over $200,000 testing the sediment in the Saugatuck River to see if it was suitable to be dredged again and deposited in Long Island Sound. The test determined the sediment was cleared, but, because the Saugatuck project was not a priority, the initiative was put on the back burner until Town Operations Director Dewey Loselle inquired about dredging in 2013. Because so much time had passed since the last test, the EPA required additional testing, which was done in May 2015.

Karalius said that compared to the 2004 results, the 2015 test showed that “some of the dirtier sediment appeared to move downstream” and “in most cases all of the PAH levels downstream are higher,” meaning closer to the bridge carrying Interstate 95. One PAH, Acenaphthylene, tested twice as high as it was in 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers’ project manager said.

“The EPA wants much more additional testing. So that’s where we stand now,” Karalius said.

Char Miller, W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said the EPA’s request for further testing is cause for concern.

“The fact that the EPA needs another study is a red flag because they wouldn’t do this unless they saw something of significance in those elevated levels,” Miller said. “We know it’s of significance because they have asked the Army Corps to spend money that hasn’t been encumbered since the study.”

Karalius, in a June email to Loselle, said that the additional testing could cost as much as $100,000.

Cause for concern?

Loselle said he was surprised about the presence of PAHs, but maintained it is of no danger to the public.

“We’re concerned that it was a surprise to find that the PAHs were there and we are looking forward to the (Corps) and the EPA to figure out how to properly dispose of them,” Loselle said.

He also blamed the PAHs on the nearby highway.

“The PAHs are the result of oil and gasoline and other residues and trucks that have gone over the I-95 bridge that gets washed into water and the sediment and settles down at the bottom of the river,” Loselle said.

Miller said it is imperative to find out what the source of the PAHs are and what the plan is for the spoiled sediment. “The toxicity problem can’t be fixed by dredging. We need to find out what the source of it is,” he said.

“To simply move it from a river into Long Island Sound does not mean it solves the problem of the toxic waste,” Miller added. “Whatever that toxicity is can be absorbed by a fish that someone fishing in the Sound can catch, hook and eat and then absorb that toxicity.”

Karalius said that, once dredged, the sediment would either be deposited into the Western Long Island Sound disposal site, the closest EPA-approved site to Westport. The alternative plan is to put it into the EPA-designated Central Long Island Sound disposal site, which is farther away.

“If there are numbers that exceed EPA’s threshold, typically there will be a capping requirement,” Johnson said. “The capping requirement is not unusual when there are exceedances of PAHs or any significant pollutant of concern.”

Capping, Johnson said, is when you dispose barge loads of dirty sediment into Long Island Sound. As a follow-up, clean sediment is brought in to dump on top of the dirty sediment — anywhere from six inches to a foot deep.

The problem, however, is not unique to Westport.

“What the corps has found and why the EPA is interested in this is you can go into any river system in the nation and you can find levels of toxicity that rival that — if not are worse than — the Saugatuck, and at least a portion of these things are coming from our own bodies and the various drugs that people are taking, psychotropic drugs and also valium,” Miller said.

Source: Westport News

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