When the Nantucket Board of Selectmen approved a public/private partnership for the installation of geotubes on a town-owned beach, they set a precedent for how the town deals with erosion. Even though the people of Nantucket repeatedly rejected questionable proposals to address the erosion of Sankaty Bluff, a simple majority of selectmen voted to allow hard armoring, a method prohibited in all but special circumstances. With this project came intense public scrutiny, but the town did nothing to provide the appropriate monitoring that a project of this scope would require. As a result, some conditions of the emergency certification were not met and some violations ensued.
In evidence submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the SBPF claimed that Bluff House lost 40 feet in one year, a “fact” cited in the DEP’s Regional Director Philip Weinberg’s letter informing the SBPF’s attorney David S Weiss of the issuance of the emergency certificate. This claim has to be seen as impetus for the support from the Board of Selectman and the Nantucket Conservation Commission, and for the approval by Director Weinberg, and yet it is clearly false. Was everything that the SBPF claimed simply taken at face value? Our photographs do not support that claim. Did the Board of Selectmen do anything to investigate whether such claims were true?
The photograph above was taken on November 23, 2011, the one below was taken on March 8, 2013, 16 months later. There was not a 40 foot loss in one year as stated in the DEP filing.
As we have observed the bluff for the past 5 years, we have watched large streams of sediment running down the face of the bluff from the wetlands across Baxter Road and we have seen the effect of water pouring over the edge. Yet runoff was not adequately addressed in this installation. The geotubes may well protect the toe of the bluff from wave action but they do nothing to address runoff. We have seen the bluff continue to erode onto the geotubes with unimpeded rivers of sediment, gravel, rocks, and boulders. We are now watching an area of sinking sand caused by apparent erosion within the structure. The Board of Selectmen were bombarded with paperwork from the SBPF ostensibly explaining why the geotubes were essential to save Baxter Road, but did the three members who voted for the tubes actually go to observe the bluff for themselves? Anyone could see what is happening now and what has been happening for years just by standing on the beach below.
The above photo of the runoff and erosion below Swept Away was taken on December 15, 2013, the one below was taken on March 8, 2014.
We have attended ConCom meetings and heard misinformation given by representatives of the town. At times, “misinformation” seems like an overly generous term. In a recent meeting when questioned about unapproved plastic sheeting that was left in the installation, (where it is now being exposed and is losing pieces to the ocean) town staff stated that the plastic was used to keep water off the geotubes. Truly an alarming statement if the town is using materials on the beach that can’t get wet. The project manager, in a correction, said that the sheeting was used under the pump and hopper. However he then said that he had removed the exposed plastic sheeting, implying the problem was solved. Our photos show that there are at least two large sections of the plastic left in the installation, which eventually could end up in the ocean. It’s hard to accept assertions that town employees were on site nearly every day during the installation given that the four enforcement orders from the ConCom addressed violations that were brought to light by private parties. We can only conclude that there was insufficient town presence or that those monitoring did not understand what they were looking at.
One of at least two pieces of polyethylene sheeting left on site.
We have been told by the owner of FishTec, the company that installed the geotubes and by the project manager that we know more about the geotubes than anyone else on island and we are very appreciative of their willingness to allow us to document the installation and answer our questions. They were always free with information and gave us access limited only by safe practices. As a result, we have terrabytes of photographs and a fairly comprehensive knowledge of how the geotubes were installed. But we think it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t adequate town oversight in place to report to the Board of Selectmen and the ConCom. The Board of Selectmen should have insured that thorough, ongoing documentation was provided directly for them. A justifiably self-interested group such as the SBPF should not be left to decide what is done when that interest does not necessarily coincide with the will of many of the people of Nantucket, not even all of Baxter Road or Sconset.
One of our selectmen told us that it was ConCom’s job to oversee this project. To ask the ConCom to oversee something of this size and scope and importance without adequate resources is to allow inaccurate assumptions to go unchallenged and work outside of the permissible to go unnoticed. While we understand the nature of the work (and burdens) of volunteer boards, we call for the necessary staffing and support to protect the island’s interests now and in the future.
When history writes of this episode in years to come, we think the folly of this venture will be exposed and those who allowed it to happen and those who implemented and funded it will be known as the people who destroyed what cannot be replaced to try to save what cannot be saved.