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Here’s what that big machinery is doing in the Providence River

A behind the scenes look at the $13 million dredging project that will improve water quality and help a future wind power project

A cutter head dredge, in the foreground, is being used for the Providence River dredging project.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Plastic bags, bottles, cans, shoes, underwear. Bikes, scooters, hubcaps, taillights. Furniture. Luggage. Chip wrappers from the 1970s. Huge amounts of unidentifiable plastic bits, and a whole lot of road sand. They’ve all been blown or thrown into the Providence River and its watershed, collecting at the bottleneck by the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. And after three decades without maintenance, it became so shallow in some spots at low tide that, as one expert put it, a duck with its feet in the water wouldn’t get its butt wet.

Right now, all that stuff is on the way out thanks to a dredging project that began about a month ago. Supporters say the project will bring the stretch of river to its original depths, improve human navigation and the river’s aquatic life, and lay the foundation for a wind power port in East Providence.

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“It’s just an incredible opportunity for the city of Providence,” said Dan Goulet, the marine infrastructure coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council.

The dredging project is being undertaken by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island, along with the Coastal Resources Management Council, which is managing the day-to-day operations of the project. Wisconsin-based Michels Corp. was hired for this phase of the work, which involves removing 4 vertical feet from the bottom of the Providence River, bank to bank, from the Point Street Bridge to the Crawford Street Bridge. The area stretches roughly half a mile.

A newly developed field of eco tubes full of dredging debris from the Providence River are slapped with sticks to get water out.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

An earlier phase, about two years ago, dredged the area from the Providence Place mall to the Crawford Street Bridge — helping keep WaterFire afloat, literally.

Together, along with a planned future phase of river improvements, the project is expected to eventually cost $13 million. It’s being funded through the green bonds that Rhode Island voters have passed in previous years.

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Clearing the river of this debris will allow it to flush more fully with seawater and improve fish passage and the ecosystem on the river bottom. If there’s funding for ongoing building and maintenance, there’s also the opportunity for more boat slips, kayaking, and water access. In a roundabout way, that will keep the river cleaner.

“When more people have more access to the water, they become more aware of the environment, and they become more aware of all the work to protect and improve the environment,” said John O’Brien, partnership specialist for The Nature Conservancy. “Maybe we change the culture.”

If you’ve walked on the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge anytime in the last month, you’ve probably seen the machinery out there. The most conspicuous vessel, a cutter head suction dredge, is outfitted with a long arm, at the end of which is a series of steel blades that get dipped in the water, sort of like a cake mixer. That churns up the mud and debris to loosen it up to be sucked up into a series of pipes, which eventually takes it all the way to East Providence.

For bigger debris, such as bikes and scooters, they’ll remove it by hand, or resort to an excavator on a different floating vessel.

They expect to be done some time in January. From time to time, the machinery clogs up with debris, requiring workers to reach into the machinery to remove junk and throw it into a trash can on the deck. This project has had a lot of those moments.

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“In 15 years, I’ve never done a job with this much debris,” said Micah Bowers, who’s helping oversee the project for Michels Corp.

Plastic, scooters, hubcaps and even furniture has been pulled from the river during the dredging, which began about a month ago.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Already, they’ve filled nearly three dumpsters’ worth of this sort of debris by hand, even beyond the plastics and mud that are being piped directly from the site to East Providence.

“We’re burying ourselves and our environment in single-use plastics,” said Tim Mooney, spokesman for The Nature Conservancy.

Part of the problem here is the broad geographic reach of the Providence River, capturing trash not just from the major city for over 30 years, but a watershed that stretches far north.

“This is a Smithfield issue,” Mooney said. “This is a Lincoln issue.”

Now, though, it’s becoming an East Providence issue — repackaged, processed, and put into beneficial use there on a parcel down and across the river.

South Quay was once destined to be a ship-to-rail terminal, but it never got built. A developer is planning to build a marine terminal there for wind power projects, with the help of $35 million in state American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Clearing the Providence River of debris will allow it to flush more fully with seawater and improve fish passage and the ecosystem on the river bottom.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The mud and smaller plastic debris from the Providence River is being piped right to the site, where it will be processed with flocculant — a cornstarch-like additive to help settle the sediment out of the water more quickly — and dried out over the course of months in huge bags. The bags, like burritos the length of a football field, are semi-permeable, so water can flow out of it. Workers whacked the bags with big PVC tubes to shake some of the water out, although even stepping on it will bring up water like you’re stepping on a leaking water bed.

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After coming out of the bags, the water runs through gravel to clean it even further. That cleaned water is then released back into the bay. The debris stays behind, and after several more months of drying, they’ll mix in cement to harden it.

The larger hand-removed dumpsters of trash will end up in a landfill, but the debris that’s piped to the site will stay there for good. That’s because the future port needs to be 5 feet higher than its current elevation. That old pollution and mud, hardened and processed, will form a part of the fill material to raise the site. It’s only a small part of the eventual fill material, but they’re still putting old pollution to beneficial reuse for a future green energy port.

“It’s a benefit to the Providence River,” Goulet said, standing on an enormous bag of hardening dredge. “And it’s a benefit here.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.