Site 104 dredging battle under way

Foes open campaign to battle an old idea, dumping in the bay

Chesapeake Bay

January 11, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Dredging, the environmental issue, is still being scrutinized by scientists and government agencies.

Dredging, the economic issue, is still being pitched by the governor and officials in the port of Baltimore.

And yesterday in the state capital in Annapolis, two blocks from where the General Assembly will convene tomorrow for its annual session of lawmaking, dredging, the political issue, was unveiled.

The state's plan to dump 18 million cubic yards of mud dredged from the port of Baltimore's approach channels into a section of the Chesapeake Bay called "Site 104" will be the subject of at least three proposed laws this year.

One bill would ban the practice outright; another would delay it for two years; a third would spend as much as $1 million in state money studying alternatives.

And, lest someone think that an easy settlement is at hand, consider this: While supporters of open-water dumping call it vital to the health of the port and the Maryland economy, U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an opponent, likened it yesterday to "a medieval man opening up his window and emptying his chamber pot."

Plans to dump dredge spoil into the bay are not a new issue in the Maryland legislature.

State lawmakers banned dumping in a region called the "Deep Trough" a decade ago, after several years of contention.

But the issue surfaces this year with renewed fervor, and pushed by opponents who are better organized and better funded than in previous years.

The activist group Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping held a news conference yesterday to kick off part two of a $250,000 anti-dumping campaign, with radio ads comparing the fight to the American Revolution.

And hoping to sway legislators who might support the state's dredging plan, the group also released a $2,500 poll suggesting that 67 percent of the state's voters oppose the idea of dumping dredge spoil into the bay.

"I'm all for dredging, and I'm all for paying for dredging," said Del. C. Richard D'Amato, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and an opponent of open-water dumping.

"But I'm all for doing it in an environmentally responsible way, and this isn't it. That's the message we're trying to get across."

The Army Corps of Engineers declared last year that dumping at Site 104 would not harm the environment, but the corps is reconsidering after federal environmental agencies questioned the finding.

Opponents are concerned that dumping in the bay would release high levels of nitrogen into the water, stimulating algae growth and depleting oxygen from the water.

A new report is due from the Corps of Engineers within weeks. But opponents want the dumping plan scrapped even before a new finding is issued.

Port officials, with Gov. Parris N. Glendening supporting them, have an almost desperate stake in the outcome of this year's debate. The port of Baltimore's plan to deepen channels leading north of the city through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal could unravel if material cannot be dumped at Site 104, or some similarly inexpensive alternative.

The Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state's public marine terminals and is responsible for overall management of the port of Baltimore, has other ways of disposing of mud dredged from the bay's shipping channels. Hart-Miller Islands, near Middle River, and Poplar Island, near Tilghman Island, are being created almost entirely from dredged mud.

But port officials say they need to plan at least 20 years into the future, and that without Site 104 they start running out of room too fast.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration said the bills to ban open-water disposal are ill-advised, and that the state economy could suffer should they become law.

"We feel that these pieces of legislation are inappropriate and unnecessary," said Judi Scioli, spokeswoman for the port administration.

"We're not using the bay as a place to dump something. There is material in the bay that has to be moved from one place to another in order to give ships safe passage and promote waterborne commerce in the port. And the science shows it can be done safely."

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