NEWBURY — The commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection has given Plum Island homeowners permission to “mine” sand in an effort to replenish the dunes here.
Kenneth Kimmell, in a letter to Marc Sarkady, the president of the Plum Island Foundation, yesterday said, “The department will not oppose implementation of this project on a one-time basis, subject to requirements outlined in your proposal and conditions of local wetlands emergency certification.”
Sarkady, a lawyer and oceanfront homeowner who heads the Plum Island Foundation, said, “This is a very positive step. The DEP has indicated they will be helping us, and I am encouraged that we, including town officials, are working together.”
Winter storms have caused significant erosion on the island and devastation to some homes. Six houses were destroyed and removed, and about two dozen others are in peril, according to town officials.
Plum Island residents have sought permission from state officials to “mine” sand as a means to replenish the disappearing dunes. This would mean taking heavy equipment on the beach when the tide is out, scooping up large amounts of sand and depositing it near the high water mark.
Residents say this was done successfully from 1978 to 1999, and they provided documentation to state DEP officials in recent weeks in an effort to obtain permission to do it again. The practice was banned by the state in 1999.
The DEP is going to permit Phase 1 of such a plan, and state and local officials will assess the results.
DEP leaders say if Phase 1 is not successful, “Phase 2 may not proceed.”
Kimmell’s letter said, “We continue to be concerned that conducting this type of activity could have negative impacts and be unsustainable.”
He urged residents to bring in “sand from upland sources ... as people in other coastal areas currently employ successfully.”
But Kimmell said that the urgency of the situation requires action, and his department is approving mining on a short-term basis.
Sarkady yesterday said he did not know when mining could begin, because paperwork must be completed,
He suggested it would be at least four weeks before the mining could start and “We’d like to have it completed by the end of summer when storm season begins.”
The cost of the project will be sustained by oceanside homeowners, state officials say.
Sarkady was circumspect in identifying how many are currently giving money for the rock and sand that has been deposited in recent weeks. but he said that during a given year, “the organization has about 300 contributors and an email list of about 1,200.”
Kimmel, who listened to residents’ concerns at a public meeting here several weeks ago, stressed that state officials are encouraging the town to find a long-term solution to the challenges of a rising sea and eroding shorelines.
“We reiterate our position that the sand-mining proposal, if implemented, will not by itself ensure the protection of people’s homes and should be viewed only as one short-term step in a much larger strategy.”
He urged the town and its residents to consider bringing in sand from other sources, and to consider elevating as many homes as possible.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who has worked closely with town and state officials on Plum Island issues, said, “The DEP’s cooperation is an important development. Much still has to be done, including monitoring the results of Phase 1.
“Marbled into the DEP’s letter of approval is that mining is a short-term solution. State officials want the town to consider all the options in dealing with the changes on Plum Island, now and in the future.”
Kimmell said that one factor in his decision was residents’ testimony stating that mining had worked in the past.
He said that mining would be more successful than beach scraping that took place last fall. “The scraping lowered the beach profile,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.
Kimmell added, “We are willing to be flexible, but we want town officials and residents to know this is short-term, and they have got to begin working on long-term solutions right away.”