State officials abandoned plans to dump dredge spoil into the Chesapeake Bay yesterday, killing a proposal once called vital to the port of Baltimore's survival because of new concerns that it could kill fish and release toxins into the ecosystem.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening ordered a halt to the Maryland Port Administration's effort to use a 4-mile stretch of water north of the Bay Bridge, known as "Site 104," as a dumping ground for 5,000 barge loads of mud and silt.
The governor also said he would likely reject any future proposals to dump in the open bay, saying dredge-dumping sites will be limited to inland landfills or man-made islands.
"I have decided to terminate any and all consideration of Site 104," Glendening said at a news conference yesterday.
"I have said repeatedly that we would not do anything to harm the bay, and the best available science now indicates that proceeding would be harmful."
The governor and port officials have argued repeatedly the past two years that open-water dumping would have no long-term effects on the environment and that Site 104's approval was crucial for the port to remain competitive. Port officials wanted to use the site as a low-cost dumping area for material dredged to deepen the port's northern approach through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal - a project that could now be in jeopardy.
Glendening's announcement came days after a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggested that dioxin, PCBs and other toxins discovered in the shipping channels could kill the silverside minnow and cause developmental problems in a species of mussel.
Because of those findings, the state could not dump channel mud at Site 104 without first obtaining a permit similar to that required of industrial discharge sites. Glendening and other governors in the region signed an agreement Wednesday promising to eliminate such permits by 2010.
In light of that agreement, Glendening said, seeking a permit to dump at Site 104 "would simply be wrong."
Opponents of open-water dumping were pleased by the decision, if somewhat annoyed that it took roughly two years to be reached. The Corps of Engineers, with the governor's support, issued a preliminary recommendation in favor of open-water dumping in 1998, but began re-evaluating that recommendation when several federal agencies and environmental groups questioned the quality of its analysis.
"The governor could have figured this out two years ago if he'd taken the time to examine the proposal closely," said Patrick Welsh, spokesman for an activist group opposed to dumping at Site 104. "This was a project that never even passed the common-sense test."
Said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who fought the use of Site 104 in the General Assembly: "Wisdom arrived at late is nonetheless wisdom."
While praised by environmentalists and other opponents, Glendening's decision creates an impending quandary for the Maryland Port Administration, which needs to dredge 4 million cubic yards of mud every year to keep the port's channels clear.
The Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for harbor dredging nationwide, is unlikely to approve the state's proposal to deepen the C&D; Canal if the project's costs - initially estimated at $83 million - rise much higher. And without Site 104, the costs could rise. Open-water dumping is the least expensive way to dispose of dredged mud, costing the state as little as 20 cents for each cubic yard, while an island-creation project can cost $5 or more per cubic yard.
"The governor's decision is a huge plus for the bay," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Open-water dumping is the cheapest option, and as long as it's on the table it's always going to be the first option.
"It's absolutely necessary to maintain the channels, but we may have to look at more expensive solutions. In the long run, that might be better for the environment."
Port officials have said in the past that the loss of Site 104 would keep it from making the C&D; Canal deep enough for modern ships, and would eventually chase away the coveted containerized-cargo trade. Critics called the claim hyperbole, saying the state was using the threat of economic calamity to summon political support for the cheapest, fastest disposal method available.
The head of the Maryland Port Administration said yesterday that he will keep the canal-deepening project alive by finding alternative dumping sites. He said the agency would never have proposed dumping in the bay if it knew the plan could harm the ecosystem.
"We have to let the science decide," said James White, executive director of the port administration. "Now we'll have to find alternatives. It will be a challenge, but we'll find them."
The 1,100-acre Poplar Island restoration project near Tilghman Island will cost $427 million in state and federal funds. But its relatively high costs aside, island creation is among the state's favored means of dredge disposal. At Hart-Miller Island near Middle River the method has created a recreational area for boaters, and at Poplar Island it is restoring wetlands.
The state has five potential sites for new islands, and some environmental groups fear state officials will feel pressure to select one and begin filling in more of the upper bay. Because contaminated soil can be dumped only in contained areas, they fear that the Corps of Engineers' findings have limited the state's disposal options still further - creating more impetus for a new bay island.
Said Bill Matuzeski, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program: "The question, now, is will it mean filling existing contaminated dredge sites to that point where it creates pressure for an upper bay contained site? This raises more questions than it answers."
With Hart-Miller and Poplar islands available for dumping, the state has room to deepen the C&D; Canal and dredge the channels for about 8 years, Glendening said. Port officials typically try to plan 20 years ahead for dredge disposal.
Glendening instructed Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari to begin searching for additional sites immediately.
"We will find alternatives that will protect the future of the port without compromising the health of the Chesapeake Bay," Glendening said.
Porcari said the state "won't rule any potential sites in or out at this point." He said he expects Site 104's opponents to support whatever alternatives are found.
"They've always said they weren't opposing the port of Baltimore, only Site 104," he said. "I intend to hold them to that."
Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and Joel McCord contributed to this article.