Closing in on a dredge plan

Consideration: Costs, federal assistance and the environmental impact on bay islands all shape a push for new disposal sites.

July 01, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

In an unusual display of harmony, the Maryland Port Administration and environmentalists are inching closer to developing a 20-year plan for the disposal of sand and mud dredged from state shipping channels.

A committee set up to study the problem has whittled a list of 27 potential disposal sites to a dozen options, marking another milestone in the port of Baltimore's life-or-death struggle to keep shipping routes open for deep-draft ships. State legislation passed last year mandates that the port search for beneficial uses for dredge material and sets a December deadline for final recommendations.

None of the 27 potential sites have been eliminated, but the more likely solutions involve using dredge spoil to restore Chesapeake Bay islands that have eroded after centuries of exposure to wind and waves.

Though far more expensive than options once favored by port officials, island restoration offers economic and wildlife benefits that may satisfy environmentalists and citizen groups who have successfully blocked past disposal options.

The port faces a tight schedule to find new sites. Hart-Miller and Poplar islands - the port's two main disposal sites - are projected to be full by 2009. That leaves just seven years to find alternatives, a challenge because conducting environmental studies and getting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - a necessary step to obtaining millions in federal funds - can take close to twice that long.

"It takes a good 12 years because the state needs federal participation in these projects and that means we have to rely on the federal process," said Richard L. Sheckells Jr., director of planning and environment for the port administration.

To bridge the gap, state transportation officials are considering a plan to increase capacity at Poplar Island by either building it higher than originally projected or slightly increasing its size.

The proposal is favored by port officials and some bay advocates, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently voiced objections. The federal agency says piling material higher would delay development of wildlife habitat on the island.

"I'd like to be optimistic that it's something that could be worked out," Sheckells said.

The port's best hope for a long-term solution to its dredging woes might lie at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, site of a 100-acre island broken into three pieces by years of erosion.

Area residents say James Island once covered an estimated 2,000 acres and provided a critical barrier for two creeks historically known as productive crab and oyster territory. Today, sediment from the Chesapeake Bay is damaging underwater grasses and fisheries that have supported area watermen.

"If we lose the watermen ... we've lost a whole lot of our heritage," said Joseph Coyne, a Dorchester County resident who is pushing to get the island rebuilt with dredge material.

With support from county commissioners, Coyne and many environmentalists say the island could be restored with up to 80 million cubic yards of dredge material, providing new wildlife habitat and protecting adjacent shoreline from erosion. The project would be similar to Poplar Island, an island restoration project that has been widely praised for its environmental benefits.

"So far from the engineering, environmental and public reaction standpoint, it has come up looking still favorable," said Paul Massicot, director of the resource assessment service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Disposing of material at James Island would cost about $13 per cubic yard - roughly equal to the cost at Poplar Island. It would have an estimated useful life of 23 years if built to maximum capacity.

Several other bay islands also are under consideration, though few offer the same mix of benefits as James Island, proponents said. Other options under consideration include spreading dredge spoil on agricultural land or using it as fill at abandoned mines. However, those options will take more time and study to determine cost and feasibility.

"I think everybody is comfortable with the list and believe that they really do represent the best environmental options," said Theresa Pierno, director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group.

The bay foundation has clashed with port officials in the past. But the state has reached out to citizen groups in recent months to head off dredging controversies before they arise.

"I think some of the problems they had a few years ago really were related to not talking enough to community groups and local governments and so forth," said Fran Flanigan, former director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. Flanigan was hired by the port to conduct public outreach on dredging issues.

"So far, I think we're building some real consensus," she said.

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