Furious Hatteras Island watermen lashed out at the state Ferry Division on Monday, July 11, at the Dare County Oregon Inlet and Waterways Commission meeting in Manteo, despite that there were not enough members to actually hold an official meeting.
Only three of the eight commission members were in attendance: Ernie Foster, Steve “Creature” Coulter, and Danny Couch, all island residents. Several Hatteras charter captains and a marina owner were in the audience, but there were no representatives present from the Ferry Division, the state or the county.
After determining there was not a quorum, commission administrator Jenny Gray Jones agreed that a general discussion with the representatives of the Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard would be acceptable, as long as no official business or action was part of it.
Foster, a Hatteras charter boat captain, immediately stated his unhappiness with the Ferry Division’s recent decision to abruptly stop its dredge from working at a clogged channel in Hatteras Inlet.
“We just had a dredging problem that went nowhere instantly,” he said angrily. “I am beyond the point of wanting to exercise reasonable decorum.”
Foster said that he had heard third-hand that the work ceased because of concerns about the power cable under the channel, but that no one bothered to consult with the power company.
Persistent shoaling at the Connecting Channel between the ferry channel near Ocracoke with the Inlet Gorge has made it nearly impossible for vessels to transit from Hatteras docks to and from the ocean.
“I finally got out of my inlet for the first time yesterday,” said Jeff Oden, a Hatteras charter captain. “I’ve been a month and a half coming and going out of Ocracoke Inlet. It’s real frustrating.”
Participation in recent fishing tournaments was much less than usual, and many of the boats were forced to go out through Ocracoke Inlet.
“We were told by all the state people, all the way up to the governor, that the dredge was coming to fix the west end,” Rom Whitaker, also a Hatteras charter captain, said. “I went out of town for a few days. I come back and the dredge is gone. What is the problem?”
At the June 13 commission meeting, Ferry Division Deputy Director Jed Dixon said that an emergency dredging project with the state pipeline dredge Carolina would start June 20 and be expected to last about four weeks. He told the commission that the western side of the shoal would be dredged, but it would be dangerous to address much of the eastern end because the area is too exposed to ocean conditions.
The Carolina had done some work at the spot in the winter, and was unable to safely work beyond the western side of the shoal. During a brainstorming meeting held in March with the Corps of Engineers and the Ferry Division at the Coastal Studies Institute, Ferry Division Director Ed Goodwin stated that he would not allow the state dredge to work there again.
“I will not risk anything in equipment and manpower to go beyond that,” he had said. “We can’t do any more than we have done . . . We cannot go oceanside.”
Goodwin did not return a message on Monday seeking comment, and Dixon directed questions about the dredging to the division’s public information officer, Tim Hass.
In an interview, Hass defended the recent dredging project.
“We did exactly what we said we would do,” he said. “We said we would go as far as we could and let the captain go as far as they could.”
Hass said that the dredge was able to get to a depth of 12 feet mean lower-low water, but the decision was made to stop because of concerns about hazardous conditions and the potential for cutting the cable.
“We’re not going to put the safety of the crew in peril,” he said. “We surveyed it and the captain decided that was the extent he could dredge. They were at the point that continued dredging might possibly cut the power line.”
Tideland Electric had been consulted before work had been done in the winter, Hass said. The company provided the general coordinates of the cable, which had been placed six feet below bottom when it was laid. “But they could not guarantee that’s where it still was,” he added.
The dredge started work on June 23 and stopped about June 30, he said. But the crew had to wait until after the July Fourth weekend to depart because of boat traffic.
Hass said that nothing had changed about Goodwin’s earlier vow about use of the state dredge.
“He left it up to the captain,” he said. “The captain knows that water better than anyone.”
But in the discussion Monday evening, Couch said it would not have been difficult, with today’s updated technology, to ascertain the location of the cable.
“It’s an excuse,” he said.
Part of the frustration expressed at the meeting centered on the lack of communication with mariners about the project and its unexpected halt.
Wally Overman, a Dare County commissioner who has served as the board’s liaison for the commission, guessed the information deficit could be blamed on a busy summer and holiday distraction.
“I hate that this kind of fell through the cracks, “ he said in telephone interview. “Normally, we’re Johnny-on-the-spot.”
Overman said a survey will be done by next week that will show how much of the shoal the dredge was able to clear. Meanwhile, he said that work has been expedited to obtain permits and a memorandum of agreement between the state and the Corps so that the Corps will be able to dredge the Connecting Channel.
The permits will allow both the sturdier sidecaster or hopper dredges to do the work, said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten.
Outten said he has no idea what created the miscommunication about the recent dredging project, which he said will cost the county less than $25,000.
The Dare County Board of Commissioners had voted at its June 6 meeting to tap up to $150,000 from the county’s inlet management fund for 25 percent of the cost for emergency dredging, with the state picking up 75 percent.
“The state is a good partner, and they’re trying to help,” Outten said in a telephone interview. “I know the state was willing to go out there and do the dredging, and we were willing to fund it.”
Looking to the future, Couch said a study that will be conducted on the economic impact of the inlets is an important step in nailing down the funding for a long-term solution.
“If we’re out of business before it gets done,” Coulter said, “it’s not going to help any of us.”