Canal no solution for port I must respond to the...

SATURDAY MAILBOX

July 22, 2000

Canal no solution for port

I must respond to the barrage of personal attacks on me by this editorial page and other state officials in the past several days.

The assertion that I wish to close the port of Baltimore because I oppose unnecessary dredging projects that won't benefit the port is ludicrous. I have supported numerous projects for the port in the past and will continue to fight for jobs there and throughout Maryland.

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, I deal almost every day with port and international maritime issues.

The port of Baltimore absolutely needs to maintain a 50-foot channel in order to remain competitive. On that we all can agree. But we already have a 50-foot channel from the port to the open ocean from the south. Most container shipping lines already use that route.

So why is the port pushing so hard to deepen a secondary, less-traveled route through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the narrow waterway that connects the Delaware River to the Northern Chesapeake Bay?

I believe taxpayers would be surprised to learn that the Army Corps of Engineers, for the last four years, has consistently failed to prove that any economic benefit will be derived from spending more than $100 million to deepen the C&D Canal.

This project will never meet the federal requirements to be economically justified and is only still alive from political pressure, wasting $10 million so far.

The amount of container traffic using the C&D Canal has been declining for more than 40 years. The unfortunate reality of the canal is that many companies won't use it because it's too narrow, while others balk at the cost of extra pilot's fees to navigate the channel.

It also rarely saves shipping companies any time considering there is often a wait to unload cargo at the port of Baltimore. The future in container cargo trade involves ships so massive they would never consider the canal, no matter how deep.

The historic growth at the port of Baltimore has been in shallow-draft barged shipments up the Chesapeake Bay and "roll-on/roll-off" cargo, such as autos and farm equipment - not huge container ships that need a deeper canal.

And while it was a disappointment when Maersk/SeaLand bypassed the port of Baltimore in favor of New York last year, none of those ships could have used the C&D Canal even if it had been deepened.

Twenty-five years ago, when the canal was last deepened, the port and the federal government assured us that traffic through the canal would increase and therefore justify the expense of that project.

In fact, canal traffic never increased after that deepening and has steadily decreased. As a result, that project was never economically justified. Now we are being asked to buy the same argument and spend another $100 million in tax money. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.

In addition, the environmental costs of that project were significant. Some residents who live along the canal saw their wells go dry while other wells were contaminated. Shoreline erosion worsened and we saw siltation of the Elk River. A dike failed at Cabin John Creek.

Chesapeake City, which is divided in half by the canal, saw its water supply line cut and was forced to build a second water plant and sewage plant on the other side of the canal. Residents there now have the highest water and sewer rates in Maryland. And almost without exception, none of these problems has been fixed.

Meanwhile, the cost to deepen the canal again keeps escalating. When the governor announced that dumping of dredge material in the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay at Site 104 would no longer be allowed, the state lost the cheapest, easiest method of disposal. That decision came after intense pressure from citizens groups and following environmental reports that the same muck the port claimed was "clean sand" actually contained PCBs and other toxins that could kill fish and harm public health.

The Sun's July 13 editorial ridiculed my position against a separate port project involving the straightening of a curved channel that will allow ships to move faster en route to the port. During that debate, I raised the issue of public safety as faster ships cause greater wakes, endangering boaters and swimmers on nearby beaches.

"Pure bunk," said The Sun. Tell that to the parents of 7-year-old Celineg Sajardo, who was killed by the wake of a ship when she was swept off the beach near Tolchester on a Saturday morning several summers ago. A little more research and a little less rhetoric would certainly have served the editorial writer better than blindly following the propaganda handed out by the port of Baltimore.

Let's keep the port of Baltimore open and maintain the main shipping channel at its 50-foot depth. And let's use our tax dollars to make improvements at the port that will yield real benefits.

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