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We can't let sand mining threaten storm-buffering, natural infrastructure

We can't let sand mining threaten storm-buffering, natural infrastructure
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The historic confirmation of U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb HaalandDeb HaalandIt's Congress' turn to stop Arctic Refuge oil drilling Overnight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale Biden administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale  MORE certainly brings new perspective to this critical department. One of her first tasks should be an examination of a significantly weakened law that has protected this nation’s storm-buffering, natural infrastructure for decades.

In 1982, the United States Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). It is arguably the single-most important piece of federal legislation ever enacted to limit storm damage, adapt to climate change, save federal dollars and protect the coastal environment. This incredibly forward-looking law has enjoyed bipartisan support from its initiation to the present. There have been numerous attempts to weaken CBRA, but Congress has generally held firm, and has in fact expanded the program.

The idea behind CBRA was simple. We know that low-lying coastal areas are very dynamic and particularly vulnerable to flooding, erosion and other hazards. Congress then asserted that the federal government should not be playing any role in encouraging or subsidizing the development of these barrier islands and associated ecosystems. The bill didn’t ban development anywhere. It simply tasked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with identifying those vulnerable portions of the coast that still had a low density of development, and designating those places as components of a Coastal Barrier Resources System. Within this system, federal funds cannot be used to support development or coastal protection projects, like seawalls or beach dredge-and-fill.

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By published estimates, CBRA has saved federal taxpayers nearly $10 billion, conserved 3.5 million acres of important coastal habitat and helped shield upland communities from hurricane and storm damage and sea-level rise. 

As a part of this sensible policy, a 1994 Department of Interior solicitor’s opinion restricted federal funds from being used to mine sand from within the Coastal Barrier Resources System for use outside the system. This is certainly rational policy. If the federal government is forbidding the use of federal funds to build coastal protection projects within a unit of the system, why would the federal government spend those funds to dredge sand from within the unit and place it on a densely developed shoreline outside the unit? This opinion has been implemented by Republican and Democratic administrations alike for more than 25 years.

On Nov. 4, 2019, then-Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced an abrupt change to this core protection within CBRA. Bernhardt announced that federal funds could now be used to mine sand from undeveloped beaches, islands, inlets and estuaries included in the Coastal Barrier Resources System, allowing that sand to be used to renourish developed beaches outside of the system. Bernhardt's announcement came six working days after three members of Congress — Reps. Jeff Van DrewJeff Van DrewWe can't let sand mining threaten storm-buffering, natural infrastructure Sunday shows preview: Biden administration grapples with border surge; US mourns Atlanta shooting victims Pro-union bill passes House, setting up lobbying battle in Senate MORE (R-N.J.), David RouzerDavid Cheston RouzerWe can't let sand mining threaten storm-buffering, natural infrastructure READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Trump visits swing-state North Carolina on 75th anniversary of WWII's end MORE (R-N.C.) and Garrett Graves (R-La.) — wrote him asking him to revisit the act's long-time protections.  

This isn’t just about the money. Removing sand from our protected estuaries is environmentally harmful and will weaken the natural protection that sand provides to nearby wetlands, barriers and forested islets.

Sure, maybe if you only dredged once or twice, the system would heal itself. But that is not what will happen if we open this door.

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The nation’s coastal communities have developed an insatiable thirst for sand. We are almost literally trying to build one continuous, engineered beach from Long Island, New York to Padre Island, Texas. And, these beaches don’t last. They have to be rebuilt every two to eight years. They all want sand, they want it cheap, and it seems they want federal taxpayers to pay.

The vast majority of communities looking to access the Coastal Barrier Resources System for cheap sand have other sources of sand they could mine further offshore. But that would cost more money. It is as simple as that. 

Beach communities can fund their own coastal engineering projects by accessing traditional sources of sand. It still happens every day. There are also many localities that have found acceptable ways to develop their own income streams to completely fund their own beach nourishment projects. This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What I do find unreasonable is the idea that we should begin to weaken the 40 years of fiscal and environmental protection that CBRA has provided United States taxpayers. And, we should do all of that simply to have access to somewhat cheaper sand.

In January 2021, the Biden administration announced that it was reviewing the harmful changes to the CBRA. It is imperative that the law’s full protections are restored. 

Robert S. Young, Ph.D., is a professor of geology at Western Carolina University.