Sediment in US Ports Signals Need of Dredging

BOSTON'S mud-filled port is in need of some hefty digging, scooping, and cleaning out.

Sediment buildup in harbors - likened to a mudslide on a highway - is getting to be an a common problem in port cities around the country.

It is so bad here that a major container vessel from Northern Europe skipped its Boston stop two months ago because the city's harbor was not deep enough for it to enter.

Like many harbors around the country, Boston's port needs to be dredged. But strict regulations and permitting requirements have left many such dredging projects running aground in thick bureaucratic quagmires.

In Oakland, Calif., for example, a $50 million channel dredging project has been ongoing since 1972 due to high concentrations of heavy metals in the sediment. Similarly, it took 3-1/2 to four years for the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey to dredge dioxin-tainted sediment from its harbor in Newark and Port Elizabeth, N.J.

Fed up with such long delays, US port officials are calling for a national dredging policy. Specifically, they are pushing for amendments to the Clean Water Act and Water Resources Act to expedite the review process of dredging permits. The purpose is to establish a more coordinated federal and state regulatory process for harbor dredging.

``This is an issue that affects ports nationally and internationally,'' says Lynn Tierney, spokeswoman for Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. ``There is a need to have a consistent set of guidelines that are implemented the same way across the country.''

Harbor dredging has occurred routinely in US port cities since the 1600s. Dredge material consists of mud that sometimes is combined with toxic sediments.

But siting a disposal area for contaminated sediment is often what stalls these projects. Ocean dumping is the most common disposal alternative although other options include landfilling or storing sediment in shore-line containment facilities.

Conservation groups are concerned about damaging effects to the environment. Beth Millemann, the director of Coast Alliance, a national coalition of environmental leaders, is in favor of a national dredging policy, but one that contains environmental protections.

``We're talking about a phenomenal amount of junk dumped in the harbors,'' she says.

Port officials counter that keeping ports open is vital to the nation's economy. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, 95 percent of the international trade in the US goes through seaports.

Meanwhile, container vessels are getting bigger and ports need more depth to allow them to pass through. When ports become clogged with silt, ships are either diverted to other ports or they must anchor outside the harbor and wait for the high tide.

The problem has not gone unnoticed by President Clinton, who urged federal officials in California last fall to speed up approval of the Port of Oakland dredging project.

Last fall, US Transportation Secretary Federico Pena convened a group of six federal agencies to study the issue. The interagency group held a preliminary round of public meetings in 10 port cities earlier this year and a second round will begin later this month.

The group is expected to come up with recommendations on the issue in July.

Currently, a dredging project requires approval from a variety of state and federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and state coastal zone, water quality, and fish and wildlife agencies to name a few.

Meanwhile, new testing procedures for finding contaminants in harbor sediment are stricter and more detailed than ever. Harbor dredging projects that were once carried out quickly are now more closely scrutinized.

``There are too many agencies that have got something to say about dredging,'' says Bob Middleton, spokesman for the Port of Oakland. ``It's difficult, in fact impossible in some instances, to satisfy all of the agencies all the time.''

In Boston, port officials here hope to excavate 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from Boston's waterways at a cost of $100 million. The Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), which recently completed a draft environmental impact report on the project, will hold public hearings next month on where to dispose of the sediment. Actual dredging work is slated for mid-1996.

One concern for environmentalists here is whether harbor sediment - which contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, and arsenic leads - will be placed at a site adjacent to a rich feeding area for endangered marine species. But they are hopeful the state will heed their concerns.

``I feel pretty confident that we are going to come up with some agreement,'' says Joan LeBlanc, policy director for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a Boston environmental group.

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