Dredge or die Port of Baltimore: Navigable channel is essential in cutthroat maritime world.


ENVIRONMENTALISTS won't like aspects of the Glendening administration's plan to dispose of dredged material from Chesapeake Bay harbor channels. Neither will penny-pinching conservatives. Or some watermen. Yet implementing the program is key to keeping the Port of Baltimore competitive in a cutthroat maritime industry.

This is no small matter. The port accounts for over $2 billion a year in economic activity. It creates employment for 62,500 Marylanders. It generates $141 million in state and local taxes. It is an economic engine that has to be fine-tuned and kept in good working condition.

Channels must be continually dredged and major projects must be undertaken to improve waterway entrances for ships traversing the bay. But past dredging has been so controversial that politicians have avoided tough decisions on where to put the muck. The result: A delay in even basic silt-removal that threatens the viability of Baltimore's port.

Gov. Parris Glendening's plan is a welcome breakthrough. Maryland now has a long-term strategy for dredged spoil. It doesn't please everyone, but there's a grudging consensus.

Most controversial is open-water dumping. This option is essential to meet the port's needs. But state officials, including environmental experts, think there is a way to do it that minimizes damage to bay habitat. The most likely site: An old dump area north of the Bay Bridge with a craggy bottom watermen avoid.

To offset opposition, the state will also contribute to an oyster enhancement program based on the volume of material dumped in open water. This could significantly boost the oyster recovery effort in the bay.

Open dumping will stop after six years, but it is the linchpin for improving key approaches -- the Brewton and Tolchester channels -- and embarking on a vital deepening of the C&D; canal. That last effort could make it faster and cheaper for vessels to stop at Baltimore.

Some of the proposals are expensive, such as restoring Poplar Island and constructing an artificial island. Others are inexpensive, such as raising the height of the north part of Hart-Miller Island and reactivating a containment site on Cox Creek. Overall, the plan is a wise investment because it solves the port's dredge-disposal problems for two to three decades.

As port director Tay Yoshitani put it, this dredging program gives Baltimore a license to compete against other nearby ports. A long-term solution offers him a competitive edge, something that Baltimore sorely needs in its quest for more container ships and cargo.

! Pub date: 9/12/96

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