WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency said it will “fully scrutinize” a plan to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a move that was hailed by opponents of the project as a major victory.
But supporters, who say the C&D Canal proposal is critical to the success of the Port of Baltimore, noted Wednesday that the incoming Bush administration will have the final word on the matter.
The outgoing administrator of the EPA’s mid-Atlantic region said in a Jan. 11 letter to Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, that his agency will carefully review the economic justification for the project provided by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Gilchrest, who has long criticized the plan on the grounds that it is neither economically sensible nor environmentally sound, welcomed the EPA decision.
“I am very pleased that another federal agency will be providing an objective review of the Corps’ economic justifications of this project,” Gilchrest said in a prepared statement issued after he received the letter. “In order for the project to go forward, the Corps must prove that for every dollar of federal money spent on the project, more than one dollar of economic good must come from it.”
He and others have also expressed concern over the environment impact on the bay that could result from dumping large amounts of material that is dredged from the bottom of the canal. The EPA shares that concern, said Bradley Campbell, the outgoing regional administrator.
“The project is subject to the mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and we expect to fully scrutinize the draft Environmental Impact Statement to ensure that all federal laws have been fully satisfied,” Campbell wrote to Gilchrest.
The 14-mile-long C&D Canal cuts through the upper Delmarva peninsula, linking the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay via the Elk River. Originally constructed in the 1820s and widened and deepened over the years to its present size of 450 feet wide and 35 feet deep, the canal historically has been a vital shortcut for large-draft cargo ships traveling between New York and Norfolk, Va.
Both the Corps and the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees operations of the Port of Baltimore, want to deepen the canal to 40 feet in order to ensure large cargo ships can continue to use the canal. The cost of the project is pegged at $40 million to $100 million.
Gilchrest and other critics contend that the C&D canal is increasingly obsolete and deepening it won’t make any difference. Citing the declining number of ships using the canal over the past 25 years, and what he says is the port’s own admission that the deepening “won’t result in any new ships using the canal,” Gilchrest said the project can probably never be justified.
For its part, the Maryland Port Administration says that the project is needed in order to keep the 60-mile shipping route from the Delaware Bay to Baltimore harbor competitive, and rejected the notion that it does not care about the bay.
“The Port of Baltimore is a conscientious steward of the bay and the prime economic engine of the entire state,” said Judi Scioli, spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration. “Maryland taxpayers deserve an even playing field.”
Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium and a supporter of the canal project, said that the Bush administration’s EPA people will have the final word on the matter.
“What the incoming people have to say is far more important,” Ehrlich said. “If a case can be made, it should be done and in a way that is environmentally sound.”
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