Nearly a year after the Port of Baltimore's massive channel-deepening project was completed, shifting underwater sand and currents have prevented ships from taking maximum advantage of the new depths and it may be several more months before they can.
The so-called "50-foot project" -- the subject of decades of bitter debate -- was technically completed last October and dedicated in June by Gov. William Donald Schaefer at a special ceremony. The $227 million, four-year project involved dredging 57 miles of Chesapeake Bay bottom to create a 150-mile nautical highway between the port and the Atlantic Ocean.
By the time the last stretch was dredged to 50 feet, however, portions that had been dug earlier in the project had partially filled in. A spokesman with the Army Corps of Engineers said that this is common in dredging projects, and that the troublesome portions of the channels were re-dredged to 50 feet last month as part of the expected $10 million-a-year channel maintenance.
The Association of Maryland Pilots has conducted tests on the newly cleared areas and, if the channel is found to be deep enough, may ease the depth restrictions from the current 46 feet in the next few months, said Michael Watson, president of the pilots association. Pilots ride aboard ships and guide them through local waters.
Frank Hamons, manager of harbor development with the Maryland Port Administration, said, "At this point you're looking at a channel that is just about 50 feet. I don't know of any business that was lost because of the restrictions."
However, port businesses say that some coal ships have left the port with smaller loads than would have been the case if the channels were at the 50-foot depth.
"All channels [fill in], especially new ones," Watson said. "Each of these channels has to be maintained."
Watson said the federally authorized depth of 50 feet will eventually accommodate ships that ride 47 to 48 feet under the water's surface.
Before the dredging project, the channels were authorized to a depth of 42 feet and the pilots permitted ships to be loaded to a depth a foot or two shy of that.
"It is the duty of the pilots to be sure this is done safely," Watson
However, several port business people said they were surprised to learn that the 50-foot channel had not been dug deeply enough to accommodate ships drawing 50 feet.
But Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, an advocate of the channel-deepening project, said a 48-foot maximum is "very acceptable."
C. Richard Foster, with John S. Connor Inc., a port service firm, said he hoped at one time that ships drawing 50 feet would be able to use the channel and that it would have been an advantage for the port.
The channels were deepened with bulk-cargo ships in mind: The jumbo freighters that haul coal and grain and ride heavy in the water. The bigger the loads they can take, the more economical the port is to use.
"They were always talking about a 50-foot draft," said Charles E. Scarlett 3rd, with Ramsey, Scarlett & Co., another port service firm. He predicted, however, that it would make little difference in the volume of business at the port.