Bay activists protest brief review time on cable plan

Underwater fiber optics would link city, Norfolk

August 10, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Shaken by news that a California firm intends to bury more than 300 miles of fiber-optic cable under the Chesapeake Bay, a group dedicated to protecting the waterway is demanding an extended review period for the project, which it fears could stir sediment and choke bay grasses.

"We are quite disturbed that this has gotten as far as it has without our review," Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said yesterday. "It is important to give the local and state officials an opportunity to have some input. The current time frame is far too short for that."

In a stinging rebuke, Pierno scolded the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of the Environment for failing to take steps to notify the foundation, a long-standing advocate for the bay and its delicate environment, and demanded that both agencies roll back the deadline for public comments by a month or more.

"I would hope they understand that any time you lay lines or cables or do any digging or tunneling in the bay there could be an impact," said Pierno. "I'm extremely disappointed we weren't notified earlier."

The corps' deadline for public input is Aug. 26. Comments or requests for a hearing are due to MDE by Sept. 1.

An MDE spokesman said yesterday that a series of public hearings - at locations throughout the state - would be set up after the Sept. 1 deadline for comments. Another MDE official cautioned that many hurdles remain in the permitting process, including final approval by the state Board of Public Works.

"We are in the very beginning stages," said Rick Ayella, chief of MDE's tidal wetland division.

Word of the proposal by ClearStream Communication Inc. of Sacramento, Calif., to build a network of telecommunications lines between Baltimore, Washington and Norfolk, Va., reached Pierno's group Thursday, the same day state legislators in Anne Arundel County protested that they knew virtually nothing of the project.

Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer demanded immediate public hearings.

The project, which requires permits from the corps and MDE, would affect the Anacostia, Magothy, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Severn and South rivers. Work is scheduled to begin as soon as next summer.

A ClearSteam official said yesterday that his company expected a lengthy review and permit process and that a monthlong delay for public comment probably wouldn't crimp the project's timetable. He said he was eager to tell ClearStream's side of the story, including environmental bonuses.

"We really feel that the project has a lot of economic and social benefits," said Ted Daum, environmental and geographic information systems director for ClearStream, which would pay the state $300,000 to $400,000 a year in waterway access fees.

"The network will provide an infrastructure for water quality and other environmental monitoring that doesn't exist today."

Daum said the firm would use a knife-like instrument to cut into sediment on the bottom of the bay to create a 4- to 6-inch-wide "incision" in which to bury the cable.

He said the knife-like instrument would stir up less sediment than other conventional methods, including plow-shaped tools that dig rather than cut.

The company is hoping to test its technology at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before putting it to use.

"If people hear our story, a lot of their concerns will be addressed," Daum said.

Pierno, however, is still waiting for answers - answers she hopes she and others can get during an extended public comment period. Whether she will get the extension was unclear yesterday.

"There is no mechanism for granting an extension at this point in the process," said MDE spokesman Richard McIntire, who explained that the public gets 30 days for comment, another 30 days for public hearings and then an additional 30 days to offer comments.

"I understand their request, but I am not seeing where the rationale is for it."

McIntire said the MDE's project review process would provide ample time for questions and other public input.

"September 1st isn't the last opportunity for public comment," he said. "At a minimum the public would have 60 days to comment." A spokeswoman for the corps could not be reached for comment.

Officials at both agencies said yesterday that they had provided adequate public notice regarding the ClearStream project - placing advertisements in local newspapers, posting notices on Internet sites and mailing hundreds of personal letters to interested parties.

Charles E. Walker, government affairs officer for the corps' Baltimore District, said in an e-mail yesterday that his agency mailed more than 400 letters last month regarding the project and its request for permits. The mailing list included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, Chesapeake Bay Commission and many other environmental organizations, Walker said.

Public notice was also sent to the U.S. Coast Guard, the Mason Neck Wildlife Refuge, the National Park Service, the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the Maryland Port Authority, the Federal Communications Commission and each of the affected counties, he said.

Pierno said her group knew nothing of the project until newspaper reporters started calling with questions. She said the corps should have known better than to rely on back-page legal ads and Internet postings to get the message out to key players such as the foundation.

"They had to find it unusual that they hadn't heard from us," said Pierno. "They don't seem to think that it was something that even warranted our attention, which I find disturbing."

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