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Port looks to islands to ease dredging woes


Frank Hamons, the Maryland Port Administration's harbor development manager, figures he has eight years before the port of Baltimore runs out of room to deposit material dredged from the state's shipping channels.

That's a blink of an eye in the world of harbor management. But Hamons and other port officials are hoping lawmakers and environmental regulators will warm to the idea of using dredge spoil to restore a number of islands that are slowly sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.

Though potentially expensive, such a strategy could create wildlife habitat and buy the port time as it studies long-term solutions to its dredging problems.

"There's a good environmental basis to do this," Hamons said.

Parsons Island, a bucolic, privately owned island covered in corn and sunflowers and with scattered wildlife, is among the islands under consideration.

Since buying the farm and hunting retreat from McCormick & Co. a few years ago, Baltimore businessman Jim Corckran II has watched his family's 100-acre island playground shrink at the rate of about 2 acres a year. It's a story repeated elsewhere around the bay as rain, wind and waves erode the shores of islands made up of little more than sand and vegetation.

Maryland port officials and some state lawmakers see opportunity at Parsons Island and others like it. Such islands could be restored, they say, with sand and mud dredged from shipping channels. A similar project is under way at Poplar Island, where state officials hope to deposit about 38 million cubic yards of dredge material in a bid to return the island to its former size, 1,100 acres.

Though it's still in the study phase, proponents say the Parsons Island project's potential benefits to wildlife could blunt criticism from environmentalists and others who are suspicious of port dredging projects. The project would be a short-term solution, giving port officials a way to maintain shipping channels until a long-term repository can be found for dredge material. That could take 10 years or more.

"It's a very popular project and has received a lot of support," Hamons said. "It could take the strain off."

The search for new places to put dredge material took on added urgency in July, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening dropped the state's plans to use a four-mile stretch north of the Bay Bridge, known as Site 104, as an open-water disposal site for about 18 million cubic yards of dredge material. The decision was made after the Army Corps of Engineers found traces of dioxin, PCBs and other pollutants in the shipping channels.

Opposed by environmentalists and some bay residents, Site 104 was deemed critical to the port's plans to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and straighten and widen certain channels leading to the canal.

With or without Site 104, port officials hope to proceed with the dredging projects, which they say are critical to the port's future. But that means existing sites for handling dredge spoil will fill up faster than they were designed for.

Poplar Island was designed to take in about 2 million cubic yards of material annually and last until 2020. With Site 104 gone, port officials expect to deposit 5 million to 6 million cubic yards there in some years. Consequently, the island is expected to reach capacity in 2009, Hamons said.

Hart-Miller Island, the port's main disposal site, is projected to close in 2007, two years earlier than required by law. Pooles Island, an open-water disposal site for bay material, could be full in three to four years.

That means the Cox Creek containment area in Anne Arundel County could be the only disposal site available by 2009. It can accommodate 500,000 cubic yards of spoil annually, a small fraction of the more than 4 million cubic yards that must be dredged each year to keep port channels clear.

Without new short-term disposal options such as Parsons Island, the port could run out of space years before a long-term disposal site is found.

Temporary solutions aren't cheap, state lawmakers learned during a visit to Parsons and Poplar islands Wednesday. If approved, the Parsons Island project will cost $11 to $25 for each cubic yard of dredge material deposited. Site 104 would have cost $2.50 to $5 per cubic yard, Hamons said.

Corckran has expressed a willingness to help pay for costs associated with transporting the material to Parsons Island, which could lower the state's costs.

However, the island would to accommodate only about 1 million cubic yards annually, less than a fourth of the port's annual dredge-disposal needs.

State officials are considering other island-replenishment projects to help meet the need. Eastern Neck Island, maintained as a wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is among those under consideration.

The expense of projects such as the one at Parsons Island should be weighed against the potential environmental benefits, said Del. Wheeler R. Baker, who lives near Parsons Island. Baker, an Upper Shore democrat, pushed legislation last year directing the port to study the project.

"I've lived here my entire life and have seen those shores washing away," Baker said.

Tim Goodger, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of a task force set up to study the island project, said more study is needed and expressed concern about possible harm to fish and aquatic plants.

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