Dredging up the truth on proposed dumping

Site 104: Federal agency's use of scientific studies to find bay site is marred by distortions.

August 04, 1999

THE U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was right to seek further studies before approving a controversial open-water dumping area near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

A campaign of distortion and misinformation has inflamed the situation and imperiled the future of the port of Baltimore.

Here's the situation: To keep shipping channels in the bay open, some 4 million cubic yards of material is dredged annually. Where to put this material -- nearly all of which is uncontaminated sandy fill -- is a sticky question.

After 10 years of intensive study, dozens of state and federal agencies and environmental and watermen groups agreed on a six-pronged dredging plan for the next 20 years. It included one expensive project to expand eroding Poplar Island with dredged bay material and one new open-water dumping project, at Site 104 just north of the Bay Bridge.

But now that the corps is studying the viability of Site 104, environmental signatories to that 1996 agreement have recanted. Their aim is to kill all open-water dumping efforts.

Some have whipped up a public frenzy by saying port officials want to dump polluted "sludge" in the bay.

That is flat-out wrong -- and environmental experts know it. State law forbids dumping of dredged material from Baltimore's harbor -- where there is contaminated sludge -- in the bay. All this material is placed at two containment sites near Baltimore.

What would be dumped at Site 104 would be sandy bottom material from up and down the bay's long shipping channel. In fact, it would be purer than some of what's already lying on the bottom of Site 104.

Earlier dumping there -- before the advent of strict environmental laws -- had so contaminated a portion of the area it is now a "dead zone" in summer months. That means the water contains no oxygen -- and no fish.

Ironically, the proposed dumping would cap that contaminated area and encourage the return of underwater life.

The emotional debate has ignored such factors.

That's why the corps must conduct a new round of studies. Some valid questions have been raised that demand answers grounded in sound science, rather than hysteria.

The health of the Chesapeake Bay must be protected. Yet the port of Baltimore is a key economic engine for the entire state. It must not only continue to exist, but to thrive and expand.

The governor's multipronged dredged-disposal approach is a balanced plan that environmental groups endorsed. Now is the time to let scientists study the concerns raised about Site 104 and let the Army Corps of Engineers issue a new report.

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