The catalog of garbage pulled from the water during the dredging of the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers includes 13 electric scooters, so many bicycles that workers have lost count, innumerable plastic bags, bottles and cups, and an unusual amount of old clothing and shoes.
PROVIDENCE — The catalog of garbage pulled from the water during the dredging of the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers includes 13 electric scooters, so many bicycles that workers have lost count, innumerable plastic bags, bottles and cups, and an unusual amount of old clothing and shoes.
With the project about two-thirds done, crews have filled one 30-yard dumpster already and are getting close to the top of a second.
It’s been so bad in some areas that the dredge has had to shut down every five or 10 minutes so the team from contractor J.F. Brennan Co. can disentangle bags and other junk from the cutterhead that churns through the river bottom to suck up sand and silt.
“Jeans are the worst,” said Dan Goulet, dredging coordinator with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
All the delays are adding up. A project that was supposed to be completed by Christmas is now set to continue into January after workers take a holiday break that started Friday.
Goulet estimates that it will take about 20% longer than planned to finish dredging the stretch of river from Providence Place mall to the new pedestrian bridge. And that will add to the cost of the approximately $5-million project that is being covered by bonds approved by state voters last year.
“It’s going to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Grover Fugate, executive director of the coastal council, said of the additional cost.
One morning this week, Goulet and Fugate, a representative of The Nature Conservancy, which is helping to manage the project, and some visitors pulled up to the dredge as it worked near the Exchange Street Bridge. As if on cue, leverman Nate Volz, who was piloting the dredge, shut it down and pulled the ladder holding the cutterhead out of the water.
A sweatshirt was wrapped tight around the rotating mechanism. Volz put on a pair of elbow-high, puncture-proof gloves and used a knife to cut it out.
“We didn’t have to stage this,” Goulet said. “We just had to wait a few minutes.”
Some amount of junk was expected because the river runs through the heart of urban Rhode Island, but the level is beyond anything that was imagined. It sets the project apart from what the crew from Brennan, a Wisconsin company that works nationally, has seen in other places.
“It is substantially higher than I have ever seen,” Volz said from inside the dredge’s pilothouse, where a computerized color profile of the river bottom guides his work.
Groups had been calling for years for the dredging of the waterway that cuts through the heart of the city, complaining that its poor state was interfering with the revitalization of downtown. Most of the material clogging the river is road sand that was swept into storm drains and flushed into the river over the last quarter-century. With last year’s bond approval, the work to clear the water could move forward.
Besides the large volume of garbage, there have been other complications that set back the dredging schedule. It took longer than planned to get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A round of extreme tides around Thanksgiving also pushed things back. Waters were so low in the Waterplace Park basin that the dredge couldn’t move for a time.
Despite the problems, the work is slowly getting done. The basin, which experienced some of the worst silting, is now clear.
“Before, at low tide you could walk halfway across this,” said Chad Defoe, a superintendent with Brennan.
Now, the river bottom is where it should be — under several feet of water.
The material being removed is pumped through two miles of piping to the South Quay in East Providence, where it’s dewatered using a sand wheel, tested for contamination and separated into piles.
All of it so far meets Department of Environmental Management standards for industrial or commercial reuse. Once the sediment is dried out completely, it will be sifted to remove any plastic fragments and other small debris and spread over the quay, which is being developed as a concert venue.
Parts of the river may have improved in appearance since the work began, but garbage still mars the surface of its waters. During the recent tour of the site, plastic bottles and other trash floated by. Eventually, pieces will break down or fill with water and sink to the bottom, to be removed years or decades from now when the river must be dredged again.
Environmental groups have been working for years to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and have more recently tried to restrict the use of plastic straws, but legislation has so far failed to win support in the General Assembly. Meg Kerr, senior director of policy at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, says that in the 14 cities and towns that have banned plastic bags already in Rhode Island, there has been a noticeable difference.
She hopes to see action taken in the communities in the Woonasquatucket River watershed.
“When all these towns eliminate plastic bags, we would expect to see significant improvement in the number of bags in the sediments,” she said in an email.
For Goulet, the problems that bags and other trash have posed to the dredging work have become a hard lesson in how the waste we improperly dispose of not only harms the environment but costs us money in the end.
He’s saving all the trash and hopes to work with project partner WaterFire Providence to put it all in a big plexiglass box to go on display somewhere. That way, he said, people can see how much junk is ending up in Providence’s rivers.
“Enough,” he said. “We can do better.”