Sediment flow into water presents ‘serious consequences’ to Barnegat Bay health, group says

    Newly released aerial images of sediment flow into the Barnegat Bay show that the bayshore continues to experience adverse impacts from the Route 35 drainage project, an Ocean County environmental advocacy group said today. 

    The images taken yesterday by local photographer Gregory Coraggio and distributed by Save Barnegat Bay show sediment within and outside of “booms,” devices that are intended to keep the particles from escaping into open water.

    Britta Wenzel, Save Barnegat Bay Executive Director, says that the images indicate that the booms are not working properly, adding that at the Seaside Heights pump station, there is a heavy concentration of sediment. 

    The New Jersey Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for the Route 35 reconstruction project (which includes the installation of nine pump stations along the stretch of barrier island from Bay Head to South Seaside Park), did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

    August silt plume 

    After Save Barnegat Bay released a drone image last month of a brown circular plume extending from a shoreline pump station at 8th Avenue and deep into the bay, NJDOT spokesman Steve Schapiro said that occurrence was “out of the ordinary,” not unsafe, and that preventative measures would be installed.

    “NJDOT investigated the cause to ensure everything is operating properly and found it was a combination of silt built up in the system from the months of construction activity in the area and silt from the bay floor that was turned up by the force of the water exiting the outfall pipe,” he said last month.

    Water quality near the pump stations

    According to Save Barnegat Bay, a one-day sample of bay water near multiple pump stations taken by the group found that pollutants did not seem to exceed standards and salinity readings were suggestive of varying degrees of bay water versus ground water infiltration (“in a system that was designed to have no infiltration,” Wenzel said).  The group was unable to take a sample at the 8th Avenue pump station since the device was offline. 

    “However, a few days after the plume, the children’s beach at 5th Avenue in Seaside Park had to be closed due to high bacteria counts,” Wenzel said. “Although DOT officials contend that there is no direct link to the plume, it is arguable since no other beach in Ocean County had to be closed that day.”

    The drainage system includes 76 manufactured treatment devices, or MTDs, that separate trash, oils, and sediment out of the water before it flows to the bay.

    “This is the first time runoff into the bay will be filtered and cleaned, improving the quality of water discharged into the bay,” said DOT spokesman Steve Schapiro.

    But citing a Clemson University study, which found that “fine particles that enter these [sediment] basins have been shown to provide protection for bacteria,” Wenzel stressed that additional testing is needed since sediment continues flowing into the bay. 

    “Soil and water tests should be taken from the tanks below the roadway and analyzed for the same parameters sampled for the groundwater treatment permits the NJDOT must have obtained for water allocation and discharge to Barnegat Bay,” she said. 

    Save Barnegat Bay believes that the back-fill used to fill the ditches around the new pipes was not clean fill or the type that has fine aggregates removed.

    “In other words, the fill contained clay and other fine particles and sediments,” Wenzel said. “Since the system was not water tight, as the infiltration of ground water entered the pipes, it brought these fine particles with it. In addition, the sheer volume and velocity forced the ‘dirty’ water through the MTDs and out into the bay. The same force scoured the bottom of the bay and has created trenches, sand bars, and plumes.”

    The floating devices in the water that are intended to contain the sediment are not working, Wenzel says, because “the wrong booms are being used and they are installed improperly.”

    State response to silt concerns

    In a Sept. 4 NJDOT release, the agency stated that crews had “nearly completed cleaning silt from drainage pipes and pump stations in Seaside Park, Seaside Heights, and Berkeley Township (South Seaside Park),” adding that “crews are continuing to apply hydraulic cement to prevent water infiltration and ensure the system is sealed.”

    To prevent silt on the bay floor from being disturbed, the DOT says crews are laying a broken stone/concrete matting and already have installed a turbidity barrier designed specifically to contain and control the dispersion of suspended silt in the waterbody.

    But Wenzel says that the newly released photos — taken while water pumps were running about three weeks since the last significant rainfall in Ocean County, which she says indicates that ground water is infiltrating into the piping system — show that the system is flawed. 

    “To date, the official state response to concerns raised by Save Barnegat Bay, as well as our elected officials and residents has been, ‘Let me be crystal clear…there is no problem here,” she said, alluding to NJDOT Commissioner Jamie Fox’s statement from last month that the water coming from the drainage pipes did not contain pollution or sewage. 

    Save Barnegat Bay reaction to ongoing state handling of the pump stations 

    Wenzel deems the state response as “unacceptable” and says that accountability must be handled in a “transparent and public process.”

    “The project was rushed under emergency post-Sandy conditions and was not required to complete an environmental impact assessment. The project also avoided a New Jersey stormwater permit, so there is little enforcement under the state regulations,” she said. “Since there are significant federal funds invested in this project and the Barnegat Bay is a nationally designated estuary, the federal government needs to step in and take a serious look at this project and its negative environmental impact on the resource.”

    State legislature response

    The New Jersey legislature is now looking into Save Barnegat Bay’s concerns and pushing for full NJDOT transparency. 

    “We’re drafting a joint communication to the commissioner as we speak asking for a full explanation of the reasons for the plume and what the DOT is doing about it,” State Sen. Bob Smith told ABC News. “People at a hearing recently also expressed that the pumps into the bay are going constantly on and off, and whether that’s coming from rain or infiltration from the the sandy soil is something we’re going to ask him. We want a thorough detailed response to our questions.”

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