Maryland Port Administration greening an old harbor dumping ground

Agency restoring Baltimore's Masonville Cove as urban park, bird preserve

May 28, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

On Baltimore's industrial southern waterfront, there's a green oasis of sorts, squeezed between a sand-and-gravel plant and a busy shipping terminal. Deer, foxes and rabbits lurk in the scrubby woods along the shore, songbirds flit among the trees, and ducks and geese ply quiet water with a distant view of the downtown skyline.

Masonville Cove, long a dumping ground for building debris and scrapped ships, is being reclaimed and converted into an urban nature park and bird sanctuary. Already, hundreds of students from nearby schools are learning about wetlands and wildlife at a "green" environmental education center there. By year's end, visitors should be able to stroll down to the water and fish and kayak from a new wooden pier.

In what many see as a promising development for Baltimore's degraded harbor, the Maryland Port Administration is underwriting this $22 million makeover of one of its most contaminated spots. Part of the environmental restoration work in the cove is being done as legally required mitigation for the 130-acre impoundment created nearby to hold muck dredged from the harbor bottom. But the education center and much of the construction under way now are part of a deal the state struck with neighborhood leaders.

In return for the port's promise to clean up the cove and make it usable to the public again, leaders of the Brooklyn, Cherry Hill and Curtis Bay communities went along with something residents elsewhere have bitterly fought in the past — the disposal beside the cove of millions of tons of noxious smelling and sometimes contaminated mud dredged from the harbor bottom.

Rob Catlin, executive director of the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition, a nonprofit community development corporation, says it's a classic "win-win."

The port, one of the state's major economic engines, needs someplace to put the stuff dredged to keep the shipping channels open. Urban neighborhoods, meanwhile, get waterfront access that they haven't had in decades, plus a community center that Catlin hopes can anchor green education and job-training efforts.

And besides, he concludes, "Anytime any part of the harbor gets cleaned up, that's good for all of us."

Some see Masonville Cove's reclamation as a model for restoring Baltimore's degraded harbor, tackling both ongoing water pollution and the toxic legacy of past industrial activities buried in the soil and sediments.

"This is a first step in the direction of getting the harbor … fishable and swimmable," said Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It'd be great to see more of those types of projects."

Masonville was once a modest waterfront hamlet, hemmed in by the Middle Branch of the Patapsco and by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Black-and-white photos from the 1930s or '40s show people on the shore in bathing suits. Around 1952, though, the railroad bought and demolished the homes there so it could expand its rail yard.

Even before that, records indicate, the waterfront had become a dumping ground for demolition rubble, dredge material and just plain trash. Neighborhood lore has it that some debris from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 wound up in Masonville. Burned timbers found among the debris appear to predate the fire, and a paving brick on display at the education center that was found amid the rubble evidently was produced years before the blaze.

More recently, Masonville had been the site of a shipyard and a shipbreaking and industrial demolition business. Oil and toxic chemicals were dumped into the water and sediments during the demolition of a Navy aircraft carrier and several other ships in the 1990s.

The port latched onto the old scrap yard in 2000 and cleaned it up to provide more parking for Mercedes and other imported vehicles arriving at the neighboring marine terminal. Meanwhile, officials proposed to put a half-million tons of harbor dredge material there when its longtime disposal site at Hart-Miller Island filled up. Recalling the state's 14-year legal battle with opponents of the Hart-Miller site, port agency officials opted to try for a more cooperative approach.

By meeting with civic leaders and pledging to restore the cove as a "community enhancement" project, the port agency was able to skip a contentious court fight and get the dredge disposal site ready in six years. The first shipment of sediment was placed there last fall, shortly after Hart-Miller Island closed.

"All that added up to a lot of time saved," said Frank L. Hamons, the port agency's deputy director for harbor development. "It enabled us to continue to maintain Baltimore harbor, which without Masonville we couldn't have done." Some of the dredged material to be put in the impoundment contains toxic metals and chemicals, he said, but the contaminants will be contained in the impoundment and capped by clean material.

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