WASHINGTON – Maryland can afford to wait for more information about Site 104 and the environmental impact the projected dredge disposal site may have on the Chesapeake Bay, several members of the state’s congressional delegation said Tuesday.
House members briefed on the issue Tuesday recognized the importance of dredging for the Port of Baltimore, but agreed to wait for a new draft environmental impact on Site 104, scheduled to be released in December.
“Dredging is necessary,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville. “[But] we all agreed that there were questions to be raised. We have to make sure Site 104 is safe.”
State transportation officials said they can wait for the Army Corps of Engineers’ new impact statement in December without putting the port in a critical situation. But Site 104 remains their preferred solution for dredge disposal.
“The state is committed to Site 104,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari, adding that the state is running out of disposal sites. “Dredging is critical for the Port of Baltimore. . We need site 104.”
Site 104, an 1,800-acre, open-water site north of Kent Island, is proposed as the final destination for an estimated 18 million cubic yards of silt dredged from port shipping channels to expand them and keep them navigable.
Opponents charge that dumping at Site 104 would increase levels of sediment pollution in the bay, worsening water quality and damaging species such as oysters, crabs, rockfish, flounder and bluefish. In July, under pressure from opponents, the corps withdrew its first draft on Site 104’s environmental impact.
Without Site 104, state officials argue, the number of ships that call on the port could drop or there could be an increase in unloading time.
“Site 104 is very important for the Port of Baltimore to remain competitive,” Maryland Port Administration Executive Director James White said before Tuesday’s briefing.
Col. Bruce Berwick, Baltimore district engineer and commander, said the corps has broadened its search for a suitable disposal site, including the possibility of upland disposals. The new review will also include other concerns not addressed in the first draft, such as nutrient release, he said.
Hoyer said he is confident that the corps will be able to answer the delegation’s questions, and several Maryland lawmakers agreed Tuesday.
“Let the corps do its job,” without political interference, said Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium. The delegation as a whole is aware of the importance of dredging, he said, although what to do with the disposal is still an open question.
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, and an early opponent of Site 104, said that the delegation will have to hear much more on the issue before it can make any sort of informed decision.
“We heard about 1 percent of all information there is about Site 104,” he said.
Environmental and community organizations, who were the last to speak at Tuesday’s briefing, contested the importance of Site 104.
“[It] is not critical for the Port of Baltimore, ” said John Williams of the C&D Canal Citizens Working Group. He said the corps overestimated benefits and underestimated hazards in the first draft of its Site 104 environmental impact statement.
Those who argue that a healthy port is necessary for a healthy state economy are missing the point, said George Chmael, acting director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland. Part of the solution for the state economy is a healthy environment, he said.
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