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Port of Virginia starts dredging Chesapeake Bay shipping channels

Kenny Smith operates the clamshell bucket dredge as Weeks Marine dredges the Thimble Shoals Channel on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2019.

STEVE EARLEY, VIRGINIAN PILOT/TNS

By GORDON RAGO | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 2, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In his perch high above the Chesapeake Bay, Kenny Smith had the controls to move the earth beneath him.

The crane operator’s feet prodded two floor pedals to swing a red claw-like bucket from left to right. His hands gripped two levers that moved it up and down, in and out of the choppy water where it torpedoed 50 feet to the soft bay floor.

There, he maneuvered it to take 21-cubic-yard “bites” of material — a mixture of mud, sand and clay mostly — which he raised up, swung and dumped into an open container nearby. In an hour, Smith can take an average of 60 bites.

It was the third day at work for Smith and Weeks Marine, which on Dec. 15 started dredging up the first chunks of material from the bay for a project that will extend into August 2022. Earlier this year, the Port of Virginia awarded the marine construction company $78.6 million to dig up the Thimble Shoal Channel.

For decades, the 13-mile-long, 1,000-foot-wide channel has been the main artery in and out of Hampton Roads for military and commercial ships. Vessels coming and going from the Atlantic Ocean enter the channel just north of Cape Henry and sail west to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

The channel varies in depth but typically goes down to 50 feet. Weeks Marine will be digging it down to 56 feet. The port will also widen the channel to 1,400 feet to allow for two-way ship traffic. Today’s channel allows just one large ship at a time.

As part of its bid, Weeks Marine, a family-owned company that’s based in New Jersey and has been around for 100 years, will get paid by the cubic yard. In this case, they were contracted to dig up about 5.2 million cubic yards of material, said Weeks Marine project manager David McNeill. That’s enough to fill an estimated 654,125 dump trucks.

Their work is the first segment of a $350 million dredging project for the Port of Virginia, which has its eyes set on becoming the deepest and widest port in the country by 2024. The project also calls for the deepening and widening of the Atlantic Ocean Channel and Norfolk’s inner harbor, but bids for those segments have not yet gone out.

On this day, Weeks Marine had its dredge barge sitting over the edge, or toe, of the Thimble Shoal Channel, a turn that causes an upward curve. A 15-knot wind coming from the south-southwest forced an afternoon rain to pelt Smith’s crane operating room. Three-foot waves smacked against the barge beneath him, enough to roll smaller boats. But giant 100-foot spuds — long, metal stakes — driven into the mud helped lock in the barge so it barely moved.

In the distance, Smith, a longtime Weeks employee who has been a crane operator since 2005, could just make out the span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Off to his right, he could see the shore of Virginia Beach. Behind him, aircraft carriers from the naval base could be seen and the Port of Virginia’s container cranes were peeking above the grey horizon.

Late in the afternoon, the Guthorm Maersk, a container ship coming in from Baltimore and bound for Norfolk International Terminals to load and unload boxes, passed by to his left. More and more of these giant container ships have pushed the competitive ports to deepen so they can accommodate them.

A company like Weeks has a unique position in the middle, contracted to work for several ports.

Smith didn’t have time to worry about any of that.

The mechanical clamshell dredge he was on was busy at work. Over and over, he took up one scoop of dripping earth at a time over the course of a 12-hour shift. The dredge crew of Smith, engineers, a mate and others work 28 days on, 14 off.

Smith’s job is to fill up the large container next to him, called a “scow.” Once it’s full, a tugboat pulls the scow out to a dump site in the ocean. That site is located a few miles offshore from Virginia Beach, roughly an eight-hour round trip for the tugboat.

The bottom of the scow simply opens up and dumps the material in the site, which has been used for other projects and is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In April, Weeks Marine will bring in a “hopper” dredge to work the middle of the channel. That type of dredge is one unit — as opposed to a crane dumping material into a scow — that extends an arm beneath it to essentially “vacuum” up the material on the ocean floor. The arm suctions it through a pipe and onto the dredge.

The port does not plan to dump all the project material at the ocean site. When dredging starts in the inner harbor, the plan is to dump that material on Craney Island, said Kit Chope, the port’s vice president of sustainability.

The Weeks Marine crew will work around the clock. Once they are done digging to 56 feet, the Army Corps of Engineers will be responsible for maintaining those depths.

For now, the crew aboard the Weeks Marine dredge will keep going. One bite of earth at a time.

©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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