The Maryland Port Administration is completing its initial review of a multimillion-dollar proposal that would turn Baltimore harbor shipping channel muck into bucks.
The plan might eventually replace time-tested dredge disposal methods of piling sediment along the waterline or using it to plug holes in eroding bay islands with a factory that bakes the goo into concrete aggregate for construction. Baltimore would be the first port to use the process.
"We're getting ready to take the next step and it's an important step for Maryland," said port commissioner Ted Venetoulis. "I think it's going to be a breakthrough."
The state is not yet ready to shake hands on a deal with HarborRock Holdings LLC of Glen Mills, Pa. But port officials are anxious to find a long-term solution for harbor and shipping channel dredge material, which piles up at a rate of several million cubic yards a year.
"The need for dredging never goes away. What to do with dredge material is a nationwide issue and an issue in every port," said Kathy Broadwater, the MPA's deputy executive director.
Dredge disposal has vexed state politicians and port officials for decades. In the 1970s, Baltimore County officials, led by then-county executive Venetoulis, fought a $300 million state plan to use dredge spoils to restore two tiny islands at the mouth of Middle River. A compromise that turned Hart-Miller Island into a state park is now hailed by the state as a model.
Shipping channel sediment also has been used to create a recreation area in Havre de Grace and to build up Poplar Island off Talbot County into a bird sanctuary and prime fish habitat. But those projects are expensive and, as Hart-Miller proved, sometimes controversial.
Further complicating the matter is that state law prohibits creating new islands and strictly governs where the material goes and how it is handled. As a result, the number of potential sites is diminishing.
The Masonville and Cox Creek dredge-material containment facilities — essentially earthen boxes along the Baltimore shoreline — together can absorb about 1 million cubic yards annually, leaving the port administration short about 500,000 cubic yards. And their useful life will end within two decades.
Also diminishing are the federal funds that pay for dredging. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned port managers last summer that such navigation funds have declined 22 percent since 2007, a drop softened somewhat by an infusion of stimulus money.
"We can't keep dredging and dumping," Venetoulis said. "We have to think recycling."
With those needs in mind, the port administration put out an open-ended request in 2007 for proposals "that went outside the box," Broadwater said.
HarborRock was awarded a $289,500 contract a year later by the port administration to test its idea. A second company, Schnabel Engineering of Virginia, got a $948,418 contract in 2008 for a demonstration project to blend dredge material with steel mill byproducts to create construction fill material.
Schnabel won an engineering award earlier this year from a state professional association, but Broadwater said HarborRock "is farther along and has proven its product meets all industry standards."
Jeff Otto, president of HarborRock, said his factory would be located at a state-owned site north of Cox Creek in Anne Arundel County, where the port administration has built a dredged material containment facility on 116 acres.
Raw dredge would have the water taken out and baked at 2,200 degrees to destroy contaminants and create a rocklike base for concrete blocks and road construction. The aggregate could then be sold locally, Otto said.
"Even though this project is serial No. 1, the process has been used for more than 100 years with shale, slate and clay," Otto said. "The only difference is our quarry is underwater."
But being first has given some Maryland officials pause.
"You look around, and no other port has picked up on it. That indicates to me that there's some uncertainty to it," Broadwater said. "We're talking about building a $100 million plant. That's an investment of a magnitude that requires caution on our part."
One concern is the ability to feed the beast by providing enough dredge material to the plant on a regular schedule. The work schedule would be dictated by the amount of state and federal funding available.
The other concern is whether HarborRock's process can be cost effective. Port officials note that a German plant that turned dredge into bricks has closed because the product wasn't competitive with traditional bricks.
Otto said he understands the caution but believes those issues can be addressed in a contract.
"It's a big technical exercise, and it's easier to move a line on a spreadsheet than in real life," he said. "Once we hear their concerns, we'll have our engineers draw up and size the facility and we'll be able to put our numbers on the table. We'll make a proposal to the MPA that defines roles and puts a price on it."
He continued, "That price has to be competitive with the port's other options. We feel our proposal, with private funding, will be competitive."
Otto said his partners on the project, whom he declined to name, are industry leaders in engineering, construction and sediment management.
Venetoulis said the $1.3 billion public-private partnership between the port administration and Ports America for operation of the Seagirt Marine Terminal shows the state has learned to negotiate creatively.
"We really are way out front on this and we need to take advantage of it," he said.
Otto said he is confident a deal will get done.
"The port has methodically worked through the issues and checked the boxes and seen for itself that this works," he said. "When we build this in Baltimore, it's going to change the industry."