Dredge or die for Baltimore's port

Key issue: Deeper channel gives Baltimore big edge, but disposal of material creates uproar.

November 16, 1999

A MAJOR obstacle looms before the port of Baltimore's revival effort: dredging.

Finding a place to dump the sandy silt is highly controversial. But as former port Director Tay Yoshitani put it, "Dredging is our license to compete."

Four million cubic yards of the stuff must be removed each year from Baltimore's 50-foot shipping channel, which extends 126 miles to the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Another 18 million cubic yards of material will be dredged in the next several years to make important safety improvements in the shipping channels.

In addition, deepening the C&D Canal -- Baltimore's shortcut to northern ports -- would add to the millions of cubic yards brought to the surface. That's important because the canal's 35-foot depth -- the shallowest approach route to any major East Coast port -- makes it unusable by bigger cargo ships.

Adding five feet of depth to the C&D, as has been proposed, could mean capturing important container business that now bypasses Baltimore.

But where do you put more than 100 million cubic yards of dredged material by 2020? Answering that question creates an uproar. It has for decades.

Environmentalists oppose any open-water dumping in the Chesapeake. Building a containment area is equally controversial. Intense resistance to a diked disposal site at Hart-Miller Island near eastern Baltimore County delayed that project for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. Nearby residents, boaters and politicians are still angry.

Consensus on dredging

Faced with no easy answers, port officials spent 10 years seeking widespread agreement on a long-range dredging policy from environmentalists, watermen and federal and state environmental agencies. They came up a 1996 document that committed the signatories to a multipronged effort to dispose of dredged material. These groups agreed that: Two sites would be enlarged to hold contaminated inner-harbor muck -- Hart-Miller Island and the CSX/Cox Creek containment area in Anne Arundel County.

Open-water dumping of clean bay material at Pooles Island would be expanded. A costly restoration project -- the most expensive "beneficial-use" undertaking in U.S. history -- would use dredged silt to restore fast-eroding Poplar Island in the lower bay.

A long-range project would build an island in the upper Chesapeake with dredged material.

All agreed the solution would include a second open-water dumping site. Nearly 500 potential sites were eventually examined; 162 were studied; 32 received in-depth evaluations. The group's consensus choice: the Kent Island Deep, known as Site 104, an area just north of the Bay Bridge. But the compromise has reignited the dredging controversy.

Opposition from community groups and wealthy homeowners in Queen Anne's County, environmentalists, politicians and federal regulatory agencies persuaded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-examine the viability of Site 104. A preliminary decision could be announced next month.

Opponents have legitimate concerns about the use of Site 104 that were not adequately answered in the Corps of Engineers' initial environmental report this summer. The corps needs to more thoroughly analyze the scientific pros and cons of this site. Disposing of dredge in open water is not a new idea. For more than 60 years, open-water dumping has taken place at Pooles Island in the northern bay with little adverse impact. That's a pretty good sign Site 104 won't be the ecological disaster doomsayers claim in their $250,000 advertising campaign.

Moreover, no one has come up with a better alternative to the 1996 disposal program.

Using all this silt for bay restoration projects or other beneficial uses is enormously expensive, cannot be done quickly and is frequently experimental. Most of the suggested sites in this category have been examined extensively: They flunked multiagency reviews or were rejected by watermen or environmental groups.

Building diked containment areas is also extremely expensive and time-consuming. Nearby communities and politicians furiously oppose such construction, too.

While modern dumping techniques can minimize open-water dumping dangers, there's still an environmental impact.

Yet three years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service signed a dredging agreement that included open-water disposal. They did so because this multiple-use plan offered the best compromise.

It's a delicate balancing act -- ensuring the growth of the port of Baltimore with its 18,000 maritime jobs and the health of Maryland's greatest natural resource, the Chesapeake Bay.

Keeping shipping lanes open

Maintenance dredging must continue so long as ships steam up and down the bay. The silt has to be placed somewhere. Port leaders need to push ahead with their sensible, multifaceted 1996 plan, including carefully monitored open-water disposal sites.

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