Reclaiming a birder's paradise

Refuge: A $5.4 million project aims to return shorebirds to Hart-Miller Island's south end.

January 28, 2002|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, the south end of Hart-Miller Island was an oozing moonscape of muck dredged from Baltimore's harbor and Chesapeake Bay shipping channels.

But it was a birder's paradise. Ornithologists recorded 277 species of birds feasting on the worms and other squiggly creatures in the mud on the oval-shaped island in the bay between Back and Middle rivers.

But the 3 million cubic yards of black goo pumped through the dikes annually between 1984 and 1990 has dried to shades of beige, hardened and cracked. The worms have been replaced by mosquitoes that breed in the cracks -- when rainfall provides enough moisture -- and the shorebirds have "almost disappeared from this area," says David F. Brinker, an ornithologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

The ruddy turnstones, upland sandpipers, surf scoters and other shorebirds have moved to the north end of the 2-mile-long island, where there is an 800-acre active disposal area that looks like a strip mine, only wetter.

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration have agreed to a $5.4 million project to restore the mud flats and wetlands, create a lake with an oyster-shell island and plant upland grasses for songbirds on the southern 300 acres.

Officials from both agencies are to sign a pact to create the wildlife refuge at a ceremony today at the World Trade Center at the Inner Harbor. The state Department of Natural Resources is to manage the refuge when the project is completed next year.

A quarter-century ago, Hart and Miller islands were little more than eroding sandbars with a few trees and shrubs when the Army Corps of Engineers issued permits to reclaim them with material dredged from the port of Baltimore and its entrance. The federal agency's decision touched off a storm of protest among nearby residents, who feared the bay would be tainted with toxic metals in the harbor sediments, dumped there by decades of industrial pollution.

"There were a lot of fears that the dikes wouldn't hold, that it would contaminate everything," says Tom Kroen, a leader of the opposition who is now president of the Hart-Miller Pleasure Island Citizens Oversight Committee. The General Assembly created the committee in 1983 after a series of tense hearings marred by fist-shaking and threats.

Now, says Kroen, "it's monitored better than anything on land. We knew that if anything went wrong out here, they wouldn't be able to get any more projects anywhere, so they had to be careful."

`Soil blankets'

The contaminated soils were buried deep, below the water table, and covered with an average of 40 feet of cleaner dredge material to hold pollutants in place, says Frank Hamons, deputy director of the Maryland Port Administration.

Such "soil blankets" are commonly used to contain heavy metals, says Lisa Olsen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "That doesn't preclude earthworms or insects from going down into the soil and coming up with metals, but they only go down a few feet," she says.

In addition, rainfall could percolate through the soil to leach out the contaminated dredge material, but the rain would have to be far more acidic than what falls in this area, Olsen says.

The island, once feared as a danger to the community, has become "an asset," Kroen says.

Pit-beef pontoon

By the mid-1990s, the island's beach had become a magnet for pleasure boaters, who anchored, swam and partied in the shallow water on the leeward side of the island. It became such an attraction that one entrepreneur began selling pit-beef sandwiches and pizza from a 30-foot pontoon, and state and federal officials spent $1.5 million to build rock breakwaters to protect the island from erosion.

The island has also become the site of annual Earth Day tree plantings. An earthen berm covered with grass and trees rises about 40 feet from the water's edge. Kestrel and hawks swoop through stands of sweet gum, willow oaks and pine trees strung along the western edge of the island.

The southern end of the island reached its capacity for dredged material 12 years ago and has gradually dried out, driving shorebirds away.

Now, to re-create the mud flats, engineers will build pipes to pump water through the dikes again, flooding about 150 acres in the center of the island. Then they will use an existing spillway on the southeast corner, the lowest point, to control water levels, draining it during the spring and fall migrating seasons to create acres of mud flats.

It will be "premier shorebird habitat," says Steve Kopecky, the Corps of Engineers' project manager.

And the oyster-shell island in the middle of the lake will be prime habitat for terns.

"They need an island to protect them from predators," says Brinker, the state ornithologist. "We used to attract common terns here. But lately, we haven't seen them north of the Bay Bridge."

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