A deep question for the port, bay

ON THE BAY

Dredging: More discussion is needed on whether deepening the northern channel route to the port of Baltimore is justified by the expected traffic.

January 21, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Some truths we Marylanders hold self-evident, but need to thoroughly debate:

To keep Chesapeake Bay open to shipping, to maintain the economic engine that is the port of Baltimore, we must continually dredge the millions of tons of sediment that flow down from the Susquehanna River each year.

The only questions usually asked are where to put the gunk and how to do it with the least impact on the bay.

No doubt these questions are important -- we're talking about enough dredged spoil to pack a quarter-million dump trucks each year -- stuff rich in polluting nutrients and sometimes toxic metals.

But before invoking the unofficial Maryland Port Administration slogan, "dredge or die," consider some other truths:

Ships can reach Baltimore two ways -- a world-class, 50-foot-deep, southern channel from the bay's mouth, and an increasingly marginal 35-foot-deep northern approach through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Roughly two-thirds of all the spoil placed in the bay every year comes from dredging that northern route. That part of the bay is where most of the Susquehanna's sediment settles.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the northern route was transited about 7,000 times a year by the big, deep-draft ships for which bay dredging is done.

In 1975, with ships getting bigger, the Port Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers combined to deepen the northern route from 27 to 35 feet. By then, big ships were making fewer than 4,000 transits of the canal.

No problem. Dredge and they will come, the port and the corps promised, projecting some 8,000 trips a year via the northern route by 1995 -- substantially more than the 6,500 trips needed to justify the cost of the deepening.

But use of the route by ships fell sevenfold, to about 850 passages in 1998 -- a nearly 50-year trend of declining use. (Tugs and barges use the canal route about 1,100 times a year, but they only draw 20 to 25 feet).

Currently, the corps is weighing the port's desire to deepen and widen the northern route again, to 41 feet, generating 6.2 million cubic yards of additional spoil.

The port administration is more cautious about how many ships would use a deeper northern channel. "A lot of shippers tell us the C&D is important to them, and that deeper would be better, but they won't commit to it, so it does put us in a bind," says Frank Hammons, a port official.

"We're not going to give up on the port just because the numbers [of ships] are going down on us," Hammons adds.

But what about giving up, or scaling back, on the least-used approach, the one that takes the lion's share of the dredging?

That option is the subject of a thoughtful and thorough three-year economic analysis by a citizens committee of retired engineers and businessmen.

It has been obscured by public furor over the port's proposal to dump spoil at Site 104 off Kent Island, opposed by citizens who are mounting a $250,000 public relations campaign about its environmental impact.

The dumping at Site 104 is largely tied to maintaining and enlarging the C&D, along with the northern approaches from the canal to Baltimore's harbor.

But the citizens appointed by U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest to the C&D Canal Working Group are raising a far larger and more profound issue than Site 104.

"Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't be dredging the upper bay -- at least not to the extent of 4 million cubic yards each and every year," their report states.

And it continues: "Without question, not dredging all of the navigation channels to the Port of Baltimore would probably have an adverse impact but how much? How much dredging must we really accept? The answer is not known because, until now, the question hasn't been seriously asked."

It must be asked, because continuing to support and enlarge the northern route to the port has consequences that go well beyond a single site like 104.

The volume of spoil in the next century, just from current maintenance dredging, would likely mean building, in open bay waters, at least five islands, each about 2 square miles in size, and 40 feet high, the citizens' working group says.

The cost would be in the billions, but the real costs would be aesthetic and environmental, interfering with fish spawning and the circulation of water in the upper Chesapeake.

And five islands might not be enough. The big dams that trap 50 percent to 70 percent of the Susquehanna's sediment will be filled, passing it all downstream in another 15 years, geologists say.

Hammons says filling in the bay with islands "is not what we have in mind, though we are looking for one more island."

But neither he nor anyone else knows what we are going to do with all that spoil, even as plans to deepen and widen push forward.

John M. Williams, a retired chemical engineer who heads the citizens' analysis of port dredging, thinks his group will persuade the corps that enlarging the northern route is not a cost-effective use of federal money.

But he thinks Maryland, whose governor and two U.S. senators have paid scant attention to their analysis, will go ahead and pay the $30 million to $40 million anyhow.

That would be a shame, without a healthy public debate of an issue with such huge environmental and economic consequences.

It may never be so clear as the way some pose the issue: a port designed for the bay, or a bay designed for the port? But our path lurches too blindly toward the latter.

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