Bay spoil dumping opposed Environmentalists, Shore residents fight state ship channel plan

'One big Hiroshima for bay'

Kent Island waters proposed as site for dredged silt

August 25, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

STEVENSVILLE -- The Maryland Port Administration plans to begin digging 18 million cubic yards of silt and mud from the state's shipping channels next year, depositing the muck over a 4-mile stretch of open water near the Bay Bridge, about a mile off the northern tip of Kent Island.

While state officials await completion of an Army Corps of Engineers environmental study, the project, part of a 20-year overall plan, has drawn furious opposition from the bayside community this summer.

Residents, environmentalists and political candidates have been taking aim at the proposal, which port officials say is a vital part of a long-term plan to keep the port of Baltimore competitive.

In recent weeks, residents have organized protests, packed candidate forums, bought advertising and filled the letters pages of Upper Shore newspapers. County commissioners in Queen Anne's and Kent counties approved a joint resolution opposing the dumping scheme.

A Web page provides information for those opposed to the open-water dumping.

On Kent Island, Dave Perry, like many of his neighbors, has jumped into the debate with a vengeance. A caterer, Perry grabbed attention and dozens of converts to the anti-dumping crusade over the July 4th holiday by handing out 1,400 free crab cakes to U.S. 50 motorists lured off the highway by a series of hand-lettered signs.

"There is no way that this makes sense for the bay," Perry says. "It's going to affect our seafood, and I don't see it any other way. To me, it sounds like a giant cloud, one big Hiroshima for the bay."

If the project proceeds, material dug from shipping channels will be taken by barge and pumped to the bottom a mile west of Kent Island's Love Point. There will be nothing to contain the material, and opponents worry that the silt will drift with tides and currents.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation cited the potential for drifting silt as a primary reason for its opposition to the plan.

Port officials say that the spoil will not create an island and thatnone of the dredged material will be visible above the surface.

They hope the project can begin in fall 1999 -- provided the Corps of Engineers' environmental impact report confirms earlier studies showing the plan is safe. Meanwhile, port officials are baffled by the sudden opposition after extensive efforts to explain the project to residents.

"This process has certainly not been handled in secret," says Frank L. Hamons, the port administration's manager for harbor development. "The best we can do is take the facts of the situation and expect that people will be fair-minded."

Discussed for years

The proposal has been discussed for years and in 1996 was included among six options in the state's long-range plan for dealing with dredge spoil that port officials say must be removed from shipping channels.

The port accounts for $2 billion to $3 billion a year in business and directly or indirectly provides 60,000 jobs. State officials say dredging is crucial to the port's survival against more strategically located ports such as New York and Hampton Roads in Virginia.

Baltimore, they point out, is a 10-hour sail from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Even small vessels frequently sail within 2 feet of the bottom in shipping lanes approaching the port.

Where to put dredge spoil is a long-standing problem.

Last year, Kent County residents defeated a proposal from a consulting firm headed by two former state Cabinet secretaries, O. James Lighthizer and Dr. Torrey C. Brown, that would have spread tons of spoil over a 500-acre farm near Tolchester Beach.

Restoring island

Twenty miles to the south, Talbot County officials welcomed a plan this spring to use dredge material to restore Poplar Island as a wildlife sanctuary and recreational site. The $427 million program will restore the island to 1,100 acres, its approximate area before erosion nearly made it disappear.

Officials from the port and the Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over all dredging projects, have said repeatedly that contaminated material -- such as that found in the Patapsco River or Baltimore's Inner Harbor -- would not be dumped off Kent Island. State law prohibits open-water dumping of contaminated dredge material, which is disposed of behind containment dikes at Hart-Miller Island in Baltimore County.

'Doesn't make sense'

Few opponents dispute the need to deepen bay shipping channels, but they brush aside assurances that the plan will not harm water quality or marine life. Even the name of the dump location, Site 104, lends an ominous science-fiction quality to the debate, they say.

"Our concern is environmental," says Patrick Welch, a former state legislator from Dundalk who helped form Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping, a group that organized a series of public meetings this summer and that maintains the opponents' Internet site. "After the state has worked hard for so many years to clean up the bay, this just doesn't make sense."

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