Commercial and recreational fishers have been dealing for decades with the unpredictability of Oregon Inlet navigation but with the recent go-ahead by Dare County for its private partner to move on a contract to build a new hopper dredge, there may be an end in sight.
Legislation passed in 2017 to provide Dare County with funds to establish a private partnership with a company to build a hopper dredge for the state, explained Brent Johnson, project manager for grants and waterways in the county planning department.
“It was identified that there were not enough assets in North Carolina, either private assets or dredging assets under the Corps of Engineers,” Johnson said Friday in an interview with Coastal Review Online, “And so, the state in 2017 passed legislation that provided $15 million to Dare County to go and seek out a private partner to build a new dredge that would work with Dare County and the state to do shallow draft dredging in our inlets and ports.”
In May 2019, Dare County entered into a public-private partnership with the EJE Dredging, a company formed in August 2018 by recycling firm owner Judson Whitehurst and based in Greenville.
The Oregon Inlet Task Force want the dredge to be similar to the Army Corps of Engineers dredge Murden, according to a previous report questioning the decision to go with the EJE Dredging, which has never done major dredging.
Johnson said the $15 million is a forgivable loan to be used by EJE Dredging to help to build the dredge. “And in turn, they are providing us with a discounted rate of dredging.”
The Dare County Oregon Task Force is overseeing this process of having the dredge built and will oversee and manage the private partner in the dredging efforts within the state, Johnson said.
Johnson said when the Oregon Inlet Task Force met July 15 they went into closed session to discuss a contract between EJE and the proposed shipbuilder, which was approved. “That was part of the terms and conditions that were set in place to contract between EJE and Dare County.”
During the Dare County Board of Commissioners’ meeting last week, Commissioner Jim Tobin, who is on the task force, said that the task force approved EJE Dredging entering into a contract with Conrad Shipyard LLC of Morgan City, Louisiana, to build the vessel.
After review of the vessel construction contract between EJE Dredging Service and Conrad Shipyard, the task force “has found the contract to be in compliance with all specifications and requirements set forth in the dredge work plan and forgivable loan agreement. We hereby authorize EJE Dredging services to proceed with the execution of this contract July, 20, 2020. So as of today, they can move forward and sign the contract,” Tobin announced during the commissioners’ comments portion of the meeting, reading from a letter he drafted following consultation with the Dare County attorney.
Once the contract is officially signed between EJE Dredging and Conrad, Johnson said he would have the contract amount, or cost to build the vessel.
The contract is for 18 months to build the dredge but it will likely be at least 24 months before “we see the dredge here in Dare County dredging Oregon Inlet,” he said. After the dredge is built, there will need to be sea trials, get the crew trained, have the Coast Guard certify the dredge and move it to Dare County.
The county is in a 10-year contract with EJE Dredging to dredge in Oregon Inlet and other shallow draft inlets in the state.
Johnson said having access to a dredge is going to be a game changer for the commercial fishing business.
“Wanchese Harbor was established and built for commercial fishing but because of the unpredictability of Oregon inlet, the big commercial fishing that used to exist in Wanchese has gone away,” he said, explaining that commercial fishers never know if they can get to Oregon Inlet.
“You leave one day and come back in two weeks and will not be able to get back there. And so, having the ability to constantly dredge and dredge when needed will provide us the ability to bring back that commercial fish fishing industry Wanchese once had,” he said.
Johnson said it’s not funding that’s the issue with keeping Oregon Inlet navigable, it’s access to assets, or man-hours and equipment.
Coastal inlets are constantly changing and sand is constantly moving. As you dredge, it fills back in, and fills in faster without any infrastructure put into play, so constant dredging has to be done in order to make it navigable, he said.
The Marc Basnight Bridge spanning Oregon Inlet replaced the Bonner Bridge, which is being dismantled and the debris is to be used for an artificial reef. An issue now, he said, is that the state Department of Transportation is trying to move the barges with the debris to the artificial reef site outside of Dare County. However, the Corps of Engineers isn’t able to dredge deep enough for a long enough time to allow for these barges to get to the reef site.
“There’s just not enough assets under the Corps to keep it open. Like I said, it’s not about money it’s just about man-hours and equipment-hours,” he said.
At the end of the day, Johnson continued, the new dredge is great for Dare County, the state and watermen.
For example, he said Hatteras Inlet has been shoaled by up to 3 to 4 feet for the last eight months, and it’s not been a funding issue but having access to the proper equipment, he said. The section of Hatteras Inlet shoaled in is not part of the federal channel and has an authorized depth of 10 feet. The depth of the portion now is about 6 to 7 feet because of the shoaling.
“But if we had our own dredge,” Johnson said, the county could dredge immediately and keep that inlet maintained.
“We would never have had the issues that we’re having now. It’s to the extent that the Coast Guard out of Hatteras has not been able to get out and do their mission of protecting and serving, because it’s been shoaled in so much,” Johnson said.
The Coast Guard relies on Dare County to open up the channel for them to get access to the ocean. “And like I said, it hasn’t been a funding issue it’s an asset issue. We just didn’t have the assets needed at the time we needed them.”
The board also approved two dredging-related items during the July 20 meeting that Johnson presented, a Hatteras Inlet maintenance contract and permit modifications for Oregon Inlet maintenance dredging.
Johnson said Aptim/Coastal Planning & Engineering, or CPE, handles permit coordination and dredging coordination for Hatteras Inlet. The other contract with CPE to modify the existing Dare County permit to add sidecast dredging.
The board approved submitting a request to the Army Corps of Engineers to include Barney Slough, Sloop Channel and South Ferry Channel into the federally authorized channel.