Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 3
January 20-26, 2000
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The Sad Saga of Site 104
The Bay is saved for a year or so,
But calamity might still come

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

We’ve all heard that comment many times over, and it comes to mind again as one reviews the latest chapter in the ugly book titled The Sad Saga of Site 104, the authors of which are the Army Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Port Administration and Gov. Parris Glendening and crew.

Many have not read The Sad Saga of Site 104, a tale centered on a proposed calamity of the upper Chesapeake and its rockfish among other species. After all there is no sex, no thrills, no titillating biographies, and the only murder involves fish. The only intrigue involves an attempted cover-up that appears to have flopped.

It’s a sad saga of what could have been — and still might be. Much depends on where things go from here and whether the defenders of the Bay become involved.

Same Old Story

The plot is another attempt at open water dumping in the Chesapeake, this time in waters north of the Bay Bridge off upper Kent Island. The spoils would come from the Port of Baltimore’s shipping channels, which gives us an idea of the toxins, metals and other undesirable and possibly dangerous substances involved.

Get the idea? Same old story, same old plot. Dig the stinking mess up so the bellies of ships don’t scrape bottom, then dump it in the mighty Chesapeake so commerce can thrive.

Everything seemed lined up, all the ducks were in a row and the sad dumping operation was figured to begin later this year. All complaints were brushed aside — hell the super ships were waiting, and we were told in solemn tones the future of the Port of Baltimore was at stake.

The governor wanted it, the Port Administration wanted it, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted it, even former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley wanted it. Ditto for shippers, captains of the mammoths that ply the Bay, the tugboats that escort them, the commodities clan, Bay pilots. Even Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was a booster, but she didn’t have much time to do much boosting as she was too busy defending her gullibility and ferreting out scapegoats in the aftermath of the state prison system’s Boot Camp scandal.

Thorny Antagonists

There were a few thorns in the sides of the proponents. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski questioned whether all facts were in. Congressman Wayne Gilchrest is flat against the idea. The EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a few questions.

There were some dedicated, energetic and never-say-die elements of the citizenry, such as those who teamed up with the grass roots Citizens Against Open Bay Dumping, that played a pivotal role in a campaign to thwart the rape of the upper Chesapeake.

And there were other little thorns like Capt. Ed Darwin, who for 39 years has skippered the charterboat Becky D out of Mill Creek near Annapolis and who has rightfully gained his reputation as the best fish-catching guide in waters north and south of the Bay Bridge.

The Latest Chapter

Last week, the mighty Corps of Engineers — already with shovel and dredge in hand, waiting to dig into the pollutant spoils and barge it off to the homes of fish and other aquatic beings at Site 104 — itself unexpectedly self-stalled the operation. The countdown was scrubbed, but alas not the concept — for the time being at least.

The Corps announced it needed more time to study some of the nagging questions brought up by skeptics and opponents. So Site 104 is safe from murderous silt at least until October of 2001. Previously, adverse affects — if we were to listen to the Corps — were considered minimal.

Two reasons were involved in the re-thinking. One, new data suggests Site 104 is a “thermal refuge” for rockfish and other species. Two, the deep-water current could be stronger than originally figured. Bottom line: A big chunk of the Chesapeake’s brine in the upper Bay just might not be the wasteland we were led to believe, so that all the gill-choking silt being dumped might be scattered farther by currents while filling in thermal habitat desirous among aquatic life.

Now we just might be right to wonder why the Corps and all its resident experts wouldn’t have known this from the beginning — and why they didn’t listen to others who screamed “Hey, wait a minute!” It certainly wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to appreciate that one can’t dump silt in an area utilized by fish and expect creatures of the Bay to thrive. Survival itself would be a Herculean task.

And if those same scientists thought Site 104 was a wasteland, all they had to do was ask or perhaps visit the site when both fish and fishing fleet were there. That’s Rudimentary Science 101.

Local Wisdom

Why didn’t the wizards with the dredge ask someone like Capt. Ed Darwin, with whom I have fished many times in cold weather, sometimes even cool and warm weather, catching many fish big and small at Site 104? Or was that beneath the thinking of the dredge-or-die boosters within the Corps?

Long before the Corps backed off, Ed dropped me a line about his Site 104 thinking, the contents of which are indeed enlightening. And he is no rocket scientist, just a retired high school shop teacher who turned to full time charterboating upon retirement. For a few of Ed’s comments, read on:

“To fill in Site 104 is unconscionable. It will create problems that could be irreparable. This area is part of the original Susquehanna River Valley flooded by nature to form Chesapeake Bay. It is one of the deepest areas of the Bay — and serves as a highway for the spring migration of anadromous fish.

“The many lumps, obstructions, boulders, hard and soft valleys provide a vast feeding area where fish congregate before moving farther up the Bay and its rivers to spawn. As winter approaches, it is used again as a staging area to feed and fatten fishes as they prepare to exit the Bay.

“Many indigenous fish — among them rock, perch and baitfish — spend the winter in this deep water (55 to 90 feet). It is warmer than more shallow water and better oxygenated. Where will fish winter over if this sector is filled? Site 104 is not a flat, lifeless mud hole as portrayed by shipping interests.

“It is a sad commentary that the remarkable resurgence of the Bay fishery will be jeopardized by dumping there. To set the precedent of open water dumping is frightening. Once Site 104 is filled, what will stop the filling of the entire trench to Cape Charles?

“I have fished extensively in the area where the spoils would be dumped and would be able to show anyone interested why this area is unique and must not be sacrificed. There are alternatives that could cost more initially but that would prove more expedient in the long term. The Corps of Engineers should be reminded of its policy that almost destroyed the Everglades.”

Army Corps of Engineers, can you turn down such an invitation? Or are you even listening? For Capt. Ed, I add my usual ending to this space: Enough said.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly