REP. WAYNE T. Gilchrest, concerned about the impact on the bay from the port of Baltimore's dredging, is finding out what it means to prod one of the state's sacred cows.
The Eastern Shore congressman wants to block a $90 million federal project to deepen and straighten the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and other parts of the northern shipping approaches to the port.
His Maryland congressional colleagues, Democrat and Republican, who normally pledge allegiance to the Chesapeake, want nothing to do with him on this one. The Sun's editorialists have ridiculed the Republican and hinted darkly that this could end his political career.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening has unleashed the dogs, with top state officials calling Gilchrest a threat to the port's future and a man of "utterly limited vision."
Gilchrest does have a vision problem, in that he is looking uncomfortably far ahead at how the bay and the port can co-exist long term - a comprehensive view that his critics entirely lack.
I don't believe that Gilchrest has all the answers, but I know he's raising excellent questions, too long ignored for a more expedient philosophy of "when in doubt, dredge."
Indeed, one might get the impression, from the attacks of the past week or so, that the issue is dredge or die. But Gilchrest's action has nothing to do with the port's main, southern approach, the 50-foot channel from the bay's mouth that carries about two-thirds of its big ship traffic.
Nor does it have anything to do with maintaining the other port approach, the C&D;, at its current 35-foot depth.
What the congressman wants scuttled are plans to deepen the canal to 41 feet and deepen and straighten other parts of the channel leading down to Baltimore.
It's crucial to do this, port officials say - not only to attract new business as ships get bigger but also to keep existing business away from aggressive competitors such as the port of Norfolk.
There is never a time when port officials don't say bigger channels are crucial. In their position, I'd likely say the same.
Faced with East Coast competitors that enjoy convenient ocean access, they are fighting hard, in an industry that has gotten viciously competitive, to market a port that is relatively far inland, with long, naturally shallow approaches. Since 1984, the port's share of East Coast traffic in container ships, the big, deep-draft vessels whose business is coveted by all major ports, has fallen from about 14 percent to 4 percent.
Container ship lines, squeezed by world shipping rates perhaps lower than those of the 1960s, are merging, sharing vessels, consolidating their business at single port locations. They have also learned to play one place against another for lucrative concessions, as skillfully as professional sports owners.
Thus we get Evergreen Lines, whose container ships call on Baltimore's port, hinting that it might leave if the C&D; is not deepened but never committing to stay if it is deepened. Meantime, it switched, in December, a substantial part of its shipping from here to Norfolk, a move that had nothing to do with C&D; depths.
If it did not have such a huge economic and environmental impact, one might want to back the port's struggle for container-ship business without question. But just maintaining the current C&D; depths and related, northern approaches to the port creates two-thirds of the dredge spoil that the bay must deal with each year. The northern bay is where most of the sediment carried by the Susquehanna River settles.
Deepening, straightening and maintaining that route during the next century would require creating at least five new spoil islands in the upper bay, each about 2 square miles in size and 35 to 45 feet high.
It would cost billions and have a profound environmental impact on bay fisheries and the circulation of water there, not to mention the aesthetic impact. Cheaper alternatives such as open-water spoil disposal were ruled out recently by the governor, after the Army Corps of Engineers reported concerns about toxic contamination.
Officially, the port envisions only one more island. But that's mostly because they aren't looking further than the next island.
Neither is anyone else, except Gilchrest. Three years ago, he formed a citizens committee of retired engineers and businessmen who produced a compelling analysis that questions the long-term viability of the C&D; as a big ship route to the port. For example, it notes that the last deepening of the canal, in 1975, was justified by a Corps prediction that shipping would increase from 4,000 to 8,000 trips a year.
Instead, it has fallen to fewer than 800 trips. To justify federal funds for the latest deepening, the Corps has spent four years and $10 million - and still has not made a case that benefits would outweigh costs.
Gilchrest says it's time to call a halt to such foolishness. Ideally, his actions would start a serious re-examination of the port's future. But, given the reactions, we might be headed for another round of "when in doubt, dredge."