Sierra Club wraps up Assawoman appeal

The Mid-Atlantic Environmental Law Center (MAELC) had its day in court on Feb. 22, completing the latest chapter in Assawoman Canal re-dredging saga.
Attorney Ken Kristl, representing the Sierra Club, echoed the concerns voiced in last year’s appeal.
Coastal Point • SUBMITTED: HockerCoastal Point • SUBMITTED:

Much of the argument references a document titled the “Assawoman Canal Dredging Project Assessment Report.”

“The Sierra Club believes there are significant problems with that report,” Kristl said. “There’s a lack of important information – they just haven’t answered the fundamental questions.”

According to Kristl, the report doesn’t properly address environmental impacts like erosion along the shoreline or potential damage to a biologically productive area.

“The canal is an essential fish habitat,” Kristl stated.

Others have disputed the claim that the re-dredging will hurt marine life, among them Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th district).

He said a re-dredging in 1958 had improved water quality, and increased marine life returned to the canal following the project.

“I just wish common sense would play a little part in this,” he said. “How can fish and crabs live in an area where there’s no water?

“The last thing we want in Sussex County is more dead-end canals,” Hocker stated. “We maintain our tax ditches better than we do the Assawoman Canal.”

The MAELC has raised concerns regarding impacts at the spoils sites. The state estimated they would need to dispose of 34,000 cubic yards of material, split between an old spoils site near South Bethany, at the south end, and the Fresh Pond State Park, near the north end.

There was mention of possible disposal on the beach, near Bethany, as well.

The cost-benefit analysis also remains a bone of contention — although DNREC claimed it withdrew its own permit in April 2004 because of a public record anomaly regarding environmental issues, the Sierra Club claimed it was because the department hadn’t provided an economic study until after the close of the public comment period.

The Army Corps of Engineers did complete a cost/benefit analysis as part of approving the project, but the Sierra Club questioned its rigor.

According to Hocker, DNREC bought the canal from the Army Corps specifically for recreational use, but as it continued to fill in, it was becoming less and less well-suited for recreation.

• Circa 1900 — the 3.9- mile Assawoman Canal is hand-dug by the area’s early settlers.
• 1957 — Gov. Caleb Boggs signs an appropriation bill for re-dredging, to a depth of four feet.
• 1958 — Atkins Brothers start drag-lining, and the project is 60-65 percent complete by February (followed by a gap in the record).
• 1976 — midway through a project to run sewer mains to South Bethany, a nor’easter washes cofferdams into the canal.
• 1990 — Parks and Recreation acquires the canal, and lands along the bank, from the Army Corps of Engineers. The state issues a permit for re-dredging.
• 1995 — the Sierra Club points out that the permit has expired, and asks the state to reissue.
• 2002 — the state reissues the permit. The Sierra Club appeals the decision.
• April 2004 — the Sierra Club has its day in court, but the state withdraws its own permit before answering that testimony, citing a clerical omission.
• August 2004 — at the urging of local legislators, the permit is reissued on a fast track. The Sierra Club once again appeals the decision.
• Feb. 22, 2005 — the Sierra Club has returns to court, and awaits answering testimony from DNREC — slated for March 22.

If approved, according to the DNREC press release, the canal will be widened to 35 feet and dredged to 3 feet below the mean low tide mark.

The state will stabilize 220 feet of the western bank with a modified form of concrete riprap.
Permit conditions include establishment and enforcement of a no-wake zone and a prohibition on marina development along the canal.

The state will also have to monitor the canal for dissolved oxygen and bacteria levels, to evaluate how the dredging impacts water quality.