Clearing Sandy fallout from N.J. waters is grinding task

At a fenced compound in Brick, N.J., hulks of ruined vehicles removed from Barnegat Bay await their next stop while in storage.
At a fenced compound in Brick, N.J., hulks of ruined vehicles removed from Barnegat Bay await their next stop while in storage.
Posted: March 25, 2013

MANTOLOKING, N.J. - Buddy Young and his crew wait pensively on a dock, two-way radios in hand, for a "picker" boat a half-mile out on Barnegat Bay to report on precisely what the long-arm boom mounted to the front of the vessel managed to pull from the murky waters this time.

Even from so far away, it's obvious when the robotic, dinosaurlike jaws-of-steel pull a mud-covered car or the wall of a house from the six-foot-deep bay.

But sometimes the distance makes the type of debris less immediately identifiable.

That's the case on this recent morning as Young and a dozen other employees of CrowderGulf, an Alabama-based recovery and debris management company, work in the bay just off Mantoloking.

Their mission, at the direction of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, is to clear obstacles dumped in the water by Superstorm Sandy before the summer boating season begins in June.

The cleanup cost will depend on how much debris is collected, officials said, but it will likely be in the tens of millions.

"OK, that looks good," Young murmurs into the radio as what appears to be a mangled portion of stairs from a wooden dock, amalgamated with a bit of crumpled sailboat canvas, is placed on the barge's flat bed.

Earlier in the day, the pickers, following a map of floating yellow markers placed by a team from Matrix New World Engineering of Florham Park, yanked a car out of the water and floated it to the shore.

Partnered with CrowderGulf, Matrix surveys the bay using side-scan sonar to find submerged objects and marks their locations. The engineers' acoustic imaging system is so precise that it can produce a 3-D image of an object as small as 10 inches across, depending on the conditions in the bay, said Nick Pratt, a CrowderGulf supervisor.

Whatever is pulled out - a vehicle, front door, a kitchen sink - likely ended up on the bottom of the bay thanks to the ferocious Sandy, which on Oct. 29 sent three-story-tall waves out of the Atlantic Ocean over this narrow northern Ocean County resort town and into the bay.

When it was over, 60 houses from Mantoloking alone, plus dozens of cars and boats, hundreds of trees, and thousands of other objects, had washed out to sea or were deposited into the bay and the Intracoastal Waterway, creating boating hazards.

Because of Sandy and its destruction, the state has hired a team of contractors to remove such obstacles from coastal and tidal waterways along New Jersey's 127 miles of coastline, from Bergen to Cape May Counties and up the Delaware Bay to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

It's Young's job, as the operations director for CrowderGulf, to oversee the removal of the objects in the Barnegat Bay and discern whether they did end up there as the result of Sandy. The federal government will pay for the disposal only of items from the storm, he said.

Young has decades of experience sifting through debris. On the rare occasion when he's uncertain about an item, he sets it safely aside for inspection by state or other authorities to determine origin before disposal.

So weather permitting - meaning low winds and no storms - Young's crew continues its sometimes-tedious sweep of the Barnegat Bay along a 30-mile stretch from the mouth of the Manasquan River down to its southern banks at the Route 72 Causeway near Long Beach Island. Each day of their work, they will zero in on particular locales until the entire stretch is swept. A final sonar scan will be made to determine when the work is completed, he said.

The search could go as deep as 30 feet, but Barnegat Bay is fairly shallow.

"You can have a day where you find dozens of things in a matter of hours or a day where it takes all day to find one car," Young said. "It just depends on what the water is willing to give up."

On the open-air boats in the middle of the bay, it can be cold and tedious as late winter breezes whip across the water.

When they arrived on the scene this month, the company's first order of business was to pull visible debris - 1,200 cubic yards - from the banks and any floating debris from the water.

Now the precision work has begun.

Using as many as eight boats on any given day, the crews ply the waters following the yellow markers, and try to find debris in the shallows and along the deeper navigational channels.

As the barges are filled with the collected bounty, the boats are brought back to the docks at Hinckley Yacht Service on the western side of the Mantoloking Bridge, where the material is off-loaded by a claw crane and into a large container truck. When the truck is filled, it is driven to a county disposal facility a few miles away on the mainland.

In case of contamination, one of the most important tasks of the cleanup is making sure the material never touches the ground when it is being off-loaded from the barges, Young said.

Environmental officials had been closely monitoring Barnegat Bay before Sandy because of fertilizer and other contaminants from storm water runoff. While the DEP says the bay is still being monitored for those issues, it has determined that New Jersey waterways post-Sandy are in pretty good shape, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman.

Shellfish beds, a good indicator of water health because shellfish filter the water, were closed immediately after the storm, he said. But most reopened within several weeks.

Recent testing has found no environmental issues related to Sandy, other than the debris, Ragonese said.

So far, about 2,000 cubic yards of submerged material and three cars have been removed from the bay off Mantoloking - about two or three truckloads a day. Workers have noticed no visible contamination of the water or the objects, Young said.

"You can look at what is left along the shoreline, what is still on the land, to kind of get a concept, an idea, of what is under the water," Young says in a Texas drawl. "But this right here is one of the worst places we've seen."

The company also will remove several houses pulled off foundations and dumped at the water's edge.

"It's very sad to see this kind of thing, very sad. It never gets easy to look at," said Young, whose job takes him wherever disaster has struck.

Sandy cleanup is CrowderGulf's first foray into northern climes, but the task is similar to the company's work two years after Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, Pratt said.

A particularly cold, late winter - and a so far frigid early spring - has kept most boaters out of the water.

Environmental and boating groups say they are glad the work in New Jersey is being performed sooner rather than later.

"It's important to get the word out to people that the waterways on New Jersey will be ready for summer," said Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey. "Recreational boating is an important industry and an important component of the state's economy."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.

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