Dredge plan due for study

Opposition grows to dumping spoil in bay at Site 104

The port

July 30, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Federal officials said yesterday that they will re-evaluate a plan to dump dredged mud from the port of Baltimore's shipping channels into the Chesapeake Bay, delaying the process by a year or more and buoying opponents who hope to stop it entirely.

Acknowledging that criticism from environmentalists -- some of them federal officials -- needs to be explored, the Army Corps of Engineers said it will conduct a new study of the potential environmental damage that dumping in "Site 104" near Kent Island could cause.

"We're not starting from scratch, but we are all but starting from scratch," said Col. Bruce Berwick, commander of the Baltimore district office. "What we're after is a good decision that is driven by good science and sound analysis, and we've received a lot of comment that we think we need to explore to do that."

The decision means that Site 104 cannot be used for dumping dredged material until the winter of 2000-2001 at the earliest, if at all. The Maryland Port Administration had hoped the site could be used this fall.

State officials said they welcome further study, and hoped it would diffuse some of the criticism surrounding the project. But opponents of "open bay dumping" saw the decision as a serious blow to Site 104's future, and one from which it cannot recover.

"I think Site 104 is dead now," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and has led campaigns against the site. "This opens up an opportunity for dialogue, and Site 104 can't survive that dialogue."

Site 104 is a four-mile stretch of soft Chesapeake Bay bottom just north of the Bay Bridge. It was used for dredge dumping from 1924 to 1975.

The port administration's 25-year plan for dredge disposal recommends spreading 18 million cubic yards of material beneath the surface there -- the equivalent of a 500-acre island.

State law prohibits dumping most material dredged from the Patapsco River into the open bay because of potential contamination. If Site 104 is used for dumping, it would hold only "clean" material dredged from the bay's commercial shipping channels.

The corps' original environmental analysis said dumping at the site would have short-term effects on wildlife, but few long-term effects. A subsequent review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said nutrients released from dumping could stifle marine life by encouraging algae growth. The agency also criticized the corps' site review process, saying it did not adequately explore alternatives.

Berwick said the new study will review both of those concerns, and likely be completed by December. It then will be subject to public hearings, a 45-day comment period and a final decision by next July. If approved, the site could not be used immediately because channel dredging in the bay is not conducted in summer months.

The move means that Site 104 is no longer the corps' "preferred alternative," Berwick said, although it could be again.

"We're charged with choosing a site that has acceptable environmental impacts, but also -- and here's the rub -- sites where we're certain the environmental impact is understood," he said.

The corps dredges about 4 million cubic yards of material each year from the channels leading to the port of Baltimore. Most of it is pumped onto Hart-Miller Islands Natural Resource Area, a man-made area near the mouth of Back River. The corps and the state have several other sites available that give them about 80 million cubic yards of capacity.

State officials say channel-improvement projects such as the deepening of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal would be impossible without Site 104, and that even general maintenance of the port's primary channels could be threatened.

But opposition to the site is swelling.

The House passed a bill this week banning the use of Site 104 except as a last resort, though the Senate has not acted on it.

The Environmental Protection Agency was reportedly prepared to criticize the plan before yesterday's announcement.

And two state delegates said yesterday that they will introduce legislation in next year's General Assembly barring use of the site until 2002 or banning it outright.

State officials still support the site, but said they are ready to debate it further.

"A healthy bay and a thriving port are not mutually exclusive," said John D. Porcari, state secretary of transportation.

"Let the experts determine what, if any, impacts there may be on the bay. It is our belief that refining this draft environmental impact statement will help everyone better understand the facts."

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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