The state of Maryland may have the ultimate sales job on its hands: convincing people that the often slimy, gritty muck dredged from shipping channels in Chesapeake Bay is a useful resource.
But that is just what officials intend to do as part of the state's new master plan for solving the nettlesome problem of disposing of the thousands of cubic yards of material dredged every year.
The plan calls for the state to aggressively seek beneficial uses for material that previously was dumped overboard or into containment sites. The recommendations for the governor were unveiled at a press conference in Annapolis that featured greenish dredged material with plants growing out of it.
"Don't necessarily think of it as that horrible glop brought up from the bottom. We are trying to change the public perception of it," said Robert Agee, an aide to Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.
Environmentalists bitterly fought earlier plans to dispose of the material in a super-deep crease on the bottom of the bay dubbed the "deep trough." Though nearly lifeless, environmentalists said, the trough plays an important role in the bay's ecosystem.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer abruptly stopped those plans last summer and appointed another in a series of special tasks forces to come up with disposal alternatives.
Hundreds of miles of shipping channels have to be dredged periodically to keep open the sea lanes serving the Port of Baltimore. An estimated 100 million cubic yards of material will be dredged over the next 20 years and space to put it is fast running out.
Among the possible beneficial uses of the material are replenishing beaches and restoring wetlands with unpolluted dredged material. Islands that have eroded, such as Poplar and Bodkin, could be shored up. The material could serve as a cap on landfills, provide traction on icy roads or even be sold as an aggregate for construction.
"It's really a new approach. . . . It's not just window dressing," said Shannon Varner, a biologist and attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who served on the panel that produced the recommendations.
"Dredging and dredge disposal has great potential to be destructive to the bay. But it also has the potential to be beneficial," Varner said.
The material varies in characteristics depending on where it is dredged. Some polluted areas of the Inner Harbor yield a substance resembling black mayonnaise, while cleaner areas in the open bay are a fine, gray-white sand.
Officials say they have not yet come up with an estimate about how much of the 100 million cubic yards can be put to good use or what it will cost. But searching for uses of often small batches of the material will be more costly than previous dumping, said Thomas G. Sprehe, of the Maryland Environmental Service, an agency of the Natural Resources Department.
"It's expensive to the environment to have the wetlands disappear," Sprehe said, referring to the wetlands that could be saved with the dredged material.
For material that can't be put to good use, the panel recommended other steps:
* Polluted material will have to be contained in a diked facility to replace the nearly full Hart-Miller Island. Sites under consideration include Thoms Cove near Hawkins Point, Sollers Point near the Dundalk Marine Terminal and the Deadship Anchorage in the Curtis Bay area. The panel suggests having a new site in place within five years.
* Reduce the volume of material through careful land-use planning, erosion control, and careful analysis of each dredging project.
* Explore the feasibility of decontaminating the material.