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December 15, 2013

'Sand Wars'

Replenishing sand to protect against coastal erosion has become big business


Massachusetts is now re-examining the possibility of mining sand offshore and a special commission on coastal erosion has been established by the state legislature.

Many coastal dwellers and communities argue that the state and federal government need to take care of beaches much the way they takes care of roads. But others, often those farther away, say constantly replenishing beaches, many in front of second homes, with taxpayer dollars is a losing proposition.

“I don’t think taxpayers have any idea what they are paying for,’’ said Peter Shelley, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation, a legal advocacy group. He said public dollars are needed to protect Boston’s infrastructure to ensure the region’s economic hub is protected, not “people’s beach houses. These beach replenishment projects are temporary at best.”

The hunt for sand

The idea seemed simple more than a decade ago: Mine gravel and sand some eight miles off Winthrop’s storm-battered beach and place it in front of a seawall to act as the town’s first defense against powerful waves.

But fishermen and their federal regulators opposed the sand mining, saying it would disturb essential habitat for cod. After years of controversy, it was decided that trucks would bring in the sand not from any ocean source, but from an abandoned highway project in Saugus. The price tag is close to three times the original planned cost.

The project — one of the longest and most controversial in the state over sand — has had a chilling effect, coastal community officials and engineers say.

“Massachusetts is one of the most restrictive states for sand mining,’’ said John Ramsey, coastal engineer and co-owner of Applied Coastal Research and Engineering in Mashpee, that works with coastal communities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. He said fishing interests have prevented the conversation here but elsewhere “sand mining is accepted — and encouraged as a method of shore protection.”

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