U.S. stalls dumping into bay

Corps of Engineers raises new concerns for marine life

Opponents claim victory

Site for dredge spoil is a `thermal refuge'

faster current found

Port of Baltimore

January 13, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Plans to dump mud from the port of Baltimore's shipping channels into the Chesapeake Bay were stalled yesterday by federal officials over concern that dumping in the bay could do more harm to fish and other wildlife than originally believed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said yesterday that two issues have surfaced that could change its finding that dumping into an area of the bay called "Site 104" is safe for the environment.

The corps said it needs six more months to form a new recommendation, after which it would hold public hearings and issue a final decision.

That means port officials can't dump at Site 104 until October 2001 at the earliest -- a year later than they had hoped.

Environmental groups and other opponents of open-water dumping were quick to call it a victory.

"Finally, something confirming what we've always been saying -- this is bad for the environment," said Patrick Welsh, a former legislator and spokesman for a group called Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping.

"Hopefully everyone will stop fighting for this thing now and start working on finding alternatives."

Port officials, who say Site 104 is needed to keep the Baltimore shipping channels deep enough for modern vessels, said they will keep pushing for the area's approval, hoping that the Corps of Engineers will ultimately resolve its new questions.

"We're really disappointed in the delay, but we want to do the right thing," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

"We don't want to press forward with this until or unless the science says it's a good idea."

The state wants to dump 18 million cubic yards of mud dredged from the bay's shipping channels into Site 104, a four-mile stretch north of the Bay Bridge also called Kent Island Deep.

The site could be used for disposing of silt dredged to keep the port of Baltimore's main channels 50 feet deep, and also to deepen the port's northern channels, which are 35 feet deep.

The plan is being fought at many levels, including Congress and the General Assembly. But yesterday's announcement by the Corps of Engineers was significant because it came from the agency with formal authority for determining the effect that open-water dumping has on the environment.

Until yesterday, most people close to the issue expected the corps to say that the environmental effects are minimal.

According to Col. Bruce A. Berwick, head of the Baltimore District of the Corps of Engineers, two issues surfaced over the holidays that "give pause" to the state's plans to dump spoil at Site 104. For one, the corps received new data suggesting that the region is a "thermal refuge" for striped bass and other fish.

Portions of the site, which is 78 feet deep in some places, appear to be one or two degrees warmer in winter months than are surrounding areas of the bay, Berwick said.

That means fish might migrate there in the winter -- the primary dredge-dumping period. And if the depth were changed by filling the site with dredge material, that refuge would disappear.

Berwick said the corps also took measurements recently suggesting that water current at the site could be faster than originally believed. That means more silt could drift off the site to other areas, possibly affecting nearby shellfish and other species.

The Corps of Engineers estimated earlier that more than 16 percent of the silt dumped at Site 104 could drift to other areas if released from the water's surface. If the current is faster than expected, more could leave the site.

Berwick said the Corps of Engineers needs to study the issues more before making a stronger assessment, but he added that both "have the potential to change the outcome" of the corps' recommendation.

The Corps of Engineers withdrew its original study of Site 104's environmental impact after federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service questioned its findings.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski accused the corps of "bungling" the study by not consulting with those agencies further in advance.

But Berwick said the corps uncovered the new issues on its own, as part of its standard process of reviewing and studying data.

At least one prominent opponent of open-water dumping, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, predicted that the corps is on path to reject Site 104 altogether.

"We're very pleased," said Gilchrest, a Republican representing the 1st District.

"This is going to lead to a more sophisticated awareness that human activity has, in many cases, a very negative impact on the marine ecosystem," he said.

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