North Kingstown Approves Shipping Channel Blasting
October 4, 2020
NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Town Council recently approved a controversial plan to allow underwater blasting for a new shipping lane in the waters off Quonset Point.
The Quonset Development Corporation’s channel project opens the way for barges to transport sections of nuclear-powered attack submarines between General Dynamics’ Electric Boat facilities in Groton, Conn., and Quonset.
The work is part of a larger expansion of the port for the defense contractor that includes construction of a new shipping pier and 14 acres of manufacturing space for fabricating and outfitting Virginia-class submarines.
A 395-foot-long, 100-foot-wide submarine transport barge is under construction in Louisiana.
The channel dredging began in 2019, but paused earlier this year after encountering rock ledge. Two dredging buckets were damaged trying to dislodge the rocky outcrop, prompting the need to flatten approximately an acre of seabed with explosives.
Conservation Commission member Amy Sonder said Quonset was warned about the rocky seabed well in advance of the dredging.
“We did make recommendations for alternative areas when they came to us. And they obviously didn’t thoroughly investigate that or they may not be having this problem right now,” Sonder said during the Sept. 28 Town Council meeting.
The blasting, she noted, is considered a threat to marine life.
“We all know that’s heavily migrated seal area and [the blasting] is going to happen specifically during a migration period,” Sonder said.
In a letter to the Town Council, resident Arthur Hamilton noted that the water around Quonset Point is a winter home for a large harbor seal population, while humpback and beluga whales have been spotted off the North Kingstown coast.
“Repetitive explosive sound waves and pressures are detrimental to marine mammals,” Hamilton wrote.
The former marine engineer noted that Quonset’s application lacks an approval for incidental taking of sea life, as required by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Hamilton pointed to NOAA charts that offer an alternative channel that doesn’t require blasting.
Hamilton suggested the use of cutterhead suction dredge as an alternative to explosive dredging. The Town Council, however, didn’t consider Hamilton’s objections.
Town Council member Kerry McKay said Quonset has already spent three years on the project at this location and there was no time to change course.
McKay serves on the Quonset Development Corporation’s board of directors with Town Council president Gregory Mancini and council member Richard Welch. McKay noted that most of the 21-day window needed for the demolition will be spent boring some 1,500 holes in submerged rock. The blasting is expected to only last 10 minutes, according to McKay.
Town Council member Kevin Maloney said he learned from Quonset that the blasting will take place over multiple days so that rubble can be removed between detonations.
Quonset, a quasi-state agency, would only say that site preparation and excavation will be done over a 30-day period to reduce the amount of blasting required. The actual detonations will be limited to multiple instantaneous blasts for individual segments.
In a presentation to the Conservation Commission, Quonset said it will pay four biologists to monitor the site for marine mammals and to make sure the project complies with the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Fishermen will also be notified of the blasting so that pots and traps can be removed.
Town Council member Mary Brimer said she appreciated the safety protocols for sea life, but she is worried that lobster and snail fishermen will suffer financially.
“This is a huge inconvenience on them and burden on them in the year of COVID already to disrupt their business,” Brimer said. “What is in it for them? This is incredibly disruptive and unfair to their business. I’m uncomfortable with the blasting.”
She suggested compensating the fishermen for lost revenue. The council, however, didn’t consider the idea.
The Conservation Commission and the Harbor Management Commission offered five recommendations for Quonset, including compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and to consider digging an alternative channel. If an alternate route isn’t selected, Quonset is asked to explain why the option wasn’t selected.
The Town Council included the recommendations in its approval of the blasting. The measure passed, 3-2, with Brimer and Welch opposed.
Conservation Commission member Donna Hutchinson suggested that the town feels obliged to approve all Quonset Development Corporation requests.
“Of course, we all acknowledge Quonset’s huge contribution to our local economy. But it troubled me that the project seemed to come to the town as a ‘fait accompli’ without reasonable dialogue,” Hutchinson wrote in an email to Sonder.
Hutchinson wanted to know why more time wasn’t granted to debate the issue considering that the barge and pier won’t be completed until mid-2021.
“Given the cost of dredging, doesn’t it seem fiscally logical to consider alternative routes?” Hutchinson asked.
The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) approved the dredging in 2017. But approval for the blasting is still needed. The application will be reviewed in front of the council at a public meeting, but it has not been decided if public comment will be taken. No date has been set for a CRMC meeting, but it’s likely to be soon as Quonset expects to commence blasting later this month or in early November.
The cost of the full dredging project is between $5 million and $10 million, depending on the volume of material removed. Prior to the start of the dredging, it was estimated that 206,350 cubic yards of material would be removed. All dredged material will be dumped in designated sites in Rhode Island Sound.