Funds for Poplar Island backed by House panel Dredge disposal project could cost $300 million

July 12, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

A House appropriations subcommittee in Washington has approved $15 million to begin restoring the Chesapeake Bay's Poplar Island, a highly expensive project that could become a national model for beneficial use of dredge material.

The plan to restore Poplar Island is one of several solutions proposed by Maryland officials to deal with the state's dilemma about where to put the mud and silt scooped from its 126 miles of shipping channels.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, hoping to secure federal funds, budgeted $35 million this year to develop the first half of the 1,100-acre project. Ultimately, the cost of dredge disposal at Poplar Island is expected to top $300 million over the next 25 years, a hefty price tag that would require significant federal money.

The vote Tuesday by the House subcommittee was the first concrete sign that Congress may be willing to share in that financing.

"This was not an an easy thing to get in a Republican Congress," said Jerry Irvine, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. "Maryland officials lobbied the money committees heavily, and we've been able to pull together strong federal commitment."

With ports across the nation struggling to find dredge disposal sites to keep their shipping channels open, Poplar Island is expected to become the first large-scale project of its type. Because it uses the waste material beneficially, it has encountered little opposition from environmentalists or community groups.

Irvine said yesterday that Maryland's congressional delegation is confident that the $15 million in federal funds for Poplar Island this year will not be eliminated as the budget measure makes it way through Congress. The full House Appropriations Committee was expected to consider the Poplar Island funds today.

As further indication of congressional support for Poplar Island, the Senate yesterday approved the Water Resources Development bill, which authorizes federal funds for a host of improvements in the nation's ports, rivers and harbors.

The Senate bill calls for the federal government to provide three-fourths of the estimated $307 million to build and operate Poplar Island over the next 25 years.

"You now have two visible actions of strong support for Poplar Island," said Charles Stek, a spokesman for Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "Poplar Island is admittedly an expensive project, and it took a great deal of hard work to get these two actions through.

The Poplar Island project, expected to get under way this fall, will use dikes and breakwaters to contain about 38 million cubic yards of dredged material.

It will create a new wetland habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife and halt further erosion of the once-popular Talbot County resort, now tidal marshes and mud flats.

Construction costs alone are expected to total $63 million, with state officials ultimately hoping to get 75 percent of that from the federal government. But the most expensive part of the project is the cost of transporting dredge material from the upper bay by barge to Poplar Island.

Ultimately, Congress must actually appropriate money, not just authorize it, in order for a project to be federally funded.

L And that process could take years or ultimately be derailed.

In addition to supporting Poplar Island, the Senate Water Resources bill authorizes federal funds for straightening a portion of the Tolchester Channel and deepening the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal from 35 feet to 40 feet. Those two projects are considered critical to the port of Baltimore and its efforts to bring larger ships here.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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