Seventy-eight feet below the surface of the Chesapeake Bay, along a stretch of muddy bottom called Kent Island Deep, nothing is growing. It's too deep for oysters and plants. Crabs move in sometimes, though only for the winter.
But something has taken root on the quiet, rolling, 4-mile-long patch near the Bay Bridge -- a controversy.
State officials want to use the area as a dumping ground for 5,000 barge-loads of mud and silt dredged from the bay's shipping channels. Over about three years, they would fill in the contours of the bottom until all 1,800 acres are a uniform 45-foot depth.
Opponents of "open-bay dumping" predict a catastrophic overgrowth of algae and thousands of dead shellfish if silt is dumped at Kent Island Deep. State officials disagree and insist that ships will run aground, businesses will leave the port of Baltimore and 17,700 maritime jobs will be in peril if the site can't be used for mud dredged from the bay.
But despite the state's foreboding of economic calamity, the use of Kent Island Deep would have little effect on the main shipping channels leading to the port of Baltimore.
Maryland port officials do not need Kent Island Deep to keep the primary route clear. Those channels are regularly dredged and can be for 15 years without dumping there.
Port officials mostly need the site in order to deepen the city's lesser-used, secondary approach through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. That plan would chiefly benefit container shipping companies -- particularly Evergreen Line, one of the last major carriers in the port and one that has threatened to leave if the canal is not deepened.
Federal officials share the cost of dredging and won't approve plans to deepen the C&D Canal and its connecting channels from 35 to 40 feet unless they think that any resulting increase in business would be worth the cost. Thus, an inexpensive place to dump the material dredged from the canal is integral to keeping the cost low -- and Kent Island Deep is the cheapest dumping site the state has found.
The relationship between dumping at Kent Island Deep and dredging the C&D Canal is rarely discussed. The projects are being studied independently and are under separate schedules; the federal officials responsible for them are in different cities.
But Maryland port officials hope that deepening the C&D Canal will stem the exodus of the city's container shipping business, and they need Kent Island Deep to get it done.
Losing Evergreen could be seen as the shipping industry's final pronouncement that Baltimore can no longer compete in the container cargo business, the trade that drives international commerce and rules the maritime trades throughout the world.
So the port's reputation and its stature in the maritime industry could be what is most at stake for the Maryland Port Administration, even as it campaigns to convince the public that open-bay dumping won't harm the environment.
"Dredging does things to the environment, and not dredging in a place like Baltimore, which is way up an estuary, does things to the economic viability of the port," said Kevin Horn, a port consultant with Louis Berger International Inc. in Washington.
"This debate has serious implications for the port of Baltimore, and it could have national implications. The whole industry is kind of watching right now to see what is going to happen in the Chesapeake Bay," he said.
Deep and cheap
Behind it all is Kent Island Deep, an otherwise unremarkable piece of subaqueous real estate that federal officials have renamed Site 104. One mile north of the Bay Bridge, just off Kent Island, Site 104 is a heaven-sent dredge dump from an engineering and financial standpoint. It is uncommonly deep -- 78 feet in some places -- and uncommonly cheap. State officials selected it after studying 475 potential sites.
Dumping mud at Site 104 wouldn't require grading, dike construction or drainage like typical sites used for dredging. Barges could simply pull mud or silt from the channels with a crane, tow it to the site and dump it on the bottom.
The Maryland Port Administration is proposing to dump about 18 million cubic yards of mud and silt onto Site 104. But the thought of filling in a chunk of the Chesapeake Bay's bottom to accommodate the shipping industry has some environmental groups and nearby residents aghast. Opponents are calling Site 104's selection an environmental ambush, skeptical that it could be environmentally safe and economically sound.