Hoyer tries to rally delegation support for Baltimore channel-dredging effort

Gilchrest and EPA object to dumping spoil near Kent Island

September 15, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency joined other federal agencies yesterday in raising objections to the proposed selection of a four-mile-long site in the Chesapeake Bay as a dumping ground for silt dredged from shipping channels.

The selection of site 104, near Kent Island, is "an issue of increasing concern with the agency," said Bill Mataszeski, director of EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program.

He said an earlier study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had endorsed the site, failed to pay adequate attention to the composition of silt that would be dumped there or to nutrients and other pollution from the dredged material that could seep into the bay.

In response to sharp public criticism this summer from environmentalists and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the corps is taking a second look at the environmental impact of the dredging site. Preparation of its report could delay the use of the underwater dumping grounds, slated for as early as next year, by a year.

"I am not here as a proponent of Site 104," insisted Col. Bruce Berwick, who oversees the Corps of Engineers' Baltimore division. "I am looking for a sound decision that is based on science."

The officials spoke to members of the Maryland congressional delegation at a Capitol Hill meeting designed to air differences over the dumping controversy.

The meeting was called by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, who characterized it as an informational session. Of the state's eight representatives, only Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, did not appear.

Hoyer is attempting to persuade a majority of his Maryland colleagues to back him in undoing a legislative maneuver by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who wants to block the dredging effort.

The state's lawmakers remain divided on the issue, despite intense lobbying by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore officials and others allied with the port.

The dumping zone has been proposed as a repository for 18 million cubic yards of mud and silt that would be dredged to deepen and straighten shipping channels. Spending bills pending in Congress would allocate about $15 million for the effort.

Environmental impact

Opponents say the dredging is not economically justified and would generate only a modest increase in shipping traffic. The environmental critics say that 7 percent to 17 percent of the dredge material could drift in bay currents, covering oyster and clam beds and damaging underwater grasses.

But advocates said they intend to keep any wildlife damage to a minimum. Pointing to the $2 billion in economic activity generated annually by port traffic, state officials said the proposal is the best way to ensure that Baltimore can continue to attract major shipping lines.

"We're already behind the curve, and we need to catch up," said John D. Porcari, Maryland's secretary of transportation, whose department oversees the port. "Site 104 can be implemented in an environmentally sound manner."

Others made a more direct pitch. "It represents jobs -- jobs, jobs, jobs," said Horace T. Alston of the International Longshoremen's Association. "Where will they go to be employed if we lose the port of Maryland?"

Hoyer agreed to the meeting after intense efforts by Gilchrest to get him to meet with activists seeking to lobby against the site.

"Hoyer doesn't want to talk to me about this," said Gilchrest, whose environmentalism has brought him into conflict with state officials on the issue. "This is bad environmentally and not necessary at all, economically, if you look at it."

Appropriations bill

In July, Gilchrest persuaded GOP colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to put a provision in a spending bill warning the Army Corps of Engineers not to develop Site 104 unless all other plausible alternatives had been exhausted. The bill passed the House.

Hoyer, the only Maryland lawmaker on the appropriations panel, is hoping to get other Marylanders to endorse the idea of removing that language when Senate and House negotiators meet to work out differences over the measure.

Comments by Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings, both Baltimore-area Democrats; and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, indicated yesterday that they agreed with much of the arguments of port officials.

Reps. Constance A. Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, and Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, have expressed some sympathy with the concerns expressed by Gilchrest.

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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