Sunday, March 26, 2023

Marine life to find new haven in damaged pipes

Bladen County surplus is dropped off at the Port of Wilmington site on Feb. 17. (Courtesy NCDOT)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — A growing collection of unusable concrete pipes at the Port of Wilmington, some of which were damaged during hurricanes Florence and Matthew, will serve a new purpose. The materials will become makeshift reefs off the Brunswick County coast later this year.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is repurposing the pipes to support two of N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries’ artificial reefs. Once dropped to the sea floor, marine wildlife will overtake the structures as their habitats, where the commercially and recreationally critical species can spawn and thrive.

One near Oak Island, known also as the Jim Knight Reef or AR-430, was originally constructed in 2013 and now comprises concrete pipes and an 85-foot barge. The other, closer to Shallotte, is known as Fisherman’s Reef or AR-460. Its materials were first laid in 1996. Today, it is the site of train boxcars, a 330-foot barge, a 40-foot U.S. Coast Guard launch vessel, reef balls and piping — all taken over by marine life as their territory.

Each reef is permitted to be about 160 acres in size, but there’s not enough material right now to extend to the borders, explained Jordan Byrum, the artificial reef coordinator at the division of marine fisheries. The newly introduced material will fill in empty spots.

“We’re gonna use all the pipe, and the reef will still have some more room to develop in the future,” Byrum said.

Since 2010, in part accelerated by an “aggressive pipe replacement” program, NCDOT has accumulated more than 1,000 tons of ruined concrete tubes. Before resurfacing a road, NCDOT checks out the condition of its crossline pipes and looks for flow issues.

“Those that need to be replaced are done so ahead of the resurfacing work,” NCDOT spokesperson Andrew Barksdale wrote in an email. “In good budget years, combined maintenance forces in Bladen / Columbus have replaced well over 100 pipes in a given year as budgeting allows.”

Some of the culverts were part of replacement projects following hurricanes Matthew and Florence. NCDOT estimates, conservatively, 15% to 20% of the collection was either directly damaged by a hurricane or felt an indirect result as high flows revved up deterioration, with issues becoming evident months later.

Instead of spending $65,000 on tipping fees in junkyards, NCDOT staff hauled the concrete to Columbus and Bladen counties’ maintenance yards. (Metal pipes are easier to recycle.) The piping was then transported to land temporarily leased to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries by the Port of Wilmington.

More than 100 tons in Bladen County was sent to the port in late February, and Whiteville’s base had more than 1,000 pieces of pipe. The port is also accumulating damaged concrete from commercial plants for the same reef project.

To build up the artificial reefs, NCDOT obtained federal permitting from the Division of Coastal Management and the Army Corps of Engineers. Bids are going out soon for a marine contractor to transport and unload the materials, either this spring or in early summer.

Since these are adding to existing reefs, it’s likely there will be action on the structures within minutes, Byrum said.

“Right before Hurricane Florence, we sunk a tugboat near Pine Knoll Shores, AR-320,” Byrum said. “I was on a dive. Maybe 30 minutes, 45 minutes after it hit the bottom, there were already fish on the tugboat. It doesn’t take very long.”

The initiative is a partnership between NCDOT and the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries to find cost-effective ways to put the scrapped pipe to use, rather than letting the materials go to waste and clog up landfills.

Whiteville-based engineer NCDOT Ken Clark said the idea came to him during a conference on coastal resiliency, where he learned the Division of Marine Fisheries was able to repurpose precast concrete, barreled-shaped pipe to supplement its artificial reefs.

“We had considered many options on how to properly dispose of this unusable material, when we formed this unique collaboration with the Division of Marine Fisheries last year,” Clark said in an NCDOT news release. “This program mutually benefits both state agencies.”

NCDOT was able to work in-house to haul the items, a savings for the marine fisheries division. The division allocates between around $175,000 to $200,000 for trucking companies to move the items from commercial plants — not the ones from NCDOT — to the port property. It’s estimated to cost between $200,000 to $300,000 to load all the materials onto a barge to take it off the coast in three different trips.

The division maintains 43 ocean artificial reefs, scattered up and down the coast. All less than a mile to 38 miles from shore, reefs are within reach of almost every inlet in the state, according to the division.

The artificial reefs are also ideal fishing spots, where boaters can hook grouper, king mackerel and flounder. People can find information on the locations of the reef and the best catches on the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries website.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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