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Port needs Sparrows Point land

ANNAPOLIS — Growth at the Port of Baltimore may depend on the Maryland Port Administration’s ability to buy 310 acres of contaminated land at Sparrows Point.

The plot, known as Coke Point, would be used as a containment area for dredge spoil, the underwater sediment excavated to keep shallow waterways such as Baltimore’s harbor navigable. Eventually, a new marine terminal could be built there.

But the port’s executive director, James J. White, said Friday that Environmental Liability Transfer Inc., which bought Sparrows Point’s land and buildings at auction last year, had rejected the port’s first offer this month. White said the port had asked for Coke Point to be transferred free of cost to the state, which would have then taken financial responsibility for environmental cleanup.

The St. Louis-based company refused and has asked the port to make a new offer, which White said it did early last week. White said the appraised value of Coke Point is $14.5 million, but wasn’t sure the port would pay that price.

The port needs space for 1.5 million cubic yards of dredge spoil per year, White said, to keep up with maintenance of the harbor and to build new port facilities. But all new work has been prohibited, he said, because of a shortage of places to put it.

“We face real challenges,” White said. “Coke Point will give us that opportunity.”

State laws have made it more difficult for the port to place dredge spoil, but also making matters difficult is a lack of federal money for dredging. White told a Senate budget subcommittee Friday that this was a problem facing every port in the nation.

“The dredging process today is more challenging than it’s ever been,” White said. “There aren’t any inexpensive options left. … We’re in line with all the other ports trying to get dredging material moving. We’re not alone in this.”

Coke Point is the most cost-effective solution to many of the port’s problems, White said, and he’s been trying to buy the property for six years. The port entered a $1.2 million bid for the parcel when Sparrows Point and its shuttered steel mill went to auction last year.

Before that, White said, he had negotiated with four previous owners of the land, only to have the rug repeatedly pulled out from under him.

“Each time we think we have something going, the property flips,” he said.

The dredging issue was just one of a handful of challenges White presented to the Senate subcommittee Friday, in a presentation that otherwise illustrated a tremendous upward swing for the port since the worst of the recession. More cargo — 9.6 million tons — moved through the port in 2012 than in any previous year, and Baltimore is ranked first in a number of high-dollar categories, such as automobile imports.

But Leif A. Dormsjo, acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, which oversees the Port Administration, told lawmakers the port could not afford to sit on its laurels.

“It’s a very competitive environment,” Dormsjo said.

White said the port ought to be able to offer incentives to ships that want to stop in Baltimore to prevent other East Coast facilities from stealing that business, and added he was looking into expanding the weekly cruise business to include midweek departures to complement two weekly cruises.

The port’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is $47.7 million, a 2.2 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Editor’s Note: This article was changed Feb. 12 to update the size of the plot of Coke Point the Maryland Port Administration is interested in purchasing.