Md. Democrats under fire for backing dumping in bay

Conservationists fear harm from dredge spoil

November 07, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The state's leading congressional Democrats, long celebrated as champions for the Chesapeake Bay, now find themselves the subject of criticism by environmental advocates.

Angered activists have singled out Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland as "an attack dog" for his legislative efforts to knock down challenges to the state's decision to dump silt dredged from shipping channels at a site off Kent Island, called Site 104.

But conservationists are also becoming increasingly critical of the quiet support given by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings to the project pushed by transportation officials in the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a fellow Democrat. The Maryland Democrats have received endorsements from several of the environmental groups that are questioning their dedication to clean water.

"I think they've been sold a bill of goods," said Mary Marsh, legislative director of the Sierra Club's Maryland chapter. "I don't think they've been taking a good, hard look at what's going on here."

"They're getting a lot of pressure from well-financed groups that are providing them with a lot of misinformation," said Nancy Davis, chairwoman of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. She said she hoped to sway lawmakers from supporting theconcept of open-bay dumping.

Both sides say that the state's congressional Democrats have signaled they will support the site as long as a delayed federal study finds that the dumping will not cause too much ecological damage.

"The information given to me, mainly through the governor's office, is that Site 104 can be used in a fairly safe way," Cardin, of the 3rd District, said in a recent interview. "If it can't be done in an environmentally safe way, we're not going to use Site 104."

But, he said, "the information given to us through the state is pretty convincing."

Economic engine

The Maryland lawmakers have stressed the importance of the port of Baltimore as an economic engine for the state. In a written statement, the 7th District's Cummings said he was pleased that a House committee had killed a provision that would have allowed the use of Site 104 only if all other alternatives had been exhausted. Hoyer of the 5th District declined to comment for this article.

Erin Fitzsimmons, a Salisbury State University professor who studies the politics of the Chesapeake Bay, said no matter what happens, disgruntled environmentalists will have few alternatives to the congressional Democrats who are disappointing them.

"They do very well in elections," Fitzsimmons said of the Democrats. "Typically, their environmental records are very strong. Seems to me there aren't many other choices out there."

Among many state environmentalists, it is an article of faith that open-bay dumping -- loading dredged spoil in a barge and simply depositing it -- is as dated and barbaric as bear-baiting or binding children's feet.

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.

The fear that nutrients and other pollutants would seep into the bay stirred the opposition of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and several federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among state officials and advocates for the port of Baltimore, however, it is an equally important article of faith that deeper and straighter channels are necessary for the port to remain competitive. The port takes credit for supporting 126,000 jobs in the public sector and private industry, and generating $1.8 billion for the state's economy.

And the site off Kent Island, they say, is the best and least expensive place for the dredged spoil.

Planned projects, backed by the state and supported by $15 million in federal funds secured by Sarbanes and Hoyer, would deepen and straighten channels followed by ships headed for the port.

Polluting the bay

"Almost everybody is supportive, primarily except Wayne Gilchrest," said Helen Delich Bentley, the former Baltimore County Republican congresswoman who is a lobbyist for the port.

Despite the Democrats' records, the environmentalists are criticizing their apparent willingness to allow the port to pollute the bay in ways that private industry would never be allowed to.

"Paul Sarbanes has campaigned on how he's fought to preserve the Chesapeake Bay, and this flies in the face of that," said E. J. Pipkin, an activist from Queen Anne's County. "I think that they hope that it all goes away. This project was never slated to get this kind of intense scrutiny."

Pipkin's group, called Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping, is starting a 10-day advertising campaign this weekend, with spots airing on several Baltimore television stations, to attack the port's plans.

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