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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Wildlife Sanctuary from Silt

Air Date: Week of

"Dredge or Die" is the motto in Baltimore and other port cities that must compete for the next generation of huge container ships. And in the Chesapeake, they are taking silt, sand and muck from the bottom of the harbor to re-create an eroded harbor island that will now become a wildlife sanctuary. Amy Bernstein reports.


CURWOOD: Later this month, shipping giants Maersk and Sealand will select an Atlantic port city to serve as an East Coast trading hub. One strong contender is the port of Baltimore. If selected, this midsized harbor on Chesapeake Bay could triple its container business. To compete, Baltimore has already begun a long-range project to keep its channels dredged deep enough so giant container ships can pass through. But instead of simply dumping the dredged mud and silt at sea, Amy Bernstein reports that the cleanest soil will be used to rebuild an island into a wildlife refuge.

BERNSTEIN: About 30 miles south of Washington, DC, a cluster of low, marshy knolls and tidal mudflats rise slightly out of Chesapeake Bay. These wetlands are all that remain of a once-thriving island. A century ago, Maryland's Poplar Island boasted 1,000 acres and supported its own resort village. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman once vacationed here, but wind, water, and erosion have taken their toll. Now, before it vanishes entirely, the US Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding Poplar Island using clean silt and mud dredged from the Chesapeake's shipping channels up north. Scott Johnson is project manager with the Corps.

(Traffic, construction sounds)

JOHNSON: Just to think that there used to be an island here, and it's, you know, all you can see is those little bitty remnants and we're going to reconstruct this whole thing. Yeah, it's quite awesome.

BERNSTEIN: Here in the middle of the bay, where Poplar Island used to be, workers drive dump trucks and excavators back and forth across giant barges. Their job is to reconstruct the island's original perimeter by building a 6-mile ring of dikes.

JOHNSON: It's hard to say right now where the easternmost edge of the dike is from where we're sitting, but we'll probably be in a wetlands area.

BERNSTEIN: Once the dike is complete the Corps will pump dredged silt into the island. About 2 million cubic yards a day for the next 20 years. The reborn island should attract eagles, osprey, herons, and other shore birds, and nurture shellfish beds. This ambitious project is one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken, and it marks a new way of thinking about what to do with the dredge that must be cleared to keep shipping lanes open.

(Construction sounds up and under)

For many years dredge was called spoil, and people assumed it was unusable. The worst of it is found in inner harbors and contains a wide range of industrial pollutants, including PCBs that must be secured in giant barrels. But nearly 95% of all dredged material comes from deeper waters and is clean enough to be recycled. Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission says using dredge for restoration projects makes perfect sense.

SWANSON: Well now, we've become much more enlightened and realize that those clean materials off the bottom of the bay can be used to replenish islands and beaches and places that are very vital to wildlife and to people. And so, the dredged materials coming out of the shipping channels of the Chesapeake Bay are now being put to beneficial use.

BERNSTEIN: But it's far more expensive to recycle dredged material than to simply dump it in the ocean or bury it in a container. And funding for these so-called beneficial use projects is limited, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' Joe Wilson.

WILSON: The funds are in such small amounts that by the time you plan, engineer, design, and go to construction, the funds are gone, really, for almost every single project.

BERNSTEIN: Poplar Island is the exception that proves the rule. In the mid-1990s, a coalition of Maryland lawmakers, port officials, and environmental groups began lobbying Washington to do more for the port of Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay. As a result, Congress allocated $400 million to Poplar Island's restoration. That's $50,000 an acre, too expensive, says Joe Wilson. But Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes told reporters at a kickoff press conference for Poplar Island that it's money well spent.

SARBANES: It's probably the first time, really, that the port-related business interests and the members of the environmental community have joined together, underscoring that if you use enough imagination and ingenuity and are willing to spend a little extra money, you can bring economic and environmental goals into tandem.

BERNSTEIN: Still, some question whether Poplar Island will live up to expectations. Bud Nixon is president of Rukert Terminals, a warehousing and distribution firm that's operated at the port of Baltimore for nearly a century. He isn't convinced that Poplar Island can absorb all the dredged material that needs to be cleared from Chesapeake Bay channels.

NIXON: It's not deep water, so the volume is limited. And it's going to be wetlands and midlands and highlands, so you just won't be able to stack the dredge material up to the moon. It's going to be a controlled area, and it's going to be there for other purposes. It has a life like everything else, and it's not going to be large enough to sustain all our dredging.

BERNSTEIN: Near Bud Nixon's desk, there's a plaque that reads Dredge or Die. That's a motto any port city must adopt if it is to compete for the business of today's huge container ships. In the overall scheme, to keep Chesapeake shipping lanes clear, the Poplar Island restoration project appears to be a popular, though expensive, means of disposing of dredge. And officials say they're already looking for additional dredge dumping sites that are affordable and environmentally safe. For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Bernstein in Baltimore.



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