By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – A $90 million project to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal was targeted as one of the 25 most wasteful water projects in the nation in a report released Thursday by two nonprofit advocacy groups.
The report by Taxpayers for Common Sense and the National Wildlife Federation said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project will neither increase shipping nor create jobs by making the eastern route into Baltimore Harbor 5 feet deeper than its current depth of 35 feet.
The project might also let more-polluted Delaware River water enter the bay and it could affect fisheries by dumping dredged material at an open-water site, which one advocate identified as Site 104, north of Kent Island.
Some larger ships would be able to get to Baltimore from the Port of Delaware faster, but “not enough to justify the multimillion-dollar expense to taxpayers,” said John Williams, a retired engineer and volunteer member of a group appointed by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, to study the project.
But the Maryland Port Administration said the report did not consider the realities of the shipping industry or the economic impact on Maryland.
A deeper canal will make the short cut between Baltimore and the Northeast available to bigger ships and “help keep the Port of Baltimore on an even competitive playing field with other ports on the East Coast,” said Linda McCarty, a port spokeswoman.
She said shipping lines have said for some time that they plan to use larger ships and need the canal to be deeper. She also said the project is important to attract new shipping business to the harbor.
Williams said traveling through the canal costs ships 15 to 20 percent more than traveling up the bay because of the need hire two pilots to navigate the Delaware and Maryland portions. While it does let ships save time they would otherwise spend traveling the 100-mile length of the bay, he said, that time is lost when ships wait for optimal unloading hours in port.
Research by civilian members of the C&D Working Group — which also includes the port administration and the corps — found that ships prefer to unload during specific hours when labor costs are lowest. Williams compared the canal short cut to a student arriving at 1 a.m. for an 8 a.m. class, rather than saving money and arriving at 7 a.m.
But McCarty said shipping lines “are not complaining about unloading schedules. What they’re telling us is the canal’s not deep enough.”
Congress authorized a study of the C&D Canal project in 1988, according to a corps fact sheet. Environmental and feasibility studies were completed in 1996, but Gilchrest said they had to be redone after an error was discovered.
He said he expects a report in the next 30 to 60 days that will determine whether the project will move forward.
The issues in Thursday’s report are “exactly what we’re examining” in the pre-construction study phase, said Richard Chlan, a spokesman for the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Of the 25 projects identified in the report, only the 10-worst were ranked. The C&D Canal finished somewhere between 11th and 25th place.
Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the 25 projects targeted in the report are intended to highlight a larger need for fundamental changes at the corps.
The corps responded to the overall report with a prepared statement.
“It is important to realize that there are often no easy, clear-cut answers to the complex issues we face,” said the statement. “We believe our judgments are sound and that we present balanced recommendations that are unbiased and in the public interest.”