Dredging Waterfront Law
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Webinar Recap - Dredging in Virginia

July 1, 2021 | Webinars, | Environmental Law

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What We Covered in Our Webinar

In our latest webinar, we review dredging, taking a look at its various types, requirements, and costs. We also discuss how dredging impacts the economy on a national, state, and local level, specifying how dredging affects residential waterfront property owners in Virginia. Outlining the permit process for dredging projects, we reveal our recommendations and best practices.

If you have an upcoming dredging project, contact Jim Lang for advice and assistance.

You can download the slides from this webinar here.

What is Dredging?

Dredging is the removal of sediments from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors, and other water bodies in order to maintain or increase the water’s depth to ensure safe passage of vehicles. There are three steps to the dredging process: extraction, transport, and disposal. In Virginia, there is a dredging project currently underway to deepen and widen channels leading into Norfolk.

Environmental dredging removes sediment contaminated by pollutants. This practice reduces the risk contaminated sediment poses to human health and the environment. In 2017, 360,000 cubic yards of creosote-contaminated sediment was removed from the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth.

National, State, and Local Economies Depend on Dredging

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, $1.6 trillion of cargo passed through U.S. ports in 2017 alone. This created over three million jobs. Without dredging, the U.S. would be unable to engage in the world’s largest trading route. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that maritime transport is responsible for four-fifths of world merchandise trade volume.

A Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, or TEU, is used to measure cargo capacity for container ships, applying the dimensions of a standard 20-foot shipping container. TEUs help determine the amount of cargo imported within a given year.

On the East Coast, the top four ports imported the following TEU in 2020:

  1. Port of New York / New Jersey - 7.5 million TEU
  2. Port of Savannah, Georgia - 4.6 million TEU
  3. Port of Virginia - 2.8 million TEU
  4. Port of Charleston, South CArolina - 2.3 million TEU

Many of these ports, including Savannah, Georgia, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina are currently undergoing dredging projects to increase the depths of their waters.

In terms of Virginia’s 2018 economy, dredging supported $39 billion in gross state product and 397,000 jobs. Dredging gave large capsize bulkers the ability to pass through deep water in order to enter the Port of Virginia.

On a local level, watermen in Virginia need navigable channels that are free of shoaling. These channels support a $184 million industry and 6,000 local jobs. If we’re unable to dredge, national, state, and local economies will be directly impacted.

How Dredging Impacts Residential Waterfront Property Owners

Waterfront property with deep water access enhances property value. In fact, studies show that buyers pay 25% to 45% premium for waterfront properties.

However, there are waters in Virginia that need to be dredged. One such example is the Hole in the Wall Passage. Currently, recreational boaters transiting out from Milford Haven to southern points must first travel west and circumnavigate Gwynn Island. Because of these shallow waters, this adds over three hours to the journey.

Types of Dredging

There are two types of dredging: mechanical and hydraulic.

Mechanical dredging is used to create new channels, ports, and other navigable waterways. It is used to remove heavy gravel, often with a clamshell or backhoe.

Hydraulic dredging on the other hand, removes sediment that migrated into previously dredged waterways. It is better suited to remove silt and sand, typically implementing a cutter suction dredger or a hopper dredger in the process.

Federal Environmental Requirements

The Clean Water Act

Under The Clean Water Act, dredging projects require a permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This permit regulates fill activities for material falling back to the bottom of the waters.

A dredging project will be granted a general permit if it meets the following eligibility criteria:

  • USACE Nationwide Permit 19 for “minor” dredging (<50 cubic yards)
  • Norfolk District Regional Permit 01 for new and for maintenance dredging

If the dredging project falls outside the scope of the criteria above, an individual permit is required. More engineering and analysis is required to obtain individual permits from USACE.

In Virginia, projects must also include a Water Quality Certification. This gives the state of Virginia oversight in order to maintain water quality.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Any time a federal permit is required, the issuing federal agency must comply with the requirements of NEPA. If impacts to the environment are significant, the agency must issue an Environmental Impact Statement which can take multiple years and hearings to complete.

However, most projects don’t require this in-depth analysis. The majority of projects can move forward with an Environmental Assessment or a Categorical Exclusion.

Endangered Species Act

If there are protected species in the area of the project, like turtles or Atlantic sturgeon, there are dredging requirements that must be met. This act protects the feeding and reproduction patterns of those animals.

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Whether animals are endangered or not, animals like whales, dolphins, and manatees must be protected. There will be accommodations to your project that will prevent the harassment of these species.

Additional Potential Requirements:

Virginia Environmental Requirements

There are also Virginia-specific requirements to be aware of:

Obtaining Dredging Permits in Virginia

The majority of dredging projects support a water dependent activity. To begin the permit process, submit a Joint Permit Application (JPA) to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The VMRC will then coordinate review with state agencies & USACE. At this point, the USACE will coordinate a review with federal agencies.

At Jim Lang Waterfront Law, we recommend setting a pre-application meeting with the VMRC to streamline the project process. Larger projects may require follow-up pre-application meetings with the VMRC and other agencies as well.

Timelines vary for project permits. The best case scenario is the process taking around four months to complete, but some projects take years.

Conditions that may lengthen a project’s timeline include:

  • Subaquatic vegetation
  • Leased shellfish grounds/public grounds
  • Special aquatic areas (i.e. mudflats)
  • Threatened or endangered species
  • Certain whales
  • Certain turtles
  • Manatees
  • Sturgeon
  • Marine mammals (whales, dolphins, manatees)

Hampton Roads Disposal Sites

Disposal is an important part of any dredging project. In Virginia, there are many disposal sites to take advantage of.

Ocean Disposal Sites

  • Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Site (in Atlantic Ocean 5 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach)
  • Norfolk Ocean Disposal Site (in Atlantic Ocean 15 miles east of mouth of Chesapeake Bay)

Beneficial Use Disposal Sites:

  • Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area
  • Craney Island Eastward Expansion Project Site
  • Beach nourishment

Upland Disposal Sites

  • Shirley Plantation dredged material placement site (Charles City County)
  • Big Bethel Landfill (City of Hampton)
  • Charles City Landfill (Charles City County)
  • Clearfield MMG, Inc. Landfill (City of Chesapeake and City of Suffolk)
  • Tri-Cities Landfill (City of Petersburg)

Factors That Drive Dredging Project Cost

There are a variety of factors that may drive costs for a dredging project. Examples include the volume of material dredged, the location of the project, and the condition of the spoils.

Elements of cost include:

  • Professional services
    • JPA preparation
    • Assistance during regulatory process leading to approval
  • Mobilization/demobilization ($20,000 to $40,000 for small residential project)
  • Cost to extract the spoils ($50/cubic yard for first thousand yards & $35/cubic yard after for small residential project)
  • Royalty payable to VMRC ($0.60/cubic yard or $0.45/cubic yard)
  • Cost to transport the spoils
  • Cost to dispose (or beneficially use) the spoils
  • Cost of mitigation bank credit purchase or in-lieu fee fund donation

An example of a large commercial project in Virginia is the deepening and widening of the channels leading to Norfolk. In total, this project cost $292 million. There were 13 million cubic yards of dredge spoils, equating to the capacity of one million dump trucks. A hopper dredge and cutter dredge were used and the cost of each cubic yard was $22.

A small residential project was the maintenance of a dredge slip at a residence on the James River in Richmond. This project incorporated mechanical dredging that resulted in 1,000 cubic yards of spoils, or 77 dump trucks. These spoils were retained on site and the cost per cubic yard was $60. This project cost $60,000 in total.

Contact Jim Lang for his advice and assistance with any specific needs in your dredging project.

About The Author

Jim head shot

Jim uses waterfront (riparian) property rights law, maritime & admiralty law, and environmental law to protect Virginians who live, work and play on the water. Contact Jim at (757) 502-7326 or jlang@pendercoward.com.