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Military vessels, local shipbuilders and others have used Craney Island for decades as a designated and cheap dumping ground for what they dig up from the depths of Hampton Roads waterways. 

But the Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers has stopped accepting dredged materials there through 2024.

“We see this as a temporary blip. And I know that it’s an inconvenience,” said Lesley Dobbins-Noble, the district’s operations branch chief. 

The problem is sand. The Army Corps usually uses it to reinforce the perimeter of the island through a series of dikes that helps officials meet environmental quality standards.

Officials get that sand out of the dredged material that comes into the island.

“The problem is that in the past years we’ve not received the volume of sands that we really needed to keep things up to par,” Dobbins-Noble said. “So with that deficit of sands coming in, we found ourselves at a deficit in capacity.” 

She said it’s unclear why the sand intake is so low. The issue’s been building for several years, but the Corps made its announcement recently because they’d gotten a spike in requests for dropping off dredged materials.

The 2,500-acre Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area was developed in the years following World War II to provide long-term disposal of dredged material from local channels and ports, according to the Corps. 

Before and during the war, vessels usually released dredged material into open water. But those sites started reaching capacity.

Craney Island was authorized by Congress and opened in 1957, originally designed for a life span of two decades.

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Image: Virginia Department of Transportation map

An aerial view of the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area in Portsmouth.

Dobbins-Noble said the Norfolk District’s current priority is a $473 million project to deepen the Norfolk Harbor to 55 feet.

"If we aren't able to support the main spine, if you will, of the navigation system around here, then some of these other industries would end up feeling the effects," she said. "So we hope for patience."

The Corps is prioritizing areas within the deepening project that will yield the most sand to help the situation at Craney Island, Dobbins-Noble said.

Other options for getting rid of dredged material include dumping it further offshore or trucking it inland. Both are much more costly. 

Meanwhile, officials have long been working on a plan to expand Craney Island eastward into the Elizabeth River so the Port of Virginia can use a portion of it for a new marine terminal.