Unlikely grass-roots group toasts environmental victory

Party is last call for folks who fought open-bay dumping

July 13, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

KENT ISLAND - They drank beer, ate a cake decorated with crackers shaped like fish and swayed to the beat of the song "Celebrate."

But the approximately 200 people who showed up at the American Legion hall last night seemed dazed by the success of their crusade against dumping tons of spoil north of the Bay Bridge.

"It's incredible," said Patrick Welsh, one of several people who started Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping in 1998. "If you told us three weeks ago that we'd be here lieved it."

These activists are unlikely rebels - and even odder bedfellows.

Some came to the party in minivans sporting George W. Bush for President bumper stickers; others signed a petition for a Green Party congressional candidate.

They are accountants and charter-boat captains, Ph.Ds and farmers. Many are senior citizens. And many had never opposed their government before.

Last night, amid green and blue balloons and a weathered, waist-high plywood box used to show the exact size of one cubic yard of spoil, they found a common bond in victory, and in their still-fresh outrage over the state's attempt to dump dirt in their bay.

"To me, it was a no-brainer that it was bad for the bay," said Burt Jamison of Kent Island, who had never before joined a citizens group.

Jamison and his wife, Terri, handed out pamphlets and T-shirts. They called the governor's office. Their 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, raised $263 by holding a Beanie Baby raffle.

"We thought we would win eventually, but oh gosh, I thought it would take another couple of years," Jamison said.

The dispute ended last month when Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced that he was scrapping consideration of Site 104, where spoil dredged from port of Baltimore shipping channels was to be dumped, and that no new open-water dumping sites were likely in the Chesapeake Bay.

His decision came days after a final report by the Army Corps of Engineers, which found that toxins in the shipping channels could kill or harm fish such as the silverside minnow and a species of mussel.

Welsh says it was his grass- roots group that changed state dumping policy. "We are without a doubt responsible for stopping this project," he said.

Other environmental groups characterized that statement as hyperbolic, but even the group's foes agree its members were uncommonly dedicated, well organized - and effective.

"They were very visible," said Jim White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "They were at hearings in Annapolis last session lobbying the dredging bills that came up. They had ads on TV and in newspapers."

And while the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say they were aware of the problem, they give the citizens group unusually high marks for publicizing the cause.

Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping was born at Welsh's table at the Poplar Inn restaurant in Dundalk. Welsh, a real estate broker, was eating with his friend E.J. Pipkin and Pipkin's father, who had learned of Maryland Port Administration plans to dump 5,000 barge loads of dredge spoil in a 4-mile stretch of water called Kent Narrows Deep.

Welsh was incredulous when he heard about the plan. He had assumed the state accepted the theory that dredged silt was toxic. A former state legislator, he knew something about campaigns and decided to start one right there in the restaurant.

Soon after, on June 30, 1998, he and a few others held an informational meeting at the American Legion hall on Kent Island.

Earl Chambers, a retired dentist, lives on Kent Island and has spent much of his life on the bay. Chambers had participated in dental associations and done some political work, but never had he gotten so fired up over a public problem. He researched studies about silt from the '70s and '80s; he wrote editorials and letters to newspapers; he gathered nearly 3,000 signatures on a petition and sent it to the governor and other politicians.

Meanwhile, others were poring through the Army Corps of Engineers initial report, a stack of technical documents the size of four or five telephone books that said dumping mud at Site 104 seemed harmless.

"It was just incredibly depressing," said Chambers. "It was referred to as a done deal." The more their cause was attacked, the angrier people like Chambers got.

Membership grew to about 1,000 people and with it the group's financial strength. Bulk mailings and TV ads followed. At one hearing in Queen Anne's County, about 600 supporters showed up, making it the best-attended public meeting there in memory.

Last night's party marked the end of the group.

Welsh said he never intended Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping to outlive the messy problem of Site 104, and he is confident this victory will thwart further attempts at open-water dumping.

But for newly invigorated activists such as Chambers, Site 104 may be just the beginning; his next target might be urban sprawl.

"I got a little bit of my spirit back after participating in this one," he said.

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