Anti-dredging legislation being offered

Gilchrest wants to kill federal support for C&D project

Too costly?

He also would scrap straightening of Tolchester Channel


July 13, 2000|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest plans to introduce an amendment today to the Water Resources Development Act that would kill federal support for a previously authorized dredging project that state transportation officials have argued is critical to the port of Baltimore's survival.

If the legislation is passed, the Maryland Port Administration would lose federal support to deepen the port's northern approach through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

The dredging project, designed to accommodate modern ships, was authorized in 1996 and awaits federal funding.

Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, also will ask the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to scuttle federal funding to straighten the S-shaped Tolchester Channel, which connects the port to the C&D Canal to the north.

Billed largely as a safety measure, that plan was authorized last year and partial funding for the project has already been approved.

Transportation officials have said both projects - particularly the C&D Canal deepening - are vital to keeping what remains of the port's container cargo business and preserving port jobs.

But Gilchrest and other critics say the C&D project is too expensive and environmentally hazardous, given the canal's limited use by steamship lines.

"The [Army Corps of Engineers] in Washington has not to this point approved the deepening of the canal because they have yet to prove any benefit to the American taxpayer," Gilchrest said.

The corps' Philadelphia office is studying whether the economic benefits of the dredging project justify the cost, initially estimated at more than $80 million. Gilchrest's amendment would eliminate funding for the study.

Taking away funding for a study that has already been authorized is unprecedented, said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who sits on the transportation committee along with Gilchrest.

Cummings opposes the amendment, saying the Army Corps should be allowed to finish its work before any decision is made about funding the dredging project.

"It's money that's already out there," he said.

Until now, state transportation officials have been diplomatic in their response to Gilchrest's long-standing criticism of the port-dredging projects. But state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari called Gilchrest's reasons for opposing the projects "reckless" yesterday and accused the Eastern Shore congressman of jeopardizing safety and jobs at the port.

"It's just part of a concentrated and concerted effort by Congressman Gilchrest to hurt the port of Baltimore and the statewide jobs it has generated," Porcari said.

The loss of federal support would send a signal to steamship lines that call on the port and hamper efforts to attract new business, say proponents of the dredging project. The vast majority of ships sail into Baltimore via the 50-foot-deep Chesapeake Bay channel to the south. However, Evergreen Line, one of the last major carriers in the port, has threatened to leave if the C&D Canal isn't deepened to 40 feet from its current 35 feet. The canal offers carriers a shortcut, cutting transit times and fuel costs.

"We need to do it to maximize and retain the cargo business we already have and to look to the future so we'll have the best possible opportunity to gain new business," said Frank Hamons, manager of harbor development for the Maryland Port Administration.

Gilchrest's proposed amendment would have to pass a vote by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee before going before the full House for consideration. Gilchrest had argued against funding for both projects during debate on the House appropriations bill June 27, but that effort was defeated by Cummings and a coalition of other Maryland lawmakers.

The latest assault comes on the heels of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision earlier this month to abandon plans to dump dredge spoil into the Chesapeake Bay because of environmental concerns. The decision ended the port's plans to use a 4-mile stretch of water north of the Bay Bridge, known as "Site 104," as a dumping ground for mud and silt dredged from port channels.

It was hoped that Site 104 would allow for the inexpensive disposal of dredge spoil from the C&D Canal deepening project. With that option off the table, port officials have been scrambling to find an alternative dumping site that will be cheap enough to satisfy the Army Corps, which must sign off on the plan. Use of alternative sites would require dredged material to be hauled farther away from the canal, driving up the cost of the project by as much as 25 percent by some estimates.

By driving up costs, opponents of the C&D project argue, the governor's decision already accomplishes what Gilchrest's amendment would do if passed by Congress.

"It is extraordinarily unlikely there would be any federal support for the C&D project," said John Williams, a retired chemical engineer who heads a citizens' group appointed by Gilchrest to study the dredging issue. No economic analysis has shown that the project will significantly affect the port or local economy, he said.

Hamons of the port administration disagreed, saying the corps' economic analysis of the project is limited in scope and fails to consider its effect on the regional economy and jobs.

"They don't look at the [spin-off] that happens when that cargo comes ashore," he said. "In some ways, we're talking about apples and oranges."

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