Wayne Gilchrest's `perfect wave'

Fear of shipping: His effort in Congress to stop all bay dredging projects reaches ludicrous stage.

July 13, 2000

YOU'VE HEARD of "The Perfect Storm," the book-movie blockbuster, based on a true event, about a gigantic hurricane that swallowed a fishing boat.

Well, now comes a companion danger, highlighted by Maryland Rep. Wayne C. Gilchrest in a recent House floor debate: the "perfect waves" generated by fast-moving cargo ships in the Tolchester Channel. They'll crash ashore, Mr. Gilchrest says, and suck young children walking along the beach into the Chesapeake Bay.

"When one of the ships goes by, these young people could be washed into the Chesapeake Bay and potentially drown," Mr. Gilchrest told his astonished colleagues in Washington. He repeated this assertion later in the June 27 floor debate.

What would lead the Eastern Shore congressman to spin such a wild yarn? His continuing effort to halt all new dredging projects in the Chesapeake Bay region. Mr. Gilchrest's fear of where dredged spoils will be deposited is clouding his judgment on bay projects.

This time, he may have gone too far. Mr. Gilchrest, a Republican, first tried to halt an on-going study of whether the deepening of the C&D Canal should proceed. Then he sought to end the straightening of Tolchester Channel, a dangerous navigation turn for big cargo ships.

His arguments -- strongly denounced by five Maryland congressmen in the debate -- were so flimsy that even the Republican subcommittee chairman opposed Mr. Gilchrest's moves.

In both cases, Mr. Gilchrest was unwilling to let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers complete project studies.

But why kill them?

Studies will reveal if deepening the C&D Canal poses environmental problems, or if ship-created waves can threaten beach-goers in the upper Chesapeake.

Congress -- and the engineering corps -- should base its decisions on well-documented and well-researched information. Mr. Gilchrest's motive, though, isn't to gather information. He simply wants to stop all bay-related dredging projects.

Other members of the Maryland delegation, including Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich of Baltimore County, made it clear that Mr. Gilchrest's anti-dredging agenda would endanger as many as 127,000 jobs tied to cargo growth at the port of Baltimore -- including at least 3,000 in Mr. Gilchrest's own district.

The Eastern Shore congressman protests that his actions wouldn't harm Baltimore's port. Yet his actions are designed to prevent new business from flowing into the port -- the surest way to drive maritime concerns away.

Among Mr. Gilchrest's most egregious steps is his effort to eliminate funds for straightening the S-turn in the Tolchester Channel just 1,000 feet from Tolchester Beach in Kent County.

That's where he made the claim that children would be swallowed up if ships traversed a straightened channel: The ships would increase speed, creating tsunami-like waves, apparently.

Pure bunk.

Then Mr. Gilchrest made the outrageous statement that ships face no safety hazard in the current Tolchester configuration.

That isn't so. The U.S. Coast Guard and the bay pilots' association warn of the intense perils of navigating the Tolchester Channel, especially in winter weather when the area is hit with high winds, fog, ice and thunderstorms.

Indeed, ships as long as 1,000 feet must snake through five turns within three miles -- some of the turns beginning before the pilot has completed the previous turn in the opposite direction.

It's an environmental disaster waiting to happen.

Not by Mr. Gilchrest's standards. He repeatedly told House members that since no serious accidents have happened in the Tolchester Channel (though there have been six groundings nearby), no improvements are required.

That's like waiting for the Exxon Valdez to run aground before making safety improvements in the shipping channel.

Fortunately, the House ignored Mr. Gilchrest's obstructionist amendments. But Mr. Gilchrest is just warming up.

Today, he goes before another subcommittee that he chairs seeking to end authorization of these projects. His concerns over bay dredging have reached epidemic proportions.

"Mr. Gilchrest's long-term agenda is to shut the port of Baltimore," said an angry John Porcari, Maryland's transportation secretary. "It's incredibly irresponsible. He is a reckless but well-placed congressman who can't seem to fathom that jobs in his own district are at stake."

Mr. Gilchrest doesn't appear willing to listen to reason. His proposals are hurtful to the state of Maryland and especially to citizens of metropolitan Baltimore. We urge other congressmen to stand up against Mr. Gilchrest and reject his irrational demands.

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