Pressure mounts to deepen US harbors

First soundings of the Reagan administration's depth of commitment to a clean environment could come in clearing "red tape" for dredging in American harbors. A band of US lawmakers, backed up by President-elect Ronald Reagan's advisers , has already begun to push for quick federal action in dredging major US ports. An extra depth of about 15 feet could help keep the nation competitive in new "supertanker" shipping business, especially for coal and grain exports.

Most US environmentalists consider dredging -- with possible toxic pollution from spoils, damage to estuaries, and larger-scale ships spills -- a major battleground for the 1980s.

"There isn't just any safe way to dredge," says the Enrivonmental Defense Fund's James Tripp.

Under President Carter, the nation's dredging program came to a virtual halt, partly over delays in environmental studies and partly over a proposal to have the local ports put up 5 percent of the costs.

Yet during the months before the election, the Carter administration reserved itself and sought dredging for a 55-foot channel for oil supertankers into Galveston, Texas. Also, a White House task force on coal exports is expected to recommend by early January that dredge permit-processing by the US Army Corps of Engineers be streamlined.

In July, a US Department of Energy study showed Australia, Canada, Poland, South Africa, and the USSR ahead of the United States in port depth and shore facilities for handling coal exports in new, extra-tonnage cargo ships. And the General Accounting Office reported "unnecessary delays" in dredging, caused in part by overlapping of three major laws, 13 others laws with indirect influence, four federal agencies, and more than a dozen committees on Capitol Hill.

A "clearing of the decks" for port dredging on all three US coasts was reported as a recommendation to Mr. Reagan last week by his 17-member energy policy transition task force, and possibly this week by his natural resources group. Most US harbors can take ships with drafts up to 45 feet.

In both the House and Senate, a new oalition has formed in recent weeks to introduce bills authorizing US funding for dredging that would allow 100,000 -deadweight-ton coal vessels -- "super-colliers" -- at Hampton Roads, Va.; New Orleans; and Mobile, Ala.

Only a few of these large bulk carriers are in use now, but the cheaper freight rate they make possible portends greater acceptance on world coal markets.

"Ironically, the problem of restricted, shallow US port depths is viewed by foreign buyers of America's coal . . . as the linchpin to all of America's coal export problems," Says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia.

But for all commodities, "The US is behind other nations in deep-draft ports, " says Herbert Haar Jr., chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities' ad hoc committee on dredging.

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