Against strong opposition from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, business and labor leaders have been working quietly in Annapolis to win the legislature's go-ahead on a plan to pump dredge material into a deep area of the Chesapeake Bay known as the Deep Trough.
The site was one of five initially proposed by the Maryland Port Administration for the unpopular task of disposing of mud and silt scooped out of the state's 126 miles of shipping channels.
But shortly before the 1996 General Assembly convened last month, Governor Glendening ordered state officials to scrap Deep Trough as a disposal site. That site has long been opposed by watermen and environmentalists and is currently prohibited by state law.
With Maryland's only major disposal site, Hart-Miller Island, quickly filling up, port and shipping industry officials insist that a long-range, comprehensive disposal plan is critical to keeping the channels open.
Delays in finding a range of new sites, they say, could cost the port business and jobs.
Private industry and labor leaders have been lobbying lawmakers to repeal the state ban so that officials can begin testing dredge disposal in the Deep Trough, and they appear to have won some key support.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, has scheduled a briefing today in Annapolis at which labor leaders as well as top officials from Bethlehem Steel, Consolidated Coal and the Greater Baltimore Committee are expected to urge lawmakers to move forward with testing on the Deep Trough.
"We continue to hurt ourselves by not planning for the future," Mr. Taylor said.
"The economic viability of the port is at stake. I want to know whether [Deep Trough] is environmentally sound. But everything hearing suggests that it is."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said using the Deep Trough boils down to an economic issue:
"If we're going to support the port and jobs, it's something we've got to do."
"You're going to encounter opposition everywhere from people who don't want the spoils placed near them," he said. "So the governor, the speaker and myself are going to have to say to the environmentalists, 'This has to be done.' "
The Deep Trough offers one of the least expensive and most readily available options for disposal. Silt and mud taken from the main channels of the bay would simply be pumped to its 65-foot-deep bottom.
The practice, used in areas like the Gulf of Mexico, is one proponents say has not been proved harmful to the environment studies by the Army Corps of Engineers or the state's Department of Natural Resources.
But watermen and environmentalists say the practice is counterproductive to Maryland's efforts to clean up the bay and would hamper commercial fishing.
"That's the only smooth bottom we have to use the kind of gear we're forced to use in Maryland to get striped bass," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "It's a natural place that blue crab and rockfish go."
By far the most popular option proposed by port officials is the restoration of Poplar Island, once a bay resort near Talbot County that has eroded to a cluster of marshy knolls and tidal mud flats.
But the price for using clean dredge material to reclaim 500 acres is $25 million. Ultimately the cost of developing the entire 1,100 acres would be $52 million, and that doesn't include high transportation costs for moving the material there.
State officials had hoped to get matching federal funds for the first phrase. But, even without a federal commitment, the Glendening administration has budgeted $35 million this year to start developing Poplar Island.
The administration is expected to tell the hearing today that it is also studying other beneficial use sites for the dredge material.
"There's good things on the table and bad things on the table," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state legislative advisory group that spearheaded the 1991 legislation to prohibit the Deep Trough disposal.
"Before we decide that we need the Deep Trough, we need to maximize our efforts to find other beneficial use sites."
The governor's commitment to Poplar Island or other sites may not slow down proponents of Deep Trough. Poplar Island, they say, was always part of the long-range plan. Without Deep Trough, or a similar solution, some business leaders fear a serious shortfall in disposal sites, particularly if the other proposed locations aren't approved immediately.
And those options -- including raising dikes once again at the Hart-Miller Island containment facility and disposal at Worton Point -- could become mired in their own political problems.
"No one is anti-environmental, but we will never know the potential of Deep Trough or its possibility as a beneficial use site unless we conduct a strictly monitored placement of clean material there over a five-year period," said Capt. Michael R. Watson, president of the Maryland Association of Pilots, which represents 60 bay pilots licensed to move cargo ships through Maryland waters.
"The port can't wait," he said.