Roiling debate on dredging

January 30, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

LONGSHOREMEN shut down the port of New York last week to take on the environmentalists. It could happen in Baltimore, too.

In both places, environmentalists and their allies are out to put an end to open-water dumping of dredged material from shipping channels.

In New York, environmental groups seek to override a 4-year-old agreement worked out by Vice President Al Gore that allows dredged spoil dumping in the Atlantic Ocean. They want tougher standards than the ones agreed to by unions, port businesses, government agencies and environmentalists in 1996.

If they win their protest, the dredging of navigable channels in the New York port region would be jeopardized, as would the port's economic viability.

No wonder 2,000 angry longshoremen took off from work, without pay, to support the 1996 agreement at an Army Corps of Engineers hearing. The plan being pushed by environmental groups would put them out of work.

The story is similar in Maryland, where environmentalists and well-funded allies seek an end to open-water dumping in the Chesapeake, particularly at a spot near the Bay Bridge called Site 104.

Yet this location had been agreed to by government agencies, port officials and environmental groups four years ago -- the same environmental groups now out to end all open-water dumping.

It's an absolutist view that brooks no opposition. Anyone speaks against them is a dirty, rotten FOP (Friend of Polluters).

Any study that supports the safety of open-water dumping is derided as tainted research.

Even Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest has gotten sucked into this emotionalism. He, too, wants to kill the Site 104 dumping and all other bay dumping.

Being a politician, he assures us he means no harm to the port of Baltimore -- though he's advocating a plan that would be the death knell for shipping-related jobs.

The "anti" side in this dispute doesn't even want to let scientists complete their studies on Site 104, for fear they might find the benefits outweigh the negatives.

There's no solid evidence the proposed dumping would do long-term harm to the bay.

And so far, none of the advocates has come forward with a practical alternative.

Depositing the stuff on farmers' fields is unproven, though the governor's budget includes money to study this approach.

Dumping the muck in a containment site at Hart-Miller Island creates worse woes. The island holds contaminated sludge from Baltimore's harbor. If you fill Hart-Miller with clean bay muck, it would fill up rapidly, leaving no room for new contaminated spoil.

Dumping the stuff elsewhere in the bay doesn't pass muster with regulatory agencies or environmental groups.

One especially lame-brained idea is to use a bay site adjoining Aberdeen Proving Ground for dumping. There's this teeny-weeny matter of thousands of unexploded munitions shells in the dumping site. Talk about hazardous working conditions!

Finally, there's everyone's favorite alternative, "beneficial use" projects -- doing something useful with the dredged matter, such as rebuilding eroding Poplar Island in the Chesapeake.

Great idea. Work is under way. But it is very costly -- the most expensive "beneficial use" project of its kind. And we don't know if this experiment will even work.

Besides, there's been no rush to pay for such expensive projects by leaders in Congress. Where, for instance, is Mr. Gilchrest's plan to pay for future "beneficial use" dumping sites?

Opposing Site 104 is an easy step for a politician or an environmental group, or land owners upset about nearby dumping. The hard part is coming up with some other realistic way to get rid of the dredged material.

In the end, Site 104 may not meet the scientific criteria of the Army Corps of Engineers. Port officials, to their credit, are willing to await the results of bay researchers. They insist, and with good reason, that dredging must continue whatever the outcome on Site 104. Otherwise, the port of Baltimore will die.

The "antis," though, won't accept anything less than victory on their terms. It's becoming a dangerous game of trying to panic the public and the politicians. The outcome could have profound consequences for longshoremen and businesses not only in Baltimore but throughout Maryland.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editor of the editorial page.

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