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Bid-Rigging, Bad Science, & The Beach


The Fire Island Tide/Friday, September 10, 1993

Today there are myths and general misunderstandings about coastal processes that are most unfortunate because they are perpetuated by an industrial complex, built up aroundthe Army Corps of Engineers, that has come to control shoreline public works programs inAmerica. We often hear coastal engineers say that net coastal erosion is " naturaland inevitable," that dredged channels cause only a small "shadow zone" of erosion, that beach dredging, the " soft solution," is an ecologically acceptable restoration technique, that "the only natural source of sand for beaches is other beaches," etc.

These engineering principles are contradicted by an established body of geological findings. Nevertheless, these industrial myths have taken on a life of their own, and are commonly used to block successful and efficient beach restoration technology that has been based on scientific finding, rather than engineering misconceptions about the natural functioning of sandy beaches.

Scientists and engineers are in fundamental discord about how beaches work. The Smithsonian Magazine recently reported that "…whenever coastal geologists and coastal engineers talk about the shore, they seem to be describing different places." Geologists like Tanner, Balsille, Cleary and Pilkey have begun to write about the misguided ideas of the engineering profession.

Why does the coastal engineering and dredging industry refuse to acknowledge the findings of science? The central rule of most shoreline regulation is to not disrupt the natural flow of sand to beaches. Most engineering programs, from a geological perspective, do just that. Engineers have therefore established rules of their own to support their programs and to thwart competition.

The dredge/engineering industry has successfully introduced distorted axioms into the administrative code that most regulatory agencies use to guide their permitting process and funding decisions. As a result, coastal engineers and the agencies they control generally resist one successful, alternate coastal restoration system that has been around for a while, a system that is based on scientific knowledge about coastal processes rather than engineering premises about these processes. Dick Holmberg's system of beach restoration, Undercurrent Stabilizer Technology, has an impressive track record of inducing beach growth without undesirable side effects. This gives engineers fits because there is no way in the world to do this according to their axioms.

Perhaps the best way to understand how engineering axioms have become dominant, despite conflicting with basic scientific findings, is through the modern phenomenon known as sympathetic science. Today almost every industry supports an institute or technical group where scientists or engineers are expected to augment company goals and policies.

There are many examples of sympathetic science. Tobacco Institute scientists have clouded smoking risks for decades. In the 1970's, after two independent scientists demonstrated that CFC release destroyed atmospheric ozone, scores of chemical industry scientists were quick to "prove" that these scientists were delusional. More recently, Chemical Institute of Technology experts attempt to counter conclusive findings that popular industrial chemicals cause widespread disruption to animal sex hormones. In Florida, Big Sugar retains scientists to disprove the well-established fact that nutrient runoff from cane fields is a primary cause of the harmful proliferation of non-native plants into the Everglades. Meanwhile, energy industry specialists unilaterally decry what virtually all independent professionals now accept, that carbon emissions are setting the stage for significant climate change.

Engineering organizations such as the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association (FSBPA) routinely resist well-accepted scientific findings. Although the FSBPA is a trade group, government officials are cannily placed on the governing board along with coastal engineers. The trade group is thus considered a quasi-governmental agency.

A Congressional subcommittee recently investigated general scientific misconduct. Aides to the committee, scientists themselves, found that as many as 25% of scientific papers are based, at least in part, on data that has been intentionally fudged. In a technological age, it is not surprising that big business should enlist science in such a manner. It becomes difficult for the public to evaluate technical issues, however, when through data "spin," science is perceived to be as subjectively adversarial as some forms of lawyering.

Conversely, a number of technical areas appear resolved and uncontroversial to the public- though they are far from it. This sometimes means that industrial experts have succeeded both with public relations and, in regulated areas, industry has managed to established technical compliance to industrial goals with regulating bureaucracies. In such cases, the objections of independent scientists may be only dimly perceived at best. For example, in the regulated arena of large-scale coastal restoration, where scientific findings should play a role in determining management policy, they do not. Geological findings about coastal processes seldom see the light of day either in public debate or within the framework of the managing bureaucracies. Coastal engineering theory, in essential conflict with geological findings, rules the roost. Coastal geologists are out of the loop when it comes to management decisions.

This was not always the case. Around the turn of the century, coastal geologists sought to impart knowledge to the new discipline of coastal engineering. Since that time, coastal engineers have come to dominate the arena. Coastal engineering has subsequently become a discipline distinct enough from coastal geology to have its own theories and models of coastal functioning which, as noted, are largely contradictory to actual geological findings.

Is erosion natural and inevitable as engineers contend? No. Net coastal erosion has not been the general trend in recent geologic time until shorelines were altered by man, primarily through the introduction of dredged navigation channels, which flush adjacent beaches to sea.

Scientists know that beaches and barrier islands were expanding over the past 4000 to 5000 years. Despite steadily rising sea levels, coastal sand levels had risen even faster in recent millennia. Accretion, therefore, has been the natural trend on undisturbed coasts until the beneficial trend was reversed by coastal engineering projects.

As beaches and barrier islands expand, they leave tell-tale formations in their wake. These formations are called beach ridges. Each ridge may take 5 to 10 years to form and measure 10 to 50 feet wide or more. A beach ridge plain is consequently left behind by shorelines prograding seaward. Scores of ridges may be apparent. They can be analyzed like the rings of a tree. Carbon dating provides the age of successive ridges. If barrier islands were generally migrating landward in recent geologic history, a popular misconception, beach ridges would not have expanded seaward as they have.

The central engineering rule, that "the only source of sand for beaches is other beaches," is contradicted in most locations by scientific finding. A form of beach sand "fingerprinting," called sediment suite analysis, reveals the primary source of sand which has formed beaches - the steady landward transport of sediment from the offshore shelf. The coastal engineering theory that beaches are the only source of sand for other beaches is thus incorrect for most areas. Leading geologists call this engineering theory "junk," yet it's the central design element of coastal engineering projects.

The River and Harbor Act of 1968 charges the Corps with mitigating damages caused by channel dredging. The Corps, however, is allowed to determine the extent of damage caused by it's own projects.How destructive are dredged navigation channels? The Army Corps of Engineers claims that only a small "shadow zone" of damage results from channel dredging, typically a few thousand feet adjacent to the cut.

In Cocoa Beach, Florida, a group of coastal owners has determined, as have many coastal professionals, that Corps damage assessments are grossly underestimated. They have decided to sue the government for just compensation for land taken as a result of Federal works, a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. The owners are seeking $200 million.

Surveys of the Cocoa Beach shoreline from the 1800's to the present day demonstrate that the coast south of Cape Canaveral was expanding seaward at the rate of 2 feet per year prior to 1950. The dredging of the Port Canaveral Channel in 1951 immediately reversed this trend along more than 40 miles of adjacent shoreline, which began to erode steadily at the rate of 15 feet per year. As a direct result of channel dredging, many hundreds of feet of private beach front has been lost along miles of coastline. The legal term for land lost to man-induced erosion is "avulsion." By law, avulsion must be compensated.

Independent coastal professionals acknowledge that navigation channels cause far more damage than Corps of Engineers formulae allow. Coastal communities are watching the Cocoa Beach case, which has a good chance of success given the quality of the data.

Many coastal communities do not have a formal erosion control plan in place. This may change as a result of new flood insurance legislation. Under proposed law, banks belonging to the FDIC will be unable to provide mortgage money toward properties in "erosion prone zones" (often an entire community) unless the property carries flood insurance. Federally subsidized insurance, which is ten to twenty times less costly than non-subsidized insurance, will become unavailable to homeowners unless their community adopts a 50-year program for erosion control with a guaranteed funding source. Long-term erosion control programs like beach dredging, the preferred restoration technique of engineers, cost several million dollars per mile per year for the life of the program, according to recent studies of dredge maintenance programs.

The alternative coastal restoration technology designed by Dick Holmberg, which harnesses storm energy to reverse unnatural erosion, costs about $1 million per mile to install. Holmberg's technology has demonstrated a high degree of permanence. Independent monitoring studies reveal that Holmberg Technology causes long-term beach growth without undesirable side effects and without the need for continuous maintenance.

The beach dredging industry consists of a small group of large firms based in Chicago, New Jersey, and Louisiana. The industry was recently convicted for widescale bid-rigging by state and Federal prosecutors. The Florida Attorney General indicates the bid-rigging was continuous for more than 30 years. The "Palm Beach Post" reports that "local, state and federal budgets had been hit for untold millions in inflated costs for inlet dredging and beach restoration projects." The "Post" also noted "the fines were minuscule to a company that boasts of its $500 million dredging fleet - and of its 'strong reputation for professional and financial integrity'." Coastal engineers, who are paid a direct percentage of the inflated job costs, and who are entrusted to protect client interests, were untouched by the prosecution. Today, coastal engineers, not geologists, populate both the regulatory agencies and the dredge industry in what the "Post" article calls a "revolving door" of employment. Regulatory agency "rules" based on engineering axioms are presently used to honor dredge industry programs. Bad science has been institutionalized. Like bid-rigging, this is a monopolistic activity which constrains innovation and competition.

Dick Holmberg has installed more than 100 installations of his patented beach restoration system, many of which have been monitored formally or informally by government agencies or others. The positive results are a matter of public record. Several hundred monitoring years of system performance on Great Lake and ocean shorelines have now been generated. Large beaches are now apparent on treated shorelines, both upcurrent and downcurrent from the sites of installation, while untreated coastal cells continue to erode.

Holmberg Technology, often called Undercurrent Stabilizer Technology, works on a fairly simple principle. It is designed to restore to dominance those coastal processes that have caused net beach growth throughout recent geologic history. A series of hydrodynamic forms are placed underwater, perpendicular to the beach, somewhat like roadway speedbumps. The structures are designed to slow the unnaturally fast "barrier currents" that now course through the unnaturally deepened nearshore area. The system diminishes nearshore turbulence and consequently allows offshore sand, moving into the beach during storms, to collect on the beach face rather than be carried away by swift currents to the next dredged inlet, where it is jetted out of the beach zone.

The structural elements of the accretion system generally become buried as sand levels elevate along the treated coast. This recontours the beach profile into what geologists call an "equilibrium of abundance." This is the type of beach profile associated with historically expanding shorelines. Holmberg notes that despite his track record of more than 100 successful installations, regulatory resistance seems to increase.

Today, relatively inexpensive and efficient coastal restoration technology is discouraged by coastal engineers who incorrectly theorize that net erosion is natural and inevitable, that the only natural source of sand for beaches is other beaches, that dredged channels cause only minor damage, and that throwing more and more dredging at a problem caused by channel dredging is the best solution to the shoreline crisis.


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