EPA moves to stop area dredging projects

Critics say studies would needlessly destroy key grasses

January 05, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, worried about the loss of underwater grasses critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, is trying to squelch dredging projects in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

Officials in both counties and the Army Corps of Engineers say the projects in creeks off the Middle and Magothy rivers were designed to study the effects of dredging on underwater grass beds. But EPA officials say that the proposal isn't much of a study and that it could destroy grass beds that are only beginning to recover from previous destruction.

"The theory is, `Let's do the damage and see how much damage we do,' which we don't think is the soundest approach to policy making," Bradley Campbell, EPA administrator for the region that includes Chesapeake Bay, said yesterday.

The corps' Baltimore District was set to issue permits to dredge parts of Frog Mortar Creek, Chestnut Cove and Greyhound Cove in Baltimore County and Grays Creek in Anne Arundel until last month when J. Charles Fox, an assistant EPA administrator, asked Joseph W. Westphal, assistant secretary of the Army, to review the project.

The dredging would destroy more than 3 acres of the grasses - subaquatic vegetation (SAV) - and any chance for their recovery and set a precedent that would "encourage additional dredging proposals in areas with SAV," he wrote.

Janet Vine, the corps manager for the dredging projects, said the permit applications were typical of the 140 or so the corps receives annually for Maryland waters. But officials added requirements for the study, she said, "because we wanted to get some information."

The EPA cannot veto such projects but can ask top policy-makers to review decisions.

"Our goal is not to stop projects, but to set standards and to make sure those standards keep us on track to restoring the bay," Campbell said.

Scientists say 13 species of grasses once covered 600,000 acres of bay bottom from Havre de Grace to the Virginia capes. They provided shelter for fish and crabs, food for waterfowl and helped clean the water by absorbing nutrients and holding down erosion.

The grasses began declining in the 1950s, and only about 10 percent of the original expanse remains. The grasses are so critical to the bay that federal and state officials have promised to restore 114,000 acres by 2005.

Allowing the Baltimore and Anne Arundel County projects could jeopardize that goal, Fox said, recommending that the corps not issue any permits for dredging in grass beds until there is a "bay-wide dredging and SAV policy, based on sound scientific evidence."

Vine said the corps can't afford the "rigorous scientific study" the EPA requires, but its officials believe "we can get some relevant information from the way we're proposing to do it."

Anne Arundel County, with more than 500 miles of shoreline and more registered boats than any other county in the state, has had an active dredging program for years, said county spokesman John A. Morris.

Last year, the county received 97 of the 140 dredging permits the corps issued, most of them requested by community associations and waterfront property owners to clear channels of silt.

"Usually we have an eye toward minimizing the effects of dredging on SAV and shallow water habitats," he said.

Grays Creek, with depths ranging from a couple of inches to 6 feet, was last dredged in 1971. Anne Arundel County and 28 property owners have applied for permits to dredge a main channel for 300 feet and spurs to property owners' docks to depths from 3 feet to 6 feet.

The main stem of Middle River was dredged to 6 feet last year, but Frog Mortar Creek and Chestnut and Greyhound coves have never been dredged. Under the permits, channels in Frog Mortar Creek would be deepened from 2.5 feet to 4 to 5 feet; Greyhound Creek from under 1 foot to 3 feet, and Chestnut Cove from 1 foot to 4 feet.

Many who live along the water contend that boaters will use the creeks, regardless of whether they are dredged or not, and will kill grasses by pulling them up with their propellers.

"Dredging addresses the problem of silt buildup," said Tom Lehner, who keeps a 21-foot sailboat at a pier in front of his house on Frog Mortar Creek. "If you don't have dredging, you eventually will dry up access to the rivers and creeks here."

Sun staff writer Joe Nawrozki contributed to this article.

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