Bay-dumping dispute swirls again

Lawmakers urged to stay out of it while feds have a look

The environment

March 15, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Armed with a rare fish tale, environmentalists and anglers urged lawmakers yesterday to derail or at least delay the state's plan to dump in Chesapeake Bay 18 million cubic yards of mud dredged from the port of Baltimore's shipping channels.

State officials, however, warned that failure to go ahead with using "Site 104" as a dumping ground could cause cargo ships to bypass Baltimore and endanger thousands of port-related jobs. They asked legislators to stay out of the dispute, which is being studied by federal regulators.

The House Environmental Matters Committee heard seven dredging-related bills yesterday, in what could be the final legislative airing this year of the controversy over open-bay dumping of dredge spoil.

Three measures would prohibit using the 4-mile stretch north of the Bay Bridge for dredge disposal, while one would delay it for two years. Another bill would require the state to study other disposal sites, while two would finance research into reusing the dredged material.

The arguments were mostly familiar ones, as lawmakers grappled with Site 104 last year without agreeing to get involved.

Opponents contend that dumping 5,000 bargeloads of silt and mud overboard could foul the water and hurt fish and crabs, which during the winter take refuge in the bay's deeper waters.

John P. Wolflin, head of the Annapolis office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told lawmakers that his staff caught a 3-foot Atlantic sturgeon last week in the 78-foot waters of Site 104. Though not legally protected as an endangered species, Atlantic sturgeon are rarely seen in the bay these days, he noted.

Critics of open-bay dumping argue that there is not enough shipping through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to justify the dredging. They also contend that open-water disposal of the muck is inconsistent with the state's multimillion-dollar efforts to restore the Chesapeake. The dredged mud contains about 2 million pounds of nitrogen, a nutrient blamed for causing algae blooms and water-quality problems.

Environmentalists questioned how Gov. Parris N. Glendening could ask this year for costly new requirements on household septic systems, when they contribute less nitrogen to the bay's problems than would the overboard dredge disposal.

"The state has to lead by example in this case," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Port officials, though, urged legislators not to be swayed by the public outcry against Site 104.

"We believe the decision should be made based on science, not rhetoric," said John Porcari, state transportation secretary. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must authorize the open-bay disposal of dredge spoil, had found little environmental harm would be done, in a decision last year attacked by opponents of Site 104. The Army in January reopened its study to examine new concerns about whether the activity could harm fish and water quality more than originally believed. A determination is expected by July, and final approval could be issued by early next year.

"If the science does not support use of Site 104, we will not go forward with it," Porcari vowed.

State officials say that if they are not permitted to start dumping at Site 104 by next year, they will be forced to overload existing disposal sites, including Hart-Miller Islands. That could shorten their usable life, worsening the port's ability to dispose of dredged material.

Del. Kenneth Schisler, an Eastern Shore Republican, voiced the frustration felt by many legislators when he chided port officials for failing to identify alternative disposal sites that might be more acceptable to the public.

"You have forced us into this decision," he said, of either allowing the dredging or hurting the port, a major economic engine of the state.

But James Peck, director of the Maryland Environmental Service, noted that Kent County residents opposed a proposal to dispose of dredged muck on farmland three years ago.

"Wherever you propose to put it -- there's people who don't want it," Peck said.

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