Spoils site for Browns River dredging identified

Site contains red maple forest, environmental groups say

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The dredging of Browns River has not occurred in approximately 17 years, making the waterway unnavigable at times and causing safety issues. Before any dredging project can begin, the site where the spoils will be put needs to be identified.

Spoils are the muck that is pulled out of the waterway from dredging. In late December, the exact location of the spoils site for the Browns River project was identified. The sites, along Browns River in Bayport, drew concern from environmental and civic groups once it was determined.

The larger of the two sites has been used as a spoils site previously but not in a few decades, allowing for the growth of trees and wildlife.

“We feel strongly about it because there are two proposed dredge sites and one of them is an official dredge site; we don’t dispute that—it hasn’t been used since the ‘80s and since then, an entire forest has reestablished itself there, so we’re looking to see if there are alternative sites out there that would prevent the forest from being torn down to out the dredge spoils there,” Robyn Silvestri, director of Save the Great South Bay, said in a blog post on the organization’s website. 

After speaking with stakeholders and environmental groups about their concerns, Suffolk County Legis. Anthony Piccirillo placed a 30-day pause on the project and created a working group to bring stakeholders together and discuss other options. Save the Great South Bay specifically proposed other sites in the area for the spoils. Many of the proposed sites are covered in phragmites. Phragmites are the common tall reeds seen in the area and are actually not native and are highly invasive. The group held three meetings over the 30 days, but it was determined that some of the proposed alternative spoils sites are classified as wetlands by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Therefore, the original spoils site will be utilized.

“DEC evaluated four alternative sites that were proposed by Suffolk County,” the DEC said. “All four of these sites would require either filling of wetlands or tree clearing and all would cut off the ability for marsh retreat.”

“The approved site south of Bay Avenue has historically been used for dredge spoil and is mapped on the tidal wetland maps as ‘DS,’ for dredge spoil, which are typically allowed to be reused for this purpose. Although this site has not been used as a dredge spoil location for some time and has undergone some regeneration, DEC does not consider this location to be a red maple swamp, as the dominant tree species are locust and cherry which are common early succession species in disturbed areas.”

“We are disappointed that alternative sites could not be identified because it does mean the destruction of a natural habitat,” Silvestri said after the original spoils site was kept. “So, for that reason we are disappointed, but we were grateful for the opportunity to have the alternative sites evaluated. It was a great example of public input being accepted at the municipal level, with the county in particular.”

“Legis. Piccirillo did a really great job of bringing together many of the stakeholders including the town, multiple people at the county level, Sen. Weik’s office, other nonprofit groups or civic associations such as Sayville Civic and Bayport Civic. You know, everybody had a seat at the table.”

“The dredging project needs to move forward. We are all acutely aware of that. There are safety and navigation hazards that Browns River currently poses that need to be addressed.”

However, Silvestri did note that Save the Great South Bay hopes that this will serve as an example as to stakeholder input happening earlier in the process and not when everything is already a signed-and-sealed deal.

Frank Piccininni, an environmental lawyer, biologist and Save the Great South Bay board member, agreed, saying involvement when applying for the initial spoils site would have been useful for stakeholders to note the environmental impact. Piccininni also noted that it is important for local residents to take steps themselves to help save the bay and wetlands. Piccininni said residents can plant red maple swamp species, join groups such as Save the Great South Bay or have their yard certified as bay-friendly among other steps.

With the project moving forward and Suffolk County DPW set to clear the land at the originally chosen spoils site, the dredging can begin soon, once the Army Corps of Engineers has a clear site for the spoils Piccirillo said.

“This is a huge public safety issue,” Piccirillo said. “This is a navigable waterway. Ferry propellers get stuck in the muck and they get the fire department over to Fire Island in case of an emergency. This isn’t just an issue for boaters, it’s a public safety issue.” 

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