The port of Baltimore logged a number of successes in recent days: a record-breaking year for the amount of cargo handled, state exports surging to $6 billion in the first half of this year and more federal funding to support shipbuilding jobs.
The port's public marine terminals handled a record 9.55 million tons of cargo in fiscal 2013. And state exports of merchandise, including transportation equipment, computers and chemicals, rose 5 percent in the first half of 2013 from the same period a year ago, officials said.
"Where the port stands right now, I would say, is on the pinnacle of success," Maryland Transportation Secretary James T. Smith said in an interview.
The stakes are high as Baltimore competes with other East Coast ports gearing up for an anticipated increase in international trade from the widening of the Panama Canal. Baltimore's 50-foot channel and berth depths, shared only by Norfolk along the East Coast, make it an attractive choice for megaships set to move through the canal.
But Baltimore also faces head winds. Its ability to continue to grow — by redeveloping the former Sparrows Point steel mill, building a new cargo transfer facility and attracting cruise lines — will largely hinge on how well the state can navigate a gantlet of environmental concerns.
"We're very well aware and conscious of the environmental issues we have, not only on the water side but on the land," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "It's clearly identified on our radar screen. It is going to be more expensive for ports all around the world to come to grips and help the environment."
White and other state officials pointed to a number of initiatives. The Clean Diesel Program, launched last year, replaces dockside and transport trucks with cleaner-running vehicles that meet federal emissions standards. Dredged materials are being reused for wetlands restoration projects and island creation, and cleaner engines are being installed in other port equipment such as locomotives.
The port administration also has a Schoolyard Greening Program that replaces pavement at local schools with grass and trees.
Still, many environmental hurdles remain.
At Sparrows Point, tens of millions of dollars will have to be spent to remediate the polluted muck before any port business can take place there. Baltimore County attorneys engaged in negotiations over the property have called Sparrows Point "perhaps the most complex environmental cleanup site in the Chesapeake Bay watershed."
The Maryland Port Administration has been negotiating for months with the private redevelopment firm that bought the mill site in a bankruptcy auction last summer, with no luck. A container terminal and an auto terminal have been proposed for the land in addition to storage space for toxic material dredged from the harbor.
The port administration says it would spend tens of million of dollars on environmental remediation — $30 million to cap contaminants just offshore, $30 million for onshore remediation and $11 million for community enhancements — but local environmentalists haven't budged in their opposition to the project.
White said port officials are studying possibilities for the site and will submit a new proposal to Environmental Liability Transfer, the redevelopment firm that owns the land, in the next 45 days.
Environmental Liability Transfer has said it specializes in cleaning up such sites.
Port officials also are working to attract a replacement for Carnival Cruise Lines or lure the company back. Officials of the Miami-based company said pending federal requirements to reduce air pollution on all ships in coastal waters prompted their decision to move its Baltimore operations to Florida next year.
The company had offered to install scrubbers in place of burning cleaner fuel; the EPA said last week that negotiations are continuing.
Carnival represents about half of Baltimore's lucrative cruise business.
Southwest Baltimore residents have expressed concerns about a proposed CSX Transportation cargo transfer facility that would enable the railroad to double stack train containers, boosting its ability to move products from the port to the Midwest and beyond.
A recent health study found that such a facility could negatively impact surrounding neighborhoods by reducing air quality, increasing noise and light pollution, and driving down home prices — reinforcing calls to restrict operations.
According to Kurt Nagle, president and CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities, such environmental challenges are common for large ports.
"It's clearly part and parcel of what our members do," Nagle said of environmental remediation efforts. "Given the developed state of at least most of the areas in and around port areas, there are relatively few green field sites that tend to be available, so most of the development would be redevelopment of sites that had seen at least some level of industrial activity."
Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman who serves as an adviser to the port administration, said the challenges are real, but that Baltimore has a head start on competitors because of its deep channel and berths.
She said Baltimore's port is also "ahead of the game" in addressing environmental hurdles, including at Sparrows Point.
"It is going to take a lot of cleanup down there, but you know what? There is no other space of that size — over 3,000 acres — on the East Coast that is available anywhere," said Bentley, for whom the Baltimore port is named. "Everything can be done. It just may take longer than you want, and it may cost more than you want. But it can be done."
Bill Burwell, director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Baltimore, said the port has achieved growth in the past year by investing in new shipping arrangements as demand arises and serving as the central hub for an "ecosystem" of trade experts who can advise local companies on international business ventures.
"It's an amazing asset for the region and the state," Burwell said. "The port has been instrumental in getting trade back up to pre-recession numbers or better."
In all, the port generates about $3 billion a year in personal wages and salaries, provides more than 14,600 jobs and supports more than 40,000 additional jobs, according to state officials. It generates about $300 million a year in state and local taxes.
Gov. Martin O'Malley and other state leaders strongly backed a public-private partnership in 2009 with Ports America to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to the Baltimore port.
"They recognize the benefits that the port brings in terms of economic impact, so they are on our side, on our team," White said. "And the environmental challenges are something we're all going to have to face together."
"It's a direction that we're going in," said Smith, "making the business engine one that is environmentally friendly."
By the numbers
The port of Baltimore ranks:
•1st nationally, in handling of automobiles and light trucks, farm and construction machinery
•1st nationally, in imported forest products, imported sugar, imported aluminum and imported gypsum
•2nd nationally, in exported coal and imported iron ore
•9th nationally, for dollar value of international cargo
•11th nationally, for international cargo tonnage