THE SEARCH for ways to dispose of mud dredged from the port of Baltimore's shipping channels grew more difficult last week when Gov. Parris N. Glendening slammed the door on future dumping at open-water sites in the Chesapeake Bay.
It was a sound decision, based on scientific findings by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of trace amounts of toxins in dredged material. That came as a surprise, since similar tests by the corps in 1998 and 1999 had found no such dangers.
This ends the bitter debate over dumping material overboard at a site north of the bay bridge known as the Kent Narrows Deep, or Site 104. But whatever new location is finally chosen by state officials will stir controversies.
It will involve more expense for taxpayers, too. Site 104 was a favored option because of its proximity to the shipping channels and because open-water dumping is a relatively simple procedure.
The remaining options are either unproven scientifically, high in transport costs or require expensive containment techniques.
Still, the governor and port officials have made it clear that harbor and channel dredging must continue and that new sites will be identified quickly. The port of Baltimore is just too important to the livelihood of 127,000 Marylanders.
Among options being looked at are enlarging the ongoing restoration of Poplar Island in the southern bay; reclaiming the industrial shoreline on the eastern end of Sparrows Point; and creating a manmade island in the upper bay. Other alternatives include using a number of small-capacity containment sites near the port; enlarging some existing marine terminals with dredged spoil; and pursuing inland disposal methods, including recycling.
Each year, 4.5 million cubic yards of dredged Chesapeake channel material must be dumped somewhere. Deepening and safety projects add to the need for disposal sites large enough to hold 110 million cubic yards of material over the next two decades.
There's no dredging crisis, though. Disposal locations already in use can handle the spoils for another eight or nine years. That gives everyone time to agree on the next step.
What's needed is a cooperative search for viable options. The role of environmental groups will be pivotal: They strongly opposed dumping at Site 104. Yet so far they haven't offered realistic, affordable alternatives.
Now is the time for environmentalists to become partners in navigating through this muck and finding a safe harbor for the port's channel spoils.