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Boston and Beyond

December 15, 2013

'Sand Wars'

Replenishing sand to protect against coastal erosion has become big business

Sand is becoming New England coastal dwellers’ most coveted and controversial commodity as they try to fortify beaches against rising seas and severe erosion caused by violent storms.

From Westerly, R.I. to Salisbury, Mass. to Eliot, Maine, debates over who gets sand, who pays for it and where it comes from are fast becoming some of the region’s most contentious oceanfront issues. In many cases, taxpayers are being asked to foot some of the bill for beach-rebuilding projects.

“It’s called the sand wars,’’ said S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal geologist and scientist emeritus with the United States Geological Survey in Woods Hole and the University of Hawaii. The disputes, happening across the coastal U.S., “are only going to get more intense,” he said.

Among the seaside squabbles, some residents in Salisbury want $300,000 in state taxpayer dollars for sand to help protect private homes from the ocean’s fury.

Winthrop Beach is poised to receive an estimated 20,000 truckloads of sand from Saugus as part of a massive beach replenishment and improvement project that is costing state taxpayers $26 million.

And in ocean-battered Nantucket and Plum Island, residents’ want to pay privately for sand to stand sentry against the encroaching ocean — but are running into regulators’ opposition over how best to protect property.

For all the billions of grains of silica on and off New England’s coastline, sand is maddeningly difficult — and expensive — to get. Fishermen and their regulators have opposed the mining of offshore sand because they worry it will harm sea life. Environmental officials say bulldozing it across beaches can accelerate erosion and harm bird nesting grounds. Mining and trucking sand from inland sources to beaches can be more than four times as expensive, damage roads and produce sand that is often darker and a different texture.

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