SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 30, 2008

Friction growing over sand Plum Island citizens group letter disputes deal on dredge deposits

By Victor Tine

PLUM ISLAND — A lawyer representing a group of Plum Island residents has warned state and local officials that they could be breaking the law if they attempt to implement an agreement that would allow dredged sand to be deposited off Salisbury Beach.

Attorney Robert Brennan of Boston wrote that a "citizens group" he represents is entitled to file suit to stop violations "that will occur at such time as any party seeks to divert dredge spoils to any site other than the near-shore placement site off of Plum Island."

The letter, sent to the governing bodies of Salisbury, Newbury and Newburyport, and an assortment of state and federal officials involved with the project, appears to dispute an agreement reached earlier this year by Newbury, Newburyport and Salisbury that would allow sand from the next dredging of the Merrimack River channel to be deposited near Plum Island, but would also allow Salisbury Beach to receive the sand from dredging after that.

While it stops short of an actual lawsuit, the letter seeks "to enjoin disposal of dredged sand from the Newburyport Harbor Entrance Channel at ... a 40-acre near-shore placement site off of North Salisbury Beach."

Brennan and a spokesman for the Plum Island group, Robert Connors of Annapolis Way, said the letter is not meant to deprive Salisbury Beach of sand that helps replenish its shoreline, but is intended to promote further study of the problem by the state Department of Environmental Protection and help come up with a comprehensive solution.

"What we really want is for DEP to do a study," Brennan said. "(The letter's) intention is misunderstood. Decisions have been made without any studies. It's not hostile to or opposed to a regional plan."

"This seems like a reasonable compromise between the parties to allow the dredging to go forward and to provide time for all the parties to get together and work out a cohesive regional sand management agreement prior to dredging number two," Connors said.

Salisbury Selectman Jerry Klima disagreed.

Klima said the letter could stir up hostility among the coastal communities and alienate federal and state agencies whose help is needed in maintaining healthy beaches.

"If he thinks he's going to help Plum Island by this action, I think he's mistaken," Klima said yesterday, referring to Connors. "The best way to help Plum Island is for all the communities involved to work together. If you work cooperatively in the region, you do better, especially when working with state and federal agencies. I can't understand his actions. This is counterproductive. This will delay things even more and that won't help Plum Island."

In addition to the Salisbury Board of Selectmen, the letter has been sent to Newburyport Mayor John Moak, Newbury selectmen Chairman Vincent Russo, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, DEP Regional Director Richard Chalpin, Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles and Jack Karalius, the Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the Merrimack River channel dredging.

Russo said he had not yet read the letter. Moak released a copy of it yesterday morning, but could not be reached for comment afterward.

The agreement allowing alternate deposits of sand at Plum Island and Salisbury Beach was negotiated as part of the state permitting process for the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake the first dredging of the Merrimack River channel since 1999.

That dredging operation, estimated to cost $1.4 million, received only partial federal funding this year and is awaiting congressional action for the rest.

The permit allows the Army Corps to dredge about 150,000 cubic yards of sand from the river channel and deposit it near the Plum Island shore at a specific Newbury site that was identified in all relevant documents.

In the letter, Brennan argued that the Army Corps' state permit also refers to an "alternate" sand deposit site off North Salisbury Beach, but that the Salisbury location was not properly specified ahead of time.

Depositing dredged sand at the alternate would violate state environmental law and "will have deprived the public of a meaningful opportunity to review the potential environmental impacts of this dredging project and help the Department of Environmental Protection to formulate a plan that would prevent or minimize damage to the environment," Brennan wrote in the letter.

"Specifically diversion of dredging spoils from the Merrimack River to the alternate site will result in the destruction of the seashores of the town of Newbury and the city of Newburyport and jeopardize the homes and property of the residents of Plum Island," he wrote.

Daily News staff writer Angeljean Chiaramida contributed to this story.