Rhine Channel waste removal begins Friday

Boaters already dodge large entertaining yachts cruising through Newport Harbor, and come Friday they will have an additional obstacle: tugboats hauling massive barges full of dirt from the Rhine Channel.

The city will begin scooping out generations of industrial waste that has settled in the underwater area near Cannery Village. Once the $4-million project is complete, about 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment should be moved from the waterway to the Port of Long Beach.

Already, dredgers have towed two barges — one with a tall yellow excavator — to the harbor's main turning basin.

They plan to move to the narrow channel on the west end of the bay and begin dredging Friday morning, said Chris Miller, the city's harbor resources manager.

"Once the dredgers get out that narrow channel, life will be easy," said Miller, who has been working on the project's logistics. The dredging is planned to be completed by year's end.

The project, however, is happening during the harbor's busiest season.

In August, the Newport Harbor Yacht Club hosts the Naples Junior Sabot Nationals, when more than 100 youth racers from across Southern California compete in their 8-foot, one-man sailboats.

With barges making three trips a day — one of which will be during the daylight hours — the dredgers plan to communicate closely with boaters and boating organizations, Miller said.

They will be making announcements on Channel 16, the international calling and distress channel.

It was imperative for the city to start now because the Port of Long Beach could only accept the contaminated material during a certain time frame, Miller said.

"Otherwise we would have started in late fall, or dead of winter, certainly," he said.

The Rhine Channel has elevated concentrations of metals, pesticides and other chemicals left over after decades of boat building and other industrial uses. Shipyards, canneries, boat-building and metal plating facilities operated there for much of the past century.

"The channel was the Dumpster," said Garry Brown, executive director of Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental group that helped plan the cleanup.

The most concerning pollutants are mercury and a chemical used in boats' bottom paints called tributal tin, or TBT, he said.

Divers and scientists have also found a light pole with a circuit box, a pallet of sails and what appears to be an automobile, Brown said.

Dredgers hope to contain the chemicals from spreading, as they can be toxic for benthic organisms like sea stars and oysters. They plan to use silt "curtains" and other methods. Curtains float from the surface and screen off the area being dredged.

The city plans to periodically test the water near the Rhine, Miller said.

To collect all of the sediment, the city has to dredge under some private docks. That means some of the piles — the long posts that support docks and piers — could be undermined, so the city has agreed to replace many of the pilings and pay for the work.

Miller said some boaters, despite repeated warnings, haven't moved from the first of four areas to be dredged. The city is preparing to tow boats at their owners' expense.

While the goal of the project is to clean up the pollution, a benefit is improved navigation. The area, like much of the harbor, has accumulated dirt over the years.

The last phase of the dredging will clear an area in front of the American Legion Yacht Club and the proposed Marina Park Community Center. Miller said the city won't be dredging the actual marina; it plans to just dredge contaminated sediment under the adjacent waters.

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