A measure that would allow Maryland to continue to unload huge quantities of dredging spoils on islands in the Chesapeake Bay — an effort considered critical for the port of Baltimore — won broad bipartisan support Wednesday in the ordinarily divided House of Representatives.
The 417-3 House vote to approve an $8 billion water bill cleared the way for negotiations with the Senate on a final legislative package that state officials hope will be even more advantageous for state shipping operations.
Without congressional authorization, the state could begin running out of room to dump the muck it dredges from bay shipping channels in as little as three years, even as Baltimore competes with other East Coast ports gearing up for an anticipated increase in trade from the widening of the Panama Canal.
"The port of Baltimore is in a competitive position right now because we do have a good, 50-foot access channel," said Kathy Broadwater, deputy executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "To maintain its full width and depth, we need placement sites" for the spoils.
The House approved the Water Resources Reform and Development Act despite objections from conservative groups and budget watchdogs, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, that say the proposal doesn't reform a system that leaves billions of dollars in Army Corps of Engineer projects in a backlog.
Some environmental groups, meanwhile, are angry that the bill would reduce the time allowed for environmental impact reviews that can stretch on for years.
"What the bill attempts to do is short-circuit the [review] process," said Scott Slesinger, a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
If it passes, it would be the first time Congress has reauthorized the maritime programs since 2007. The legislation outlines plans for dams, harbor maintenance and other water projects.
More than 5 million cubic yards of silt are dredged from the Chesapeake annually — about 2 million of it from bay channels in Maryland. Much of the sediment has been used to build up Poplar Island off Talbot County into a bird sanctuary.
But the state needs congressional approval to continue using Poplar, and it wants to create new disposal sites on James and Barren islands off western Dorchester County.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would authorize use of the new islands, but only the Senate bill would also allow the state to continue using Poplar.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger tried to amend the House bill earlier this week to extend approval for Poplar, but the amendment was not allowed to the floor.
"Dredging and safely removing the sediment is absolutely critical to keeping the port of Baltimore competitive," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "This particular project … has become a national model for using dredged sediment to actually improve the environment."
Dredge disposal has been controversial in Maryland and elsewhere for decades. In the 1970s, Baltimore County officials 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.
State law, meanwhile, limits where material dredged from Baltimore's harbor can be dumped. That sediment is stored in containment ponds in Masonville Cove, and Broadwater said none of it would be used on the bay islands under consideration.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would require the federal government to spend more money on infrastructure projects through its Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The fund collects far more money from shipping fees every year than Congress allocates. The port of Baltimore raised roughly $40 million in fees into that fund in the 2012 fiscal year.
"It really is irritating to those who want to see projects receive the money that was intended for them," Michael Toohey, president and CEO of Waterways Council, said of the current system.
The group is supported by shippers, port authorities and other groups.
The House vote shifted attention to the conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will attempt to reconcile significant differences in a toxic partisan environment that earlier this month led to a 16-day government shutdown.
Still, Toohey predicted that lawmakers would move quickly in their negotiations, and several advocates said they expect Congress to develop a final plan by the end of the year. That speedy timeline may be driven in part by next year's schedule: Many of the same lawmakers involved in the water bill have to wrestle with similar legislation next year authorizing highway projects.
"There is an urgency to the conference for the members," Toohey said.