House vote near on bay dumping ban

1-year moratorium moot, significant for reaching the floor

Foes want time to regroup

Studies continue on dredge spoil's effects on Site 104

March 21, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates is preparing to vote on a bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on open-water disposal of sediment dredged from Baltimore shipping channels.

The measure, due for a vote by the full House this week, appears to be mainly symbolic. The Maryland Port Administration has said it did not expect to begin dumping dredged material in a 4-mile stretch of Chesapeake Bay known as Site 104 until fall 2001 -- after the one-year ban would expire. But the bill represents a watershed, since efforts last year to derail open-bay dumping failed to get out of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Members of the committee, which approved the bill Saturday, said they wanted to ensure that the legislature would have another opportunity to sort through the controversy over the environmental impact of the state's open-bay dredge disposal plan.

"More reports are due to come out in the next year," noted Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat. The one-year moratorium "will bring everybody back [to Annapolis] next year, but hopefully with more information."

The Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve the state's use of Site 104 as a dredge-disposal site, is revising its environmental review of the project to see whether the bay's fish or water quality would be harmed by dumping 18 million cubic yards of mud in deep water north of the Bay Bridge. A report is due by the end of July.

The House panel amended a total-ban bill sponsored by Del. Wheeler R. Baker, a Queen Anne's County Democrat, substituting instead a one-year moratorium.

It also approved two bills calling on the port administration to study an alternative disposal site at Eastern Neck Island in Kent County, and to examine recycling dredged material as bricks.

Port officials favored the bills calling for studies of dredging disposal options, but questioned the need for the one-year ban on Site 104.

"I'm not sure why you would pass something that would not affect the schedule in any way," said Frank Hamons, manager of harbor development. "You usually pass a moratorium when you know you have a problem, and all the science isn't in on this, so it seems premature."

Opponents of open-bay dumping welcomed the committee's vote, its first in two years of wrestling with the dispute.

"That's a good step in the right direction," said U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican whose district spans the bay.

Gilchrest and other critics of Site 104 contend that there isn't enough shipping traffic to justify the dredging of channels to serve the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. They also argue that it will harm the bay's fish and crabs.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, the committee chairman, said the one-year moratorium is intended to ensure that legislators can review the scientific evidence on whether open-bay dumping is environmentally harmful. "It gives us a chance for another session," the Cecil County Democrat said.

Site 104 opponents welcomed the bill, which they said could force the House to take a position for the first time on the dredge dispute. A bill last year setting a two-year time limit on using the site emerged from committee, but died at the end of the session.

"We think it could be strengthened with some amendments," said Patrick T. Welsh, spokesman for Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping.

He said opponents hoped the House will amend the measure to ban open-water dumping outright, instead of for just one year.

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