Pena seeks end to dredging 'crisis'


April 17, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

It's the dirtiest eight-letter word in the English language: dredging. But what extra lanes are to highways, what runways are to airports, dredging is to ports.

Deepening waterways by scooping out sometimes contaminated mud is a complex process, mired in environmental concern and red tape. And maritime interests have long believed that dredging, along with many other waterway issues, takes a back seat with federal transportation officials.

Enter Federico F. Pena, former mayor of Denver, whose renown in the transportation world comes from sprucing up airports, not seaports. In his first address to a seaport community, the new U.S. transportation secretary vowed last week to give important maritime issues -- including dredging -- attention.

"We must solve the current dredging crisis which, in reality, can become an economic crisis," he told some 300 people at a dinner sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies and the Maryland Port Administration.

Although his remarks were long on promise and short on specifics, Mr. Pena's mention of dredging was applauded by those accustomed to hearing transportation secretaries talk about railroads and highways.

"Someone has listened to us," said Erik Stromberg, director of the American Association of Port Authorities, which represents 81 deep-water ports.

Indeed, he said, it was the first time a transportation secretary has mentioned dredging in a major address since 1981, though it is the No. 1 concern at U.S. ports.

In New York City, for instance,port authorities have been searching for three years for a site to dispose of dioxin-contaminated sediment.

In Houston, environmental battles have held up dredging from 40 feet to 45 feet for 24 years. Oakland, Calif., recently ended a decade's ban on dredging only after a ship carrying newsprint ran aground.

Most ports are not naturally deep harbors. Like Baltimore, many are located at the mouths of rivers, where upstream runoff collects sediments that are deposited on harbor bottoms. Periodically, these deposits must be removed to keep the channels clear for ships.

Maryland must also dredge the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's really our lifeblood to continuing as a viable port," said Adrian Teel, director of the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's marine terminals.

To appreciate the importance of dredging, consider:

Sixty years ago, the average steamship was 460 feet long and 63 feet wide with a draft (the depth to which a loaded vessel is immersed) of 26 feet. Today, ships exceed 900 feet in length and 100 feet in width with a draft of up to 45 feet.

Last year alone, 400 million cubic yards were dredged nationwide -- the equivalent of a four-lane highway, 20 feet deep, running from New York to Los Angeles.

The problem is not so much digging up the spoils (don't call it sludge) as what to do with it.

Large cities like Baltimore face disposal problems because of the difficulty of finding space. The bitterly fought Hart Miller Island disposal site in Baltimore County -- where much of the state's contaminated and uncontaminated material is deposited -- is nearing capacity and must be closed by 2000.

State officials are beginning to look for the next disposal site, a search that promises to take years and produce political battles. Because of the pressure to find sites, environmentalists fear that their concerns might get scuttled.

"It takes a long time to develop these projects to make sure what you're doing is environmentally, economically and physically feasible," said Curtis Bohlen, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Ocean dumping is no longer the accepted practice. Environmentalists and others insist that contaminated material be carefully disposed of. In addition, they want clean dredging material to be used for wetlands and re-created islands. Those projects drive up the cost and slow the process, many port officials say.

"We're not trying to say we can ignore the environmental aspects," Mr. Stromberg said. "We've always supported the need for a balance between environmental and economic needs. But why should it take 20 years to complete a dredging project? Delay is built into the system."

From start to finish, it took 17 years to dredge the Baltimore channel from 42 feet to 50 feet. The $175 million project, completed two years ago, dramatically increased the amount of dredging Maryland faces just to maintain the new depth.

But getting approval even for maintenance dredging can involve 20 federal, state and local agencies. Any one, potentially, has veto power.

"The huge pyramid of rules and regulations make it a miracle every time a port dredging project is brought to fruition," said Mr. Pena, who promised to try to break the "dredging logjam."

Streamlining the process may prove more difficult than Mr. Pena expects. But port officials say the issue may finally be addressed.

"It's the first indication that I've seen from the federal government that there is a problem and we have to come up with a resolution," Mr. Teel said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.