Dumping on island angers Eastside State's latest decision for Hart-Miller called another broken vow

June 16, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Perhaps no man is an island, but Al Clasing comes close.

At 71, he has devoted nearly half of his life to Hart-Miller Island, the Chesapeake Bay land mass that for many Baltimore County Eastsiders has evolved into a monument -- ever rising -- to government deceit.

Once again, state officials have turned to the island between the mouths of the Middle and Back rivers to dump 30 million cubic yards of dredged waste material from shipping channels -- a move that will raise the north end of the island to 44 feet.

The dumping will proceed after the anticipated approval this summer from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

To Eastside residents, the state's decision stands as another broken promise.

"If you can't believe your government, who can you believe?" said Clasing, a retired Bethlehem Steel Corp. manager, World War II veteran and now an official with the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association.

Added Del. John S. Arnick, a Dundalk Democrat and critic of the state's latest move, "In what started out in the '60s as a summer recreational idea, maybe we can now run a ski slope at Hart-Miller in the winter."

Arnick was referring to a 1966 proposal from a consortium of citizens groups for using Hart-Miller exclusively as a recreational spot. The state never acted on the idea. On two occasions in the 1980s, however, then Gov. William Donald Schaefer said the dumping would cease. But it continued.

To the state, the decision by the Maryland Board of Public Works this month was simple: Dredge or die as a competitive East Coast port, and Hart-Miller is the quickest and cheapest choice as the Glendening administration considers other dumping sites. Officials say the port generates more than $2 billion in economic activity each year and 62,500 jobs.

"Most people have never understood the continuing immensity of the necessity to dredge 5 million cubic yards annually from the shipping channels," said Helen Delich Bentley, adviser to the Maryland Port Administration, former Maritime Commission chairwoman and self-appointed "godmother of the port."

Noting the long court battles and community protests over previous dumping at Hart-Miller, Bentley said, "That material has to be placed somewhere. There was such a long delay on Hart-Miller that we now find ourselves in this position; where we are is between a rock and a hard place."

Critics of dumping have other concerns. They wonder whether a powerful storm could fracture the containment dike around the north cell of the island and send tens of millions of cubic yards of contaminants into the upper bay, closing Baltimore's harbor. Residents also complain that the dumping creates a breeding ground for a hardy mosquito species that lays eggs in the drying cracks of Hart-Miller's north cell.

Through numerous studies, state officials have assured community groups that the containment dike is sound and such an accident is highly improbable.

"How can they say that with guarantees?" Arnick asked. "They said the Titanic couldn't sink either."

Debby Hyson, who lives on Barrison Point Road, said the mosquito population has increased in the past four years. She has asked the state Department of Agriculture for spraying at the island.

"They are really aggressive mosquitoes," Hyson said. "Clouds of them chase my husband when he mows the lawn. And I've talked with golfers who won't go back to Rocky Point because of the mosquitoes."

But the strongest current running through many of the Eastside's 155,000 residents is disillusionment with state government.

"Thirty years is a long time to have your hopes dashed not once, not twice but three times," said Clasing, who in 1966 headed a citizens' group formed to convert the island into a recreational area.

After that, he helped spearhead several fights against Hart-Miller dumping while others waged an 11-year battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s -- but it failed.

The decision by the Board of Public Works, chaired by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to raise the containment dike temporarily solved the disposal problem for waste material.

And state officials have not eliminated the possibility that more waste could be dumped on Hart-Miller in the next century. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat, have promised legislation to limit dumping and require officials to choose other sites after 2008.

Democratic Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. of Dundalk, who testified against the dike-raising before the Board of Public Works, called the state's decision "very discouraging. The state went back on its word so often it has lost any credibility."

Said Clasing, "After all is said and done, the feeling in Annapolis for 30 years has been to dump on Essex and Middle River because it's politically expedient."

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