A plea for dredging to keep port alive U.S. officials given helicopter tour of shipping channels

Tight fit in the C&D Canal

November 25, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

As federal officials debate the need to deepen or maintain the port of Baltimore's shipping lanes, the state's political and business leaders brought them to Maryland yesterday to give them a message: Dredge the channels or the port will die.

A local spokesman for Evergreen Lines, one of the port's largest carriers of container cargo, warned that his company could leave Baltimore if the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is not deepened.

The head of the Maryland bay pilots association said some of the port's channels are dangerous to navigate for the newer, larger breed of commercial vessels.

And the head of Consolidated Coal Sales Co., one of the largest coal export operations in the country, said his company's profitability depends on mere inches of depth between his piers and the open oceans.

"These [dredging] projects will take the port of Baltimore to a significantly higher level in terms of its capacity and its ability to compete," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. "They really have become critical to the viability of the port."

The Maryland Democrat led a helicopter tour of the port's navigable shipping channels yesterday designed to showcase their value to the federal officials responsible for maintaining them. Joining him was Joseph Westphal, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, and Maj. Gen. Jerry Simm, in command of the North Atlantic division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps of Engineers is studying the economic and environmental impact of deepening the 35-foot-deep Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, possibly to 40 feet, a process whose outcome is less than clear. The project could cost as much as $83 million, and Army Corps staffers say it's not certain whether the increase in waterborne commerce it would bring Baltimore is worth the price.

Besides the canal, which cuts across Delaware and gives ocean-going ships access to the Northeast, the corps is responsible for maintaining the 50-foot-deep channels that link Baltimore with the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

After viewing the channels and several dredge-disposal projects in the Maryland bay, Sarbanes and the group landed at the Dundalk Marine Terminal to meet with local port leaders, who implored them to keep the projects financed and under way.

George Thomas, local representative of Taiwan-based Evergreen Line, said his company will choose by 2000 a city to be its primary mid-Atlantic port, and that the 35-foot depth of the C&D Canal could be enough to disqualify Baltimore.

"We like the port of Baltimore. We have good labor and good facilities here," he said. "But we need the route north to get out and come in. If that's not available to us, we cannot maintain a general schedule here."

Capt. Michael R. Watson, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, told the group that modern 980-foot vessels can't navigate the canal and other channels safely the way smaller, older ships could. Said Watson: "We don't want to wait until there's an accident to say, 'See!' "

And as for maintaining the southern channels, Consolidated Coal General Manager Gary Dadisman said 40 percent of the ships he uses couldn't reach his piers if the state and federal governments hadn't deepened the channels to 50 feet several years ago. "We are utilizing the deeper draft because competition demands that of us," he said.

The port of Baltimore's dredging projects are not exactly in peril. Except for the C&D Canal deepening project, still in its planning stages, efforts to maintain or straighten channels have generally been viewed favorably by Congress and the Maryland Port Administration, which share the costs.

But given an increasing scarcity of money for dredging and the shipping industry's trend toward larger, deeper-drawing vessels, local leaders said they needed to make their case with more vigor.

Westphal, the presidential appointee who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, said he was impressed by the tour, but could promise only to treat Baltimore fairly.

"I will do my very best to make sure that we do the best by this port -- to the extent that resources and political will can make it so," he said.

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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