An open channel Shipping out: Baltimore's position as a leading East Coast port is threatened by difficulties disposing of the growing amount of dredge produced by maintaining the sea lanes.

January 07, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Citing an urgent need to stay competitive, Maryland port officials are eyeing a half-dozen sites -- including a possible new facility in the upper Chesapeake Bay near Pooles Island -- for the unpopular disposal of dredge material from the state's extensive shipping channels.

It's not quite "dredge or die" time, they concede. But with Maryland's only major disposal site filling up rapidly, the state has been forced to scale back its dredging to the bare minimum.

Already, ships laden with 100 tons of coal are coming precariously close to the bottom of the 50-foot-deep channel extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the piers in Baltimore. So are the massive container ships moving through the 35-foot-deep Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, according to industry officials.

"We're at a critical stage because we don't have places to put this material," said Capt. Michael R. Watson, president of the Maryland Association of Pilots, which represents 60 bay pilots licensed by the state to move cargo ships through Maryland waters.

"We're not really dredging, just skimming everything," he said. "Baltimore's status as a world-class seaport is becoming endangered."

Thanks to a grueling, decade-long battle over dredging, the port of Baltimore boasts the 50-foot-deep channel from the Atlantic to the piers. A $227 million project completed in 1991 increased the channel from 42 feet to 50 feet, and the depth of the C&D Canal from 28 feet to 35 feet.

Yet the project also dramatically increased the amount of dredging needed just to maintain that depth. In addition, with 126 miles of waterway feeding the port, its dredging needs are greater than any in the country.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Maryland will face a serious shortfall in disposal capacity in less than five years -- a relatively short span in which to secure financing and navigate the bureaucratic maze required to win the necessary permits.

In addition to short-term sites, port and other state officials are trying to pinpoint longer-term solutions that will provide adequate space for dredge material for the next 15 to 20 years.

Until recently, port officials had planned to ask the General Assembly to allow them to pump clean material into a particularly deep section of the Chesapeake Bay known as the Deep Trough.

But, with federal officials, environmentalists and Gov. Parris N. Glendening opposed, the Maryland Port Administration has decided not to seek approval for that environmentally touchy option.

As an alternate long-term solution, port and other state officials are considering a new containment facility in the upper Chesapeake near Pooles Island, similar to the Hart-Miller Island project.

Currently, dredge material is disposed of in open water near Pooles Island.

"We need to come up with another solution that is relatively inexpensive and provides large capacity," said Tay Yoshitani, the MPA's executive director. "Without Deep Trough or something similar to it, we don't have a long-term program for dredging."

Extensive delays in finding new sites could cost the port business, port and industry officials say.

"The essence is if we don't get it done, we can't remain competitive," Mr. Yoshitani said. "It's absolutely critical to the port's well-being."

Indeed, open channels are to ports what lanes are to highways and runways are to airports.

Last year, 400 million cubic yards of material -- the equivalent of a four-lane highway, 20 feet deep, from New York to Los Angeles -- was dredged from the nation's waterways.

Failure to keep the shipping channels open can spark an economic crisis.

A 10-year battle

But the problem is not so much scooping the mud, silt, rocks and, sometimes, contaminated material from shipping channels, but what to do with it.

Efforts during the 1970s and 1980s to create the Hart-Miller Island containment facility sparked a decade-long battle, with former Gov. Harry Hughes declaring at one point that it was "dredge or die" time.

Hoping to avoid that kind of fight, MPA officials have met for nearly two years with representatives of more than 75 special-interest, community and government organizations.

Out of several hundred potential locations, a committee agreed to recommend several scattered sites -- a strategy designed both to lower the cost of dredging and to diffuse opposition.

"Economically, geographically and environmentally, it's a very well-balanced plan," said Tricia L. Slawinsky, the MPA's coordinator of environmental and governmental affairs.

Yet the final selection of disposal sites could become mired in political, environmental and financial issues.

Although most of the dredge material is mud, rocks and silt -- the contaminated material, taken mostly from the Inner Harbor, already has been placed at Hart-Miller -- environmentalists, watermen and community groups are wary.

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