Project to protect island is under way Assateague berm to be 100 feet wide and cost $2 million

September 07, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ASSATEAGUE -- A week after getting a scare from Hurricane Bonnie, officials at Assateague National Seashore have begun a long-delayed beach replenishment effort. They hope the project will shore up the island's vulnerable north end before more tropical or winter storms arrive.

Forced to wait more than three months to avoid disturbing a colony of piping plovers, an endangered shore bird that nests in loose sand, workers had to scramble to move pipes and earthmoving equipment off the beach when Hurricane Bonnie appeared to be headed for the Maryland coast two weeks ago.

This week, a crew from New Jersey-based Weeks Marine Inc. struggled against rough seas to secure moorings on a barge about a quarter-mile offshore. The barge will serve as the staging area for the operation.

Yesterday, workers began pumping a slurry of sea water and sand onto a 1.6-mile stretch of beach south of the Ocean City inlet. The nearly $2 million emergency project will create a 100-foot-wide sloping berm that National Park Service officials hope will keep the island intact this winter.

Back-to-back northeasters devastated the northern end of the 30-mile island last winter, stripping the beach of protective dunes. Officials fear that a similar pounding this winter could cut the island in half.

"The nor'easters always seem to be the worst here, but even with Bonnie last week, we saw significant overwash of the island at high tides," said Carl Zimmerman, the park's chief of resource management. "There was 3 feet of water on parts of the island during Bonnie and, obviously, we did not get hit hard by that one."

The project should be completed in two to three weeks, Zimmerman said, bringing 150,000 cubic yards of sand to the damaged beach.

The material will be dredged from Great Gull Bank, a shoal about four miles off Ocean City, packed into a "hopper" storage hull, and then transferred to the staging area off the Assateague beach.

The sand is then pumped through metal pipes into containment areas behind 6-foot-high sand dikes pushed up by bulldozers.

The dikes ensure that seawater does not run off into Sinepuxent Bay.

Park officials and the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees and approves offshore dredging, have drawn fire from environmentalists for the Assateague replenishment project, as well as similar operations this summer in Ocean City and at Delaware beaches that suffered heavy damage during last winter's storms.

Mike D'Amico, director of special projects for the Sierra Club, said the sand dredging projects that have become almost routine at many Atlantic beaches could cause irreparable harm to offshore shoals that are an important feeding and breeding habitat for many fish and marine animals.

"There needs to be significant study done to find out what the long-term impact really is," D'Amico said.

Officials say the scope of the Assateague project should also limit any negative environmental impact. Only 4 percent of the sand will be removed from the shoal, Zimmerman said.

The replenishment is a temporary measure intended to prevent further damage until funding can be found for a 20- to 25-year plan to restore sand to the island.

Money for the long-term program, which could eventually cost $50 million, was included in President Clinton's spending plan this year, but was trimmed by Congress.

In the long term, Zimmerman said, Assateague will be restored with sand that nature intended to be there. The goal is to move to the island sand that has been prevented from drifting south since the Ocean City inlet was stabilized in the 1930s.

"What we're doing now could have an impact on the shoal, but it should be minimal," Zimmerman said. "This is a temporary Band-Aid until we can get on with something long-term."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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