Despite the stunning barrage of negative personal attacks heaped upon me by state officials over their insistence on pushing forward with wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary and dubious state transportation projects for the Port of Baltimore, I fully understand the importance of the Port of Baltimore as an economic engine for the state of Maryland. I have spent years working with the state to protect jobs at the port, and regardless of their attempts to publicly disparage anyone who dares to disagree with their wisdom, I will continue to do so.
As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Marine Transportation, I deal almost every day with port and international maritime issues, and I have historically enjoyed a good working relationship with the Port of Baltimore in my role.
But I do have disagreements with the port over certain issues, and unfortunately, state officials have resorted to personal attacks on me instead of offering a reasonable dialogue on issues important to everyone in Maryland.
The port absolutely needs to maintain a 50-foot channel to remain competitive. On that, we all can agree. But we already have a 50-foot channel via Cape Henry from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Most container shipping lines already use that route. So why is the port pushing so hard to deepen the secondary, less traveled, route through the C&D Canal, the narrow waterway that connects the Delaware River to the Northern Chesapeake Bay?
I believe taxpayers would be surprised to learn that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has consistently failed to prove for four years that any economic benefit will be derived from spending more than $100 million to deepen the C&D Canal. This project will not add a single new job or a single new ship through the canal to the Port of Baltimore. But the environmental risks are significant, and when taken together, it’s clear the C&D Canal deepening project needs to be reconsidered.
First, let’s examine the economics. The amount of container traffic using the C&D Canal has been declining for more than 25 years. The growth at the port has been in barged shipments up the Chesapeake Bay — not the C&D Canal. And while it was a tremendous loss when Maersk/Sea/Land bypassed the Port of Baltimore in favor of New York last year, none of that increased traffic could have used the C&D Canal.
The unfortunate reality of the C&D Canal is that many companies won’t use it because it’s too narrow, while others balk at the cost of the extra pilot’s fees to navigate the channel. It also rarely saves shipping companies any time considering there is often a wait to unload cargo at the Port of Baltimore. And the future in container trade is using ships so massive they would never consider the canal, no matter how deep.
Now let’s consider the other costs of deepening the C& D Canal another four or five feet. When the canal was deepened 25 years ago, some residents who live along the canal saw their wells go dry and some wells were contaminated. Shoreline erosion worsened. We saw siltation of the Elk River and a dike failure at Cabin John Creek. The town of Chesapeake City, which is divided by the canal, saw its water supply line cut, and was forced to build a second water plant and sewage treatment plant on the other side of the canal, which was paid for by town residents.
Despite the promises the port and the Army Corps of Engineers made 25 years ago that the project would boost shipping through the channel, traffic has steadily declined.
What can we expect with another deepening project? More of the same. There’s also the question of what to do with all of the dredged material if we continue on the current course. Dumping the spoil is becoming increasingly more expensive, and the days of quick and easy disposal in the Chesapeake Bay are over. Beneficial use is the buzzword these days and that can get expensive — just look at Poplar Island where a small, eroded island is being rebuilt at a cost to taxpayers of almost half a billion dollars.
The governor recently ruled out the cheapest and easiest method for disposal — open water dumping at Site 104. That decision came after intense pressure from citizens and environmental reports that the same muck the port claimed was “clean sand” actually contained PCBs and other toxins that could kill fish and harm public health.
It’s time to rethink the C&D Canal project. I have been joined in this fight by taxpayer groups who acknowledge this project is another boondoggle, and by every major environmental organization because they recognize the potential risks.
Let’s keep the port open and maintain the current shipping channel around Cape Henry at its 50-foot depth. But let’s not give the taxpayers a bath to benefit one or two foreign-owned shipping lines that may or may not increase their traffic if we deepen the C& D Canal.
The future of the Port of Baltimore indeed looks bright and there are many areas of growth on the horizon, but it’s about time we take a serious look at how we spend taxpayer dollars to keep our port competitive.