No data on secret bay data line

August 11, 2002

THE ARMY Corps of Engineers reacted indignantly Friday to complaints from elected officials in Anne Arundel County who claim they had not been told about plans to lay a 310-mile fiber-optic cable network underneath the Chesapeake Bay.

After all, Corps representatives point out, they had issued a public notice on July 26, posted the notice on the Corps' Web site, and mailed copies to 425 agencies, groups and private citizens who had happened to be on its mailing list. Plus, the Maryland Department of the Environment ran notices of its own in the legal ads of The Sun and other newspapers.

Nice last-minute effort, but it's not nearly good enough. Not if the intent is to actually alert a broad array of local officials and citizens to a project that may have major economic and environmental ramifications for the region.

With only a 30-day comment period that is nearly half over, it appears the Corps was trying to meet the minimum notice standard required by law, and hoping the project would remain below the public radar.

The legal notice excuse rings even more hollow coming from the state government. Officials from the Environment Department have been consulting along with the Corps for a year on the ClearStream Communication Inc. cable proposal.

Yet, key players in the General Assembly, the congressional delegation and the local governments involved say they never got so much as a heads-up.

The news broke only because Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer heard it informally from a guy who heard it from a guy, and she blew the whistle.

ClearStream, a Sacramento-based company that's only 3 years old, had hoped to begin laying the cable from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., by next summer. But much more needs to be revealed about the project at public hearings before federal, state or local officials grant the required permits.

What communities would be served by the low-cost, high-speed data lines ClearStream says the cable would carry?

Can the cable be laid under the bay, as the company insists, without any environmental damage to that increasingly delicate ecosystem?

How much disruption would there be to maritime traffic?

Is there a safer, less disruptive alternative?

What are the financial prospects for this fledging telecom firm? Who will bear the cost of the project if ClearStream goes belly-up?

No one is saying no -- yet. But a lot of explaining needs to take place before the answer to this proposal is yes.

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