Plans for data line are on hold

Fiber-optics company pulls permit application

Community outcry noted

Environmental updates planned for bay proposal

Anne Arundel

August 21, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

A California company that sought to bury more than 300 miles of fiber-optic cable under the Chesapeake Bay and several tributaries pulled its application for permits yesterday after scrutiny from elected officials and an environmental watchdog group.

Expressing surprise at the public outcry about their project, officials with ClearStream Communications Inc. of Sacramento said they needed to update environmental data in their proposal before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Department of the Environment to build an underwater telecommunications network from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va.

While still interested in pursuing the project here - and perhaps extending it north through New York - ClearStream officials could not say for sure yesterday whether they would resubmit the application.

"It is very clear we have to have all of our act together in response to the filing," said Frank Petro, the acting chief executive officer of the company, which has 12 employees.

He said the company has found other communities for the project to provide more affordable high-speed bandwidth access outside of major cities, adding: "We're not trying to get ourselves in some place where we have the community up in arms."

Anne Arundel County officials and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation blasted the corps and MDE nearly two weeks ago for not being more forthcoming about the project, saying they had no knowledge of it before rumors reached them Aug. 8. They also questioned the environmental and economic ramifications of ClearStream's plan.

Both agencies replied that they had followed procedure in posting and mailing public notices about the proposal, and amid the criticism they extended the public comment periods - which would have ended by Sept. 1 - into the fall.

Yesterday's news was applauded by many whose concerns about the project had yet to be satisfied.

"Smart move," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, whose office alerted the area's District 30 legislative delegation after hearing rumors about the project that would have entered the city's waterways. "If it is a project that is deemed to be worthwhile, now they can take the time to do it right."

District Dels. C. Richard D'Amato and Michael E. Busch, both Democrats, said they were glad the rush was off to review the plan, but they still intended to hold a meeting with MDE officials about the project tomorrow.

"I am frustrated that a project could get this far without any, to my knowledge, public body here knowing about it," Busch said, adding that he wants to know what ClearStream's project is or was all about.

D'Amato, calling the withdrawal a "victory for common sense oversight," said tomorrow's meeting could serve to reiterate the legislators' concern about the communication gap on the project.

"We need to make it clear to the agencies that something of this magnitude needs a thorough review by the legislature as well as the regulatory agencies," he said.

Henning Ottsen, ClearStream's vice president of engineering, said that in reviewing its application, the company discovered it did not include updated information about some oyster seeding and commercial fishing areas.

ClearStream is also considering connecting the Chesapeake network with one that would extend north to the Hudson River, and wanted to include the connection from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to the Patapsco River and the northern reaches of the Chesapeake in its proposal here.

But with all of the political and media attention in recent weeks, Petro said, he was also concerned that the reputation of his 3-year-old company - which is little known and does not have a Web site - could be sullied by allegations that its project could hurt the environment.

"We are an environmentally responsible company and I don't want to have a reputation for being anything different than that," Petro said.

There is a "very fundamental need" for the telecommunications services his company could provide here, and the network could also be used for real-time monitoring of water quality, Petro said.

He said he wants to make sure the company's application is "squeaky clean" before proceeding further. After revising the plan - which he said could take through the end of the year - the company will decide if it will resubmit it here.

"We really intend, or have intended, to begin in the Chesapeake," Petro said. "If we conclude it is not practical to get this thing going there, we will do it somewhere else."

Ottsen, who thinks ClearStream could be ready to resubmit the plan as early as a month from now, said he hopes the company will pursue the permit process differently next time.

"We have to do a better job of briefing people because I think we have a good story to tell," he said.

It's a story that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and local officials are waiting to hear.

"We have a lot of questions about the project, and we want those questions answered," said Michael Shultz, the foundation's vice president for public affairs. "We hope there is a very open and complete process when they do submit, and we intend to be looking out for the bay."

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