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Maryland may reopen Hart-Miller Island for dredged materials from planned Tradepoint terminal, a Port of Baltimore area project

Hart-Miller Island is once again being proposed as a site to put dredge material. Tradepoint Atlantic developers are hoping to shorten the timeline for opening a container terminal by putting dredge material on the nearby island

Posted on May 10, 2024

For the first time in about 15 years, Baltimore County’s Hart-Miller Island could be reopened as a disposal area for dredged sediments as development plans accelerate for a new container ship terminal at Sparrows Point — downriver from the Francis Scott Key Bridge site.

Dredged sediments were used to create Hart-Miller, once a chain of smaller, eroded islands. The island’s disposal area was closed by the state in 2009, and has since become a popular state park accessible only by boaters.

But the 1,100-acre island off the mouths of the Back and Middle rivers could start receiving muck and mud dredged off the Patapsco River bottom under a plan being pushed by Tradepoint Atlantic, the owner of the sprawling Sparrows Point industrial area.

Tradepoint already had plans to develop a new marine terminal for loading and unloading container ships on the former Bethlehem Steel site, and now it wants to speed up those plans in the wake of the Key Bridge disaster. The developer got state legislators to reopen the possibility of dredge dumping at Hart-Miller late in the recently ended session.

Tradepoint officials previously estimated that the new terminal wouldn’t be completed until 2028, but determined that if they could dump dredged materials behind an existing dike at Hart-Miller, it could shave that timeline by two years, said Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint’s executive vice president of corporate affairs. It would eliminate the need for Tradepoint to construct its own, single-use facility to accept dredged sediment, or pursue other alternatives, he said.

“What a great message to be able to put out there: That we’re going to recover, and not only are we going to recover, but we’re going to recover quicker, we’re going to be more resilient, and we’re going to be poised for growth,” Tomarchio said.

If Tradepoint’s berth existed today, it would be the only one in Baltimore accessible to giant cargo vessels. The rest, at the Port of Baltimore, were blocked by the wreckage of the Key Bridge when it collapsed into the Patapsco on March 26, after it was struck by one of those very ships.

The dredge idea has support among Hart-Miller faithful, largely because the island’s acceptance of sediment would likely come with millions of dollars in compensatory payments for the community, which could be used to build new infrastructure at the park — which hosts a ranger station and a few restrooms, with limited moorings for boats.

“Everybody was looking for solutions right after the collapse, and how we could partner with local businesses to help. And this was one of the avenues we came up with,” said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Anne Arundel County Republican who proposed the bill that ended up including Hart-Miller, though it initially focused on a different dredge disposal area.

But as a first step, Tradepoint must secure a “community benefits agreement,” with Baltimore County and citizens groups, describing how it will compensate the community if the dredge project moves forward. The agreement must be presented to the county council by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., and be approved by the end of the year.

Olszewski said he believes the arrangement could become a “win-win,” especially with the requirement for a benefit agreement in place as a “guardrail.”

“We’re in a really interesting — and frankly, in some respects, exciting — moment, where we can send a signal about our resiliency and strength coming out of the Key Bridge collapse,” Olszewski said in an interview. “But also, we can do so in a way that … could help address some historic wrongs, by the ways in which the community was left out of those benefits from dredge placement at Hart-Miller Island in years past.”

From the time it was proposed in the 1970s, the idea of placing dredged sediment from the Baltimore Harbor to rebuild and conjoin the eroding islands in the Patapsco garnered concern from residents of nearby southeastern Baltimore County. According to Sun articles from the time, some felt skeptical that the large dikes created to hold the dredge material in place would not be secure enough to prevent industrial contaminants from the polluted sediment from leaching out. Their unsuccessful fight traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some community members also felt scorned when, years later, the dikes were raised over their protest, amid a shortage of placement locations for harbor dredge. The legislature sunsetted the dredge facility in 2009.

Recent estimates show the containment area on the island’s north cell has about 9 million cubic yards of capacity, whereas the Tradepoint project would generate about 4 million cubic yards, said Peter Haid, senior vice president of environmental affairs at Tradepoint.

The north cell of the island isn’t accessible to the public. The south cell, however, which was also rebuilt by dredge material, includes a public beach, hiking trails, observation areas and other amenities.

To ensure the dredge material for Tradepoint’s project can be placed at Hart-Miller, Tradepoint is conducting extensive sampling of sediments in the area, Haid said. The area to be dredged has been divided into about 30 different sections, where crews have bored into the river bottom to remove soil for chemical testing.

Early sampling has shown that the sediments meet the requirements for “Category 2,” meaning that any industrial contamination is at levels low enough that it would be eligible for Hart-Miller, Haid said. But company officials are still awaiting sampling closer to the shoreline of Coke Point, which may be more likely to host contaminants from decades of steelmaking on land.

“If we’re going to find a problem, it’d probably be there,” he said. “But again — to date — it’s been looking promising.”

Even after securing the community’s blessing through the benefits agreement, Tradepoint will need to undergo MDE’s permitting process. Spokesman Jay Apperson said that would trigger another round of public notice, and the opportunity for a public hearing.

Hart-Miller Island is once again being proposed as a site to put dredge material. Tradepoint Atlantic developers are hoping to shorten the timeline for opeing a container terminal by putting dredge material on the nearby island. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

And even if all the requirements are met, Tradepoint still needs to assess the financial viability of placing dredge material at Hart-Miller, together with the cost of a community benefit payment. Tradepoint has a range of potential placement options to compare it with, including the use of a combination of existing dredge placement areas, Tomarchio said.

In the meantime, some members of the community already have a vision for the funding that could flow into Hart-Miller if the project goes through, allowing the community to receive perks in exchange for dredge material for the first time, said Paul Brylske, president of the Friends of Hart-Miller Island.

He envisions a state-of-the-art environmental education and leadership center, transforming the island into a “true destination,” where groups of children and adults could learn about the island’s ecology, as well as its role in the history of Baltimore’s port and industrial growth.

“Our goal would be to educate the next generation,” said Brylske, who said he’s hoping the payment would total about $50 million.

Improvements could also be made to make the island far easier to access, Brylske said. For now, residents wishing to reach the island by boat have to drop anchor or beach their vessels. There’s a landing area, but it’s reserved for Department of Natural Resources vessels, Brylske said. The infrastructure severely limits who can access the island — and who knows that it even exists, Brylske said.

“It’s beautiful. It’s like you’re in a different world when you’re out there, “ Brylske said. “From that dike, you can see the Eastern Shore. You can see the Bay Bridge. You can see this incredible view. I can’t explain it.”

The island has also become very popular among birders, said Baltimore Bird Club President Joe Corcoran, who has his own wish list, including continued access for birdwatching, new platforms for observation and the restoration of bird habitats and removal of invasive phragmites.

In 2023, the island was among the top-ranked birding destinations in Maryland on the popular birding website eBird, with hundreds of species documented by online contributors, including egrets, herons and rare nesting trumpeter swans — and their young cygnets, Corcoran said.

Recent efforts to coordinate small birding tours to the island with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and other agencies have been a resounding success, Corcoran said.

“As soon as people get the notice that the bird trip’s gonna happen, it gets sold out. It’s like within seconds sometimes,” Corcoran said.


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