Bay-dump project runs into trouble

Corps discovers contaminants in dredge spoil

Toxins could kill fish

Governor may end or scale back plan to take mud to Site 104

June 30, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appeared to be moving yesterday toward scuttling or significantly scaling back the state's plan to dump dredged mud into the Chesapeake Bay, because of new findings that suggest it would stir up toxins and kill fish.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told state officials yesterday that it has found contaminants in the dredge spoil that the Maryland Port Administration wants to dump into an area of the bay called "Site 104." Because of that finding, the state cannot proceed with the dumping plan unless it first issues a permit similar to that required of industrial discharge sites.

Just Wednesday, Glendening and other area governors pledged to eliminate such discharge sites in the bay by 2010. The governor has called a news conference for today to discuss "troubling new findings" by the Corps of Engineers and to announce the state's plans for Site 104.

The corps said it found traces of dioxin and PCBs in soil samples taken from the channels leading to the port of Baltimore.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a family of manmade chemicals that were widely used as insulation and coolants in electrical equipment until they were banned in 1977. Dioxins are a byproduct of the manufacture of herbicides and pesticides that were in common use until a decade ago.

The corps also found evidence that exposure to the soil in the channels can kill some marine species and cause developmental problems in others, said Col. Bruce A. Berwick, commander of the Corps of Engineers' Baltimore district.

While the degree of contamination was "at the very [lower] limits of what can be detected with modern technology," Berwick said, it was sufficient for the corps to require the state to declare Site 104 a "mixing zone" before dumping there. Mixing zones, required of municipalities and companies that dump water into the bay, allow for contaminants to be released within a defined area as long as they don't drift out.

Critics of open-bay dumping were quick to call the corps' findings evidence of Site 104's impending death.

"The governor has said he would never do anything to cause long-term harm to the bay, and this would; he's got to walk away from it now," said E. J. Pipkin, secretary of the activist group Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping.

"That spot now has been saved," said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who led efforts in Congress to ban dumping at Site 104.

"What this does now is open the dredging policy not just in the bay but around the country to what we hope is a microscope," the congressman said.

The dumping of 18 million cubic yards of mud at Site 104 is a key to the Maryland Port Administration's hopes to deepen from 35 feet to 40 feet the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and other channels north of the Patapsco River. The costs of deepening the canal have proven difficult to justify, and open-water dumping is the least expensive disposal method available.

But the Corps of Engineers' findings could affect more than just Site 104; it could result in the banning of all open-water dumping into anything but a "contained" site.

That would limit the state's dredge-disposal options to dumping on land, creating man-made islands or finding some other use for the material - among the most costly and complicated options available.

Currently, mud dredged from the bay's shipping channels is pumped onto Hart-Miller Island near Middle River or onto Poplar Island near Tilghman Island.

The corps dredges roughly 4 million cubic yards of mud from the channels leading to the port of Baltimore every year, and has room in other disposal sites that will last about 15 years.

Besides deepening the C&D Canal, the port administration wants to widen some channels and deepen some terminals and anchorages, projects that would fill available disposal sites much quicker.

Staff writers Michael Dresser and Joel McCord contributed to this article.

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