ANNAPOLIS – An army of state officials and port workers battled U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and environmentalists who came to the General Assembly Friday to back a Maryland legislator’s bill to ban open-bay dumping until 2002.
Yet, the two groups say they share similar goals – save the Chesapeake Bay and the state’s Port of Baltimore economy.
Sen. John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel, proposed one of seven anti-dumping bills introduced this session in an effort to assure both objectives are met.
His bill would prohibit the Port Authority from dumping 18 million cubic yards of dredge material into Site 104, a 78-foot-deep trough north of the Bay Bridge, until 2002, and form a commission to study land-based sites for the port’s dredge.
“We all have a commitment to the bay,” Astle said. “This bill provides a reasonable way to find a solution.”
Site 104 is part of the Baltimore Port Authority’s plan, endorsed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to dispose of 110 million cubic yards of dredge spoil removed mainly to deepen the C & D canal, the northern access route to the Port of Baltimore, over the next 20 years.
At a hearing before the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, environmentalists said Glendening’s support for dumping flies in the face of his push for farmers and septic tank owners to help curb the bay’s nutrient pollution problem.
“We ask everyone to do their share,” said Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But how can we continue this argument when the state is not willing to lead by example?”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to release in July its environmental impact study of the Site 104 project. It was postponed in January over concerns that dumping could alter the bay’s thermal equilibrium and the winter habitat of striped bass and perch.
Port officials said Astle’s bill is redundant and the Corps study should determine whether the dumping proceeds.
“I don’t know what a commission will contribute, except more delay,” said James Peck, director of Maryland Environmental Service. “There is no perfect solution and there will always be trade-offs,” he said.
Even if the Corps approved the dumping, work couldn’t start until October 2001, meaning Astle’s bill would delay the project only three months.
But Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, and environmentalists said they are worried the Corps’ study, commissioned by the Port Authority and the Maryland Department of the Environment, might be flawed.
“(Astle’s bill) is the wisest thing the state can do at this point,” Gilchrest said.
“This is a state decision, not a Corps decision,” said Patrick Welsh, spokesman for Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping. “And this decision is big enough that the General Assembly needs to intervene and say enough is enough.”
The port employs 18,000 people and is responsible for another 130,000 jobs. Its cargo activity generated $1.4 billion in business and federal government revenues in 1998, according to a Port Authority report.
To keep the ships, which are getting bigger and heavier, coming in, a deeper canal is needed, port officials said. The canal is 35 feet deep and ships are already within two feet of hitting bottom, said Frank L. Hamons, harbor development manager for the Port of Baltimore. “Within two years you start to see some serious effects.”
“And then you start to lose business,” added Peck.
Losing business has been the trend at the port since the 1950’s, said dumping opponents, and not because of shallow canals.
Since then, the number of ships passing through the canal has declined 90 percent, according to a study commissioned by Gilchrest. The port’s portion of the East Coast’s container market has slid steadily since the 1980’s.
That lack of business makes dredging, and dumping, unnecessary, said John Williams, who conducted the study.
The C & D canal saves ships enroute to New York about 5 hours, he said. But ships waste that time when they dock and wait eight hours for cheaper morning labor.
Those numbers are misleading, said state officials. Bigger ships carry more tonnage, said John D. Porcari, Secretary for the Maryland Department of Transportation, so of course fewer ships pass through the ports.