Artificial reefs may get lifesaver

Contract wording leads to money woes

DNR bailout might come to rescue


December 06, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

Bureaucratic red tape has placed Maryland's fledgling artificial-reef program in financial straits that might require a $480,000 bailout by the Department of Natural Resources.

A $500,000 bond bill approved by the General Assembly last session was supposed to ensure that contractors from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement project got paid for delivering concrete and steel construction debris to sites in the Chesapeake Bay.

But "boilerplate" language in the contract between the state and the guardians of the nonprofit Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative is preventing the bond money from being transferred to the program.

As with other contracts, the state wants the receiving entity to be liable for any problems with the project. But in the case of the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative - a coalition of 30 groups - the receiving entity would be Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, a nonprofit administering the program using its charitable status to save administrative costs.

Robert Glenn, executive director of CCA Maryland, said the group has drawn the line at assuming liability for the entire multimillion-dollar program.

"We need the governor's help to make this happen," Glenn said. "The governor's an attorney. He has to understand that CCA can't be held liable just because we cut checks."

Howard King, director of the state Fisheries Service, has offered to divert $480,000 over two years from the recently raised sportfishing license fees to help cover the shortage. He said he will ask for the blessing of the governor's Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission when it meets Dec. 17.

The Artificial Reef Committee, a group of volunteers that oversees the program, also agreed to dip into other funds to help cover the deficit in the short term.

Two contractors, American Bridge and Edward Kraemer and Sons, agreed to take material from the dismantled bridge by barge to sites in the bay to create artificial-reef habitats for fish and oysters. The cost is $21 to $30 a ton, depending on the distance the barges travel.

The Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative has completed two reefs, and two others are under construction.

But bills have piled up, and the contractors want more than just a promise that they will be paid, said Mike Baker, environmental construction manager for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.

"They understand the situation, but they are businesses," Baker said.

Turning rubble into reef costs three times as much as using the debris onsite for fill or for temporary roads, Baker said, but the chance to be involved in bay stewardship with the coalition was appealing.

State involvement in reef-building is not new. In the fall of 2006, King diverted $38,000 generated from fishing-license sales to pay for a pilot program to dump 4,000 tons of concrete from the Wilson Bridge at Point No Point, a fishing area just off St. Mary's County. That was the launching point for the Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative.

An Anne Arundel County philanthropist donated the first $100,000. The Dominion Foundation, BP, Shell Oil and Honeywell Corp. also contributed.

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