After years of fighting over where millions of tons of dredged muck should be dumped to do the least harm, Maryland port officials are racing to meet a year-end deadline to identify places where that material will do the most good.

If successful, the effort aimed at finding environmentally beneficial and innovative uses for the more than 100 million cubic yards of sediment that will be dredged from shipping channels during the next two decades could make Baltimore one of the “greenest” ports in the nation.

In the process, the Maryland Port Administration, long-distrusted by citizen groups, environmentalists and even other government agencies, has been working to reinvent itself with a greener image.

Over the past several months, the port administration has launched a major effort involving scores of citizens, natural resource agency officials, environmentalists, local government representatives and others to find alternative uses for that material.

As a result, the dredged sediment may be used to rebuild eroding islands, develop protective coves for underwater grass beds, build tidal wetlands and provide upland habitats. Someday, it might be spread on marshes to help them keep pace with sea level rise, used in agriculture or used to fill abandoned mines.

So far, the port administration’s efforts are getting high marks.

“In the past, there has been an incredible environment of mistrust and even animosity,” said Jenn Aiosa, staff scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “That has improved dramatically.”

The impetus for the change was what amounted to a dredge spoil train wreck two years ago. The port administration was forced to abandon its long-criticized plans for placing 18 million cubic yards of material in a deep area of the Chesapeake just north of the Bay Bridge known as Site 104 after low levels of toxics were discovered in dredged material destined for the site.

Last year, the General Assembly approved legislation ending by 2010 all “open water” disposal of dredged material, a practice long-criticized by environmentalists, watermen and resource agencies. The legislation said the material should be used for beneficial and innovative uses when possible.

With Site 104 and existing open water disposal options off the table, the port administration suddenly found itself with plans to dredge more than 100 million cubic yards of sediment by 2022, but storage capacity for just 9 years of work. It normally takes 12 years of planning to get new options approved and funded.
Shipping lanes through the shallow Chesapeake Bay to the Port of Baltimore require large amounts of dredging compared with most other ports in the country. To keep shipping companies from jumping to other ports, the General Assembly required the port administration to develop a 20-year plan by the end of December.

“There are a lot of East Coast ports out there that would be happy to take business from the Port of Baltimore,” said Richard Sheckells, the port administration’s director of planning and environment.

Putting together a plan in such a short time frame that would not stir opposition was a daunting task, especially for an agency which, Sheckells acknowledged, suffered from credibility problems.

Critics charged that in the past, the port shut them out of the planning process. Further, they complained that the port administration would offer only a single alternative — such as site 104 — which, if not approved, would threaten the viability of the port, which generates an estimated 127,000 jobs.

The port administration’s credibility was also hurt by reversals, such as opting to raise dike levels on Hart-Miller Island in the past to hold more dredged material after promising not to. The General Assembly finally had to step in and set a maximum dike level for the island.

Now, though, the port administration has reinvented its public process, creating new committees that involves outside technical experts, citizens and local government officials and others at the beginning of the dredge plan development.

A key decision-making Executive Committee is chaired not by a transportation official, but by Chuck Fox, the state secretary of natural resources. An environmental group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, has voting membership on the eight-person panel.

“We have tried to divest ourselves of ownership,” Sheckells said, noting that it was “unprecedented” that a transportation official would not chair such a committee. “We are not trying to control the process,” he said.

The openness has attracted more participation by higher-level officials from other state and federal agencies than before because they believe there is a chance to shape the process.

Instead of merely commenting on finished proposals, resource agencies are getting a voice on which projects move forward, and they can influence design elements, such as the size and shape of island-building projects. Such details can greatly affect the amount of impacts on existing habitats, as well as the benefits reaped from projects.

“Once they started inviting all of us into the room, it is packed at these meetings,” said Lowell Bahner, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office. “We’re able to sit with the contractors and the port and say, ‘We can minimize the impact on submerged aquatic vegetation at this particular site just by moving the [island] footprint over here’.”

An initial list of 27 options has been prioritized based on environmental issues, costs and the amount of time it would take to begin work. That’s reduced the list to 12 priority options that most participants have been able to agree upon — a new Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes a number of longstanding port critics, unanimously approved the short list.

“It’s really a fundamental change in the way business is done,” said Fran Flanigan, former executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, who helped the port revamp its public participation process. “Before, it was ‘come and hear what we are going to do’. The final options may end up looking the same, but they are getting a whole lot more scrutiny that they have ever gotten before.”

Still, everyone acknowledges that significant hurdles remain.

The gap between approving concepts and final plans — and sites — is huge. And the closer the process gets to specifics, the more opposition is likely to arise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, is highly critical of plans to raise the dikes on Poplar Island, the main beneficial use project under way in the Bay, to allow it to hold more material than previously planned until other beneficial use sites can begin.

At the same time, some say the process has focused too much on what the port administration wants in terms of dredging capacity, rather than what it actually needs to maintain shipping channels.

Specifically, the port administration includes such controversial projects as deepening the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal among its needs, saying it’s necessary to keep the port competitive. Others have questioned the benefit of the project.

“We believe that those discussions need to happen,” Aiosa said, “so we are looking at both sides of the ledger page, not just the disposal side, but also the demand side.”

Another critical issue is the role of the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for handling the actual dredging.

The Corps typically pays all costs to maintain shipping channels, but is under no obligation to adopt the port administration’s recommendations, which could substantially raise the cost for federal taxpayers.

The Corps, which is undergoing its own planning process, looks at all options it considers to be environmentally acceptable, including low-cost, open water options.

Its analysis forms the baseline for what the federal government may typically be expected to pay. If Maryland sticks with other, more expensive options, it might have to pay all of the additional costs unless its beneficial use projects are specifically approved by Congress, as happened with Poplar Island. The Corps pays 75 percent of the cost for the project, with the state paying the rest.

Right now, dredged material disposal costs about $35 million a year in state and federal funds, driven in large part by the high costs of building Poplar Island. Alternative options under consideration will certainly increase the cost. The Maryland General Assembly would ultimately have to approve the spending program.

Corps officials emphasized at a recent meeting that they wanted to work with state officials on their plans, including building support for new projects that would keep dredged material out of the Bay and put the material to beneficial use.

“You are doing some of the best work in the country in terms of how you deal with all the issues of dredged material placement,” said Chris Correale, chief of operations with the Corps of Engineers Baltimore District. “I don’t think we are very far apart.”