Tuesday, November 23, 2004

 

Dig we must

From today's New York Times:
Beneath the Harbor, It's Dig or Else

By ERIC LIPTON

It is nearly 3 a.m., and traffic on the Bayonne Bridge is so light that this link between New Jersey and Staten Island looks almost like some rural river crossing. Yet from down beneath the graceful steel-arch span, in a spot illuminated by the moonlight, comes an angry roar, followed by a tremendous rumble. The Beast of the Kill Van Kull is out feeding again tonight.

This giant rock-eating machine, its long arm capped with steel teeth strong enough to shred a dump truck, is part of a fleet of equipment that has been working around the clock, seven days a week, for four years on one of the largest and most expensive harbor-dredging jobs in the nation's history.

This public works project is as invisible as it is epic. Although the region's residents, commuters and airport users are footing the nearly $2.25 billion bill with help from the federal government, the dredging has proceeded far out of earshot and eyesight of millions of New Yorkers living just a few miles away.

New York City's version of the Big Dig is motivated by a threat like those made by professional sports teams seeking a plush new stadium. Either dig a deeper harbor, the world's biggest ship lines and terminal operators have bluntly told the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, or the $100 billion a year in goods that move through New York Harbor will start shifting to other, deeper ports in North America. New York's channels, they warn, are too shallow for the ever-bigger freighters that are plying the seas.

A major milestone will be reached, and celebrated, within the next month when the dredging clears a depth of at least 45 feet in the Kill Van Kull, the narrow, four-mile-long tidal channel that connects Upper New York Bay to Elizabeth and Newark, the two busiest spots in the harbor. But the work had barely begun when the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, which are sharing the cost, realized that 45 feet would not be not deep enough for the newest generation of ships. So the dredging will continue, to a minimum of 50 feet, for much of the next decade.

"We have to go back and start over again," said Steve Frey, one of the operators on the Dredge Tauracavor, the floating platform where the excavator nicknamed the Beast is mounted.

What makes this task so hard - and requires supremely powerful devices like the Beast, instead of conventional clamshell-style dredging rigs - is that crews are not simply scooping up soft clay and silt. The depths required in the Kill Van Kull are so far beyond the harbor's natural bottom that contractors must blast and carve a new underwater canyon through as much as 10 feet of diabase, the same sort of bedrock that forms the Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson River.

And all the blasting, excavating and hauling must be done without interrupting the vital flow of ships through the port. "It is like building a highway with the cars still coming in," said Harold J. Hawkins, who is helping manage the project for the Army Corps.

From a distance, the dredge and its excavator resemble a long-necked dinosaur feeding in a primordial swamp. And the work out in the harbor's narrow straits proceeds like something from the early days of the Industrial Revolution: loud, violent and unrelenting for the men who carry it out.

It is hard to imagine a lonelier spot in New York than the cab of the Beast during the 12-hour overnight shift, in the closet-like space where Mr. Frey and the other dredge operators started working in August 2000, when Bean Excavation of New Orleans arrived to begin digging in the Kill Van Kull. With a windshield three panes thick and a prisonlike steel cage to protect from ricocheting rock, this closet-size, sound-insulated compartment can be reached only by climbing up three grease-slicked ladders from the deck of the barge.

The interior is a cross between a tractor-trailer cab and the cockpit of a "Star Wars" X-wing fighter. It smells of stale cigarette smoke, and a battered FM radio blasts pop music. But just to the left of Mr. Frey's seat are two computer monitors that merge data from satellites tracking the barge's location with intricate sonar readings of the shape of the channel floor. They produce three-dimensional images like those in a video game, telling Mr. Frey exactly where his excavating bucket sits relative to the rock, even after the Beast's arm has reached out and disappeared into the muddy water.

Mr. Frey's job now is to use this extraordinary computer imagery, and two joysticks fast in his grip, to slow the bucket as it approaches the rock, and to make sure that as he applies its 337,100 pounds of digging pressure to the bottom, it hits at just the right angle so that it rips the rock, instead of snapping off the bucket's metal teeth.

Even without the video monitors, there would be no way to miss the moment he makes contact with bedrock. The entire barge shakes wildly. So jarring and constant are the vibrations that screws all over the cabin wiggle loose, and the air-conditioner and other appliances have to be replaced every few weeks. But as the hours pass, the Beast's assaults acquire a certain rhythm, and even grace.

The digging has become so ingrained in Mr. Frey's bones that about the only time he cannot sleep in the living quarters downstairs - where aluminum foil and cardboard cover the windows to keep daylight out - is when the Beast breaks down and the vibrations stop. "It sounds crazy, but it kind of rocks you to sleep," said Danny Aguado, 42, of Tampa, Fla., another operator on the Dredge Tauracavor.

Ten men live on this barge for two weeks at a stretch, taking turns sleeping and operating the Beast. They are flown home for a week, then head back to the barge. The excavator can clear anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet a day, depending on the material, filling up as many as three scows, which then carry away the debris. But it is merely one of 81 pieces of dredging equipment that have been out on the harbor at various times over the last year.

Finding the best combination of blasting and digging, in some cases, took months of trial and error. In another part of the Kill Van Kull, Weeks Dredging and Contracting crews failed to scoop up the rock with a clamshell dredge, and even multiple jabs with a 20-ton spike could not break it up. By the time explosives were brought in, work had fallen more than six months behind schedule.

In total, 1,324 blasts, sometimes three a day, have been set off over the last three years in the short stretch between the Bayonne Bridge and Port Elizabeth, rattling homes on Staten Island and in Bayonne, N.J. The clanging and scraping of the dredges fill the silence between them.

"You can put your air-conditioner on and close all the windows - it makes no difference," said J. P. O'Hara, a retired auto worker who lives in Bayonne. "It is absolutely unbelievable, like the guns of Navarone."
I'm not sure why I'm blogging this, except that I found it fascinating. Infrastructure is one of the less obviously scintillating topics, but I've always been interested in transportation and construction. If I could do math, I probably would have become an engineer.

In his novel God is an Englishman, the late R. F. Delderfield has a character say that the history of any tribe is the history of its transportation system. While that is obviously highly reductive, the fact is that you don't invest in your infrastructure, eventually you don't got no suprastructure. This doesn't mean that every construction project is worthwhile (hear that, Army Corps of Engineers? Are you listening, Donald Trump?), but some are vital, even if ongoing and annoying. I'm sure I would not like to be living near the dredging, but those people would like the eventual effects of not dredging even less.

In any case, this is one example of the government spending our money that it would be difficult to take serious issue with. Boats are the single most efficient means ever found of moving anything big and heavy; with all our high-tech, this is still the case.
Comments:
Hello Blogger,

After reading your blog "Dig we must", I believe you will find the wages information on my site about Jobs With Best Wages to be very helpful.

To give you an idea of our wide range, some of the recent searches that found our site included ...

Public Address Announcers Wages
Public Relations Specialists Wages
Radio & Television Announcers Wages
Technical Writers Wages
Radio Operators Wages
Reporters & Correspondents Wages
Set & Exhibit Designers Wages
Writers & Authors Wages
Sound Engineering Technicians Wages.

We have hundreds of "must read" articles on wages and careers and many other topics in our Top Career Wages site.

Kind Regards
Emily
 
Post a Comment

<< Home
Comments: "
Hello Blogger,

After reading your blog "Dig we must", I believe you will find the wages information on my site about Jobs With Best Wages to be very helpful.

To give you an idea of our wide range, some of the recent searches that found our site included ...

Public Address Announcers Wages
Public Relations Specialists Wages
Radio & Television Announcers Wages
Technical Writers Wages
Radio Operators Wages
Reporters & Correspondents Wages
Set & Exhibit Designers Wages
Writers & Authors Wages
Sound Engineering Technicians Wages.

We have hundreds of "must read" articles on wages and careers and many other topics in our Top Career Wages site.

Kind Regards
Emily
 
" Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?