Dredging strategy remains murky Plan needed to keep waterway viable in fight for ships, cargo

March 13, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions misstated the number of tons carried by coal ships moving through the port of Baltimore. The correct amount should have been 100,000 tons per ship.

The Sun regrets the error.

It may be the single most critical issue facing the port of Baltimore. But after more than two months, the 1996 Maryland General Assembly still confronts a mishmash of proposals and no small confusion over how to keep the state's shipping channels open over the next 15 years.

When it comes to dredging, the only consensus in Annapolis seems to be: The port of Baltimore, struggling to remain viable in its battle for ships and cargo, needs to develop a comprehensive plan.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But, amid a host of higher-profile issues in Annapolis this year, the dredging issue seems to be foundering.

In the Senate, lawmakers have quietly revived plans strongly opposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to determine whether dredge material should be pumped into a part of the Chesapeake Bay known as the Deep Trough.

On the House side, leaders are pushing for two unspecified sites in the Upper Bay for containment facilities similar to Hart-Miller Island a move that apparently dovetails with the Glendening administration's as yet unrevealed agenda.

At the same time, House leaders are seriously questioning the cornerstone of the administration's dredge disposal plan the restoration of Poplar Island saying costs there could easily top $200 million.

With a full strategy for dredge disposal still uncertain, the governor is expected to weigh in early next week with an announcement that will, according to one administration official, "formulate the state's short- and long-term disposal plans and reassure the continued viability of the port."

Secretary of Transportation David L. Winstead, another top official, said, "We're fully confident that we'll have placement options that will keep the port's channels dredged and open."

With 126 miles of waterways feeding the port, its dredging needs are greater than any in the country. But, with the state's only major disposal site, Hart-Miller Island, rapidly filling up, dredging has been reduced in recent years to a bare minimum.

As a result, ships laden with up to 100 tons of coal are coming precariously close to the bottom of the 50-foot-deep channel, which extends 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.

The problem is not so much dredging, but where to put the mud and silt scraped from the bay bottom.

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 necessary permits.

On Monday, a hearing will be held in Annapolis on a House resolution that urges the plethora of state, federal and local agencies to cooperate in quickly approving at least two island restoration projects in the Upper Bay.

While new containment sites are cost-effective and provide long-term capacity, they undoubtedly would produce a prolonged battle perhaps even reminiscent of the decade-long confrontation waged over Hart-Miller, which eventually opened in 1981.

Even in the port community which supports developing containment sites there's considerable fear that it can't be done quickly enough.

An Upper Bay containment facility has the backing of the Maryland Port Administration, but it was not included last fall in the agency's list of five favored disposal sites, which was developed after a study of more than 150 sites. The MPA said disposing of dredge material in the Deep Trough would give far greater long-range capacity than any of the other options.

That proposal drew opposition from the governor.

He insisted that the Deep Trough option, opposed by watermen and environmentalists, must be abandoned.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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