A California company wants to build a 310-mile fiber-optic cable network beneath the floor of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but local officials say they know virtually nothing about the project and question its viability and its effect on the bay's delicate ecosystem.
Members of Anne Arundel County's state delegation and Annapolis' mayor, Ellen O. Moyer, called yesterday for public hearings on ClearStream Communication Inc.'s proposal to build a network to improve access to high-speed telecommunication lines for corporations and institutions between Baltimore and Washington.
The Sacramento-based company has been working with state and federal officials for more than a year on the project, but some local officials just got word of it yesterday.
An Annapolis employee who had heard about the project secondhand late Wednesday notified Moyer, and the mayor alerted the Arundel delegation, said Jan Hardesty, a spokeswoman for Annapolis.
"It's an important project, and the unknowns are very large," said Del. C. Richard D'Amato. "We don't want any rushed decision to be digging up the bay for fiber optics."
"I am a concerned that a project of this magnitude, which comes right into our city and our international harbor, is being considered without any explanation from either the applicant or the authorizing body," Moyer said in a statement.
Frank Petro, chief executive officer of ClearStream, said in a telephone interview that his company will do "whatever is necessary" to get the approvals needed. He said the company has no intention of damaging the environment.
"We have charted the route of the network so it does not go into any area that would be environmentally sensitive," such as oyster beds, Petro said.
The proposal is being reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Army Corps of Engineers. The cables would run from Back River in Baltimore County through Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington and south to Norfolk, Va.
According to the Army Corps' public notice and ClearStream officials, the cable would be buried in 4- to 6-inch-wide cuts that run 1.5 feet to 10 feet deep under the water's floor, except in shipping channels, where they would be buried 100 to 200 feet deep. The cable, on average, would run about 3,100 feet from the shoreline.
ClearStream, a 3-year-old company, said it hopes to begin the four- to five-month-long project next summer.
Petro said the plan is "a completely new approach to telecommunications network architecture" that was developed with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and will be tried for the first time here.
The network would provide high-speed bandwidth access at a much lower cost to companies and institutions throughout the region. Petro said the network would be good for Maryland's economy and institutions, including governments, hospitals and universities.
"We will make available services to your communities that are either not available today or are available at a price that is prohibitive to use," Petro said. "The network will, in fact, provide economic growth to the state of Maryland because we are providing digital access to areas that presently today can't get it."
Petro declined to say how much the network would cost.
But some local officials wonder why they weren't notified about such a major undertaking.
"It is important that people have the opportunity to hear what this far-reaching project is about and have the chance to question how it will impact upon them and their environment," Moyer said.
Scott Vosberg, ClearStream's director of information technology, said the company has been working with MDE and the Army Corps on the project for more than a year. MDE officials could not be reached to comment yesterday. The corps' public notice period began July 26 and runs through Aug. 26. Comments or requests for a hearing are due to MDE by Sept. 1.
"We don't understand what the rush would be - this needs to be fully ventilated and understood," D'Amato said. "There is quite a burden of proof on anybody who is going to approve this project that our ecosystem is not going to be affected."
D'Amato and Moyer said they are concerned about oyster beds, submerged vegetation and bay creatures. Moyer also expressed concern about how the proposal would affect plans to dredge Annapolis' harbor.
Petro defended the project. He added that concrete vaults positioned at 3.1-mile intervals along the network would allow the company to provide real-time monitoring of the water quality of the bay to the government, environmental groups or companies.
Michael Shultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his group had also heard nothing about the project.
"We have not heard anything," he said. "It's certainly something we would like to learn more about, and we will be trying to find out more about it."
According to the Army Corps' public notice, the cable would affect the Anacostia, Magothy, Patapsco, Patuxent, Potomac, Severn and South rivers; Herring Run and Zirkle Branch in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's and St Mary's counties; Washington and Baltimore City.
Worries about timing
Baltimore City officials said yesterday that they were also unfamiliar with ClearStream's plans but would seek more information about the project.
In a letter to the corps yesterday urging a delay to any decision on the project, Dels. D'Amato, Michael E. Busch and Virginia P. Clagett and state Sen. John C. Astle also questioned the wisdom of installing a fiber-optic cable while the telecommunications industry's key companies are struggling.
"The bloom is off the rose of fiber optics, given the implosion of the industry," D'Amato said.
In recent months the industry has been in a slump, with dozens of companies filing for bankruptcy protection and laying off employees.
But Petro called his company the "Southwest Airlines of the telecommunications business." And he said ClearStream's plan would be successful when others' have failed because it will provide digital access outside the major cities.
Sun staff writer Johnathon E. Briggs and staff researcher Sandy Levy contributed to this article.