STEVENSVILLE -- A state plan for dumping 18 million cubic yards of silt and mud in open waters near the Bay Bridge will take a giant step forward today with the release of a preliminary environmental study that opponents say confirms some of their worst fears.
The Army Corps of Engineers draft report says Site 104, the 4-mile-long area about a mile off Kent Island, is the best alternative for the mountain of muck that is clogging vital shipping lanes to the port of Baltimore.
After looking at 32 potential sites, corps officials say that most detrimental effects of the dredging operation would be minimal and short-lived. The dredging is part of the Maryland Port Administration's long-range plan to keep shipping lanes navigable.
No decision has been made, but opponents, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are vowing to step up efforts to block the proposal before a final ruling, expected in October.
"I think this just shows that this has been a done deal all along," said Bob Newberry, a Queen Anne's County waterman. "I just don't believe the corps can assure anybody that this isn't going to be an environmental disaster. I don't care how many computer models they've used."
Newberry and other opponents heard an outline of the environmental study Wednesday in Annapolis at a meeting with lawmakers sponsored by the Maryland Watermen's Association.
Col. Bruce Berwick, who heads the corps' Baltimore division, was accompanied by state officials, including the secretaries of transportation and natural resources.
"It makes you wonder just how fair this process really is when this was intended to be a private meeting," said Patrick Welch, a former Baltimore County legislator who is a leader of Citizens Against Open Water Dumping.
Opponents worry that 7 percent to 17 percent of the dredge material could drift in bay currents, covering oyster and clam beds and damaging underwater grasses.
Corps officials insisted that no decision has been made and have scheduled public hearings on Kent Island, in Chestertown and in Annapolis next month.
The study, they pointed out, included detailed analysis of more than three dozen alternatives that were evaluated for cost, environmental concerns, capacity, engineering and other factors.
"We're at a crossroads in a process that started in 1996," said Lt. Col. Greg Stinner, deputy district engineer. "We have not made a decision but, to date, Site 104 is the best alternative."
Port officials said they were encouraged by the report, noting that the dredging project is essential to keeping the port competitive. The port of Baltimore accounts for 60,000 jobs and generates $2 billion to $3 billion annually for the state's economy.
"Everybody wants the port to thrive and prosper," said Thomas V. Grasso, executive director of the bay foundation's Maryland office. "But we have to ensure that industries that depend on a healthy bay survive, too."
The preliminary finding was expected by commissioners in Queen Anne's and Kent counties, who have approved resolutions opposing open-water dumping and who are actively recruiting their counterparts in Anne Arundel and Talbot counties.
"We all anticipated that this would be a document of confirmation," said George O'Donnell, president of the Queen Anne's commissioners. "In the midst of all our Chesapeake Bay initiatives, it's amazing how anybody could support this. Regardless of what the report says, we're opposed."
Eastern Shore legislators have introduced bills in both houses to block open-water dumping.
Pub Date: 2/12/99