Putting spoil in the bay opposed

Congressional panel votes to ban dumping near Kent Island

Dredging

July 21, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

A congressional committee voted yesterday to ban the dumping of dredged mud at a proposed site beneath the Chesapeake Bay except as a last resort, calling on port officials to "thoroughly analyze and review all practicable alternatives."

The vote, which was seen as a victory for opponents of "open-bay dumping," created a rare rift on the issue among Maryland's representatives in Congress, who suggested a battle over the matter is soon to come.

Some Maryland representatives consider plans to dump 18 million cubic yards of dredged material beneath the bay near Kent Island -- an area called Site 104 -- to be a threat to the environmental health of the watershed. But many people consider it vital to the economic health of the port of Baltimore.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer plans to convene a meeting of Maryland's members of Congress, many of whom have concerns that a ban on dumping dredge spoil in the bay could choke off commerce through the state's shipping terminals.

Hoyer, a Democrat who represents Southern Maryland, asked other Maryland representatives Monday to sign a letter opposing a ban on Site 104, and several members reportedly agreed to sign it. Hoyer chose not to follow through with the letter, however, and the House Appropriations Committee passed a bill yesterday with a section that said committee members were "deeply concerned" about the potential impact open-water dredge dumping could have on the Chesapeake Bay.

"Since other dredge-disposal sites are available, the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] is directed to exhaust the space in these other sites before using Site 104," reads the bill, which is expected to go before the full House of Representatives within a week.

That section was produced by the lobbying effort of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who said his Maryland colleagues have vowed to fight him as the bill progresses.

`Colossal blunder'

"I talked to Steny, and we had a good conversation, but we still disagree," said Gilchrest. "I told him I thought it would be a colossal blunder."

The shipping channels leading to the port of Baltimore require regular dredging because of silt moving down the Chesapeake Bay. Each year, the Corps of Engineers needs to dispose of about 3 million cubic yards of material.

The corps has several options for disposing of dredged material. It pumps it onto Hart-Miller Island, a man-made island near the mouth of Back River, and plans to re-create 1,110 acres of wetlands at Poplar Island, on the Eastern Shore near Tilghman Island. State officials also hope to expand Pooles Island near the mouth of the Gunpowder River and to dump material on land along the Patapsco River south of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

But port officials project that even if all of those disposal sites are used, they will run out of space in less than 20 years.

Without the additional space at Site 104, state officials say, channel-improvement projects such as the deepening of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal cannot be accomplished and even general maintenance of the port's primary channels could be threatened.

"It's absolutely critical," said George F. Nixon Jr., executive vice president of Rukert Terminals Corp. on Clinton Street. "It's a never-ending battle keeping those channels clean, and there's no place to pick up the slack. The port needs Site 104."

Gilchrest disagrees. He said planners could find 100 years' worth of capacity if they considered more alternatives and pointed to a recent report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service condemning Site 104 as evidence that it is a poor option.

Site 104 is a four-mile stretch of bottom off Kent Island on the Eastern Shore, just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was used for dredge dumping from 1924 to 1975, and the Corps of Engineers is reviewing it as a possible future site.

Under state law, anything dumped at the site would be "clean" dredge spoil from the open bay, not the contaminated soil sometimes found in the industrialized regions of the Patapsco River. But several studies have suggested that even clean silt could stifle wildlife growth.

A study by the Corps of Engineers said the long-term effects would be minimal, but other groups dispute that claim.

At 50 feet deep, Baltimore's main shipping channels can easily accommodate most merchant vessels. But deeper-drawing ships are becoming more common in the maritime trades, and some ships hauling coal and ore use nearly every foot of available depth in the bay.

An edge for port

Baltimore is considered a second-tier port for most commodities, and its channel depth is one of the few characteristics that give it an edge over competing ports. If the bay's channels become too shallow, port officials fear, shipping lines will call elsewhere.

"We are going to convene a delegation meeting in the next few weeks so we can discuss these issues," said Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for Hoyer, who would not comment otherwise. "We're searching for all of the data from all sides and have obvious concerns about its environmental impact, as well as its economic importance to the state and the port."

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