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Sen. Paul Sarbanes Led the Poplar Island Authorization in 1996

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes

Poplar Island, a dredged material placement site and ecosystem restoration in Chesapeake Bay, was renamed The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration Project at Poplar Island in the 2006 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, honoring the individual who led the effort to get the project authorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1996.

That effort involved changing key parts of the Corps of Engineers mission, changing funding policy, convincing Congress to increase spending on dredging projects, and settling differences between port, environmental and other Chesapeake Bay stakeholders – a huge undertaking.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland came to the aid of his home state to help solve the critical problem involving Chesapeake Bay in the 1990s. There was little placement capacity left in Hart-Miller and Pooles islands, where maintenance material and new-work material from the channel deepening at the Port of Baltimore was placed. At the same time, the Chesapeake Bay ecosystems were degenerating, and fishing interests and environmentalist were up in arms against any activity that would do further harm. A number of agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Maryland Environmental Service (MED) and the Maryland Port Authority (MPA), were looking for solutions, and the badly-eroded Poplar Island seven miles south of the Baltimore entrance channel was a possible solution.

“It was a tremendously complex situation,” Sen. Sarbanes told IDR in January. “When the port and environmental interests were at the same meetings, they were literally shouting at each other,” he said. Recalling the effort to include a number of major policy changes in WRDA 1996, he said “We spent an incredible amount of time and effort on the problem, visiting the (Clinton) White House repeatedly” and meeting with the ports, the environmental interests and the Corps.

Megan Garrett, Poplar Island Tour Coordinator for the Corps of Engineers, with the sign on the island honoring Sen. Sarbanes.

The Corps of Engineers had been officially charged with using the least-cost alternative for placing dredged material. Creating an offshore placement area and wildlife habitat seven miles from the dredging site did not fit this description.

The question was “Why don’t we use the dredged material to rebuild the island, replenish wildlife habitat? We had to work it hard in D.C. to get them to spend the extra money”, because the longer travel time for the barges and building and managing the project would cost more, said Sen. Sarbanes. “By spending a little extra money, we solved the problem,” he said.

Charles Stek, longtime aid to Sen. Sarbanes, explained that Section 204 of WRDA 1992 limited expenditure to $15 million per year on “projects for the protection, restoration, and creation of aquatic and ecologically related habitats, including wetlands, in connection with dredging for construction, operation, or maintenance by the Secretary of an authorized navigation project.” Poplar Island’s 20-year project life was estimated at a half a billion dollars, he said.

“A project like this had never been done before. It was a serious time challenge and political challenge. We devoted an awful lot of time to addressing the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, we expedited the feasibility study, and President Clinton included the project in his budget before it was authorized” another first-time occurrence, said Stek.

In the end, Sen. Sarbanes and his colleagues instigated the addition of statements in the Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) of 1996 that allowed the Secretary of the Army to consider environmental effects and to eliminate the least-cost option directive, specifically “In developing and carrying out a project for navigation involving the disposal of dredged material, the Secretary may select, with the consent of the non-federal interest, a disposal method that is not the least-cost option if the Secretary determines that the incremental costs of such disposal method are reasonable in relation to the environmental benefits, including the benefits to the aquatic environment to be derived from the creation of wetlands and control of shoreline erosion.” (P.L. 104-303 -WRDA 1996 – Sec. 208)

Poplar Island was authorized in WRDA 1996 with this language: “SEC. 537. POPLAR ISLAND, MARYLAND. The Secretary shall carry out a project for the beneficial use of dredged material at Poplar Island, Maryland, substantially in accordance with, and subject to the conditions described in, the report of the Secretary dated September 3, 1996, at a total cost of $307,000,000, with an estimated federal cost of $230,000,000 and an estimated nonfederal cost of $77,000,000. The project shall be carried out under the policies and cooperative agreement requirements of section 204 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1992 (33 U.S.C. 2326), except that subsection (e) of such section shall not apply to the project authorized by this section.”

Excluding subsection (e), which limited federal funding for beneficial use projects to $15 million annually, opened the door to fully funding Poplar Island.

The Maryland General Assembly was concerned because of the scale and scope of the project, fearing that there would not be sufficient federal dollars to complete the project and leaving the State of Maryland with the bill. As a result, the plan split construction into two contracts to guard against this eventuality, said Stek. 

“The environmentalists used to criticize the Corps, but the environment was not part of the mission the Corps was given. We changed it so that the Corps was given the environmental mission,” said Sen. Sarbanes. “They’re usually pretty good at what they do,” he said. 

Sec. 208 of WRDA 1996, along with authorizing aquatic ecosystem restoration (Sec. 206) and remediation of environmental dredging sites (Sec. 205) ushered in an era when dredged material is considered to be a resource. The term “spoil” was dropped from the dredging lexicon at the instigation of Corps of Engineers dredging expert Bill Murden, and Poplar Island became a model project that solved the differences between the ports and the environmental/fishing advocates. 

“This was a tremendous breakthrough at the time – to get Congress to consider the extra cost involved for the additional economic and environmental benefits so everyone could be in support of the project. Now everyone wants dredged material -- to rebuild eroded islands, and replenish beaches,” said Sen. Sarbanes. 

It was an example of how if you really think things through, you can confront a problem and come up with a solution in which all the public benefits, -- a win-win situation, he said. “I was always proud of that in terms of my service in the Senate,” he said.

A MARYLAND NATIVE

Sen. Sarbanes was born in Maryland in 1933. His parents were Greek immigrants, who instilled in him an appreciation for living in a democracy, the importance of community participation, and the importance of exercising the right to vote, according to an article from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

He was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1966, and served two terms, from 1967 to 1971, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, where he served from 1971 to 1977. A Democrat, he challenged Republican John G. Beall, Jr. in 1976 for U.S. senator from Maryland, and won with 59 percent of the vote. He was re-elected four times, receiving at least 59 percent of the vote in each election, and twice received 63 percent. One of his crowning achievements was his sponsorship of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, along with Michael Oxley, Republican of Ohio, which reformed public company accounting regulations and levied severe penalties for fraudulent activity by U.S. public company boards, management and public accounting firms. The bill passed nearly unanimously in both houses of Congress.

An article published at the time of his decision not to run for another six-year term in 2006 said “Sarbanes, a New Deal Democrat, never owned a stock or bond until he invested recently in a retirement mutual fund. He is one of the least wealthy senators, reporting only the house he and his wife have lived in for decades and pension and personal banking accounts.”

The Poplar Island project had the backing of another public servant, William R. Murden, who spent his entire career in the military, in the Corps of Engineers as a civilian, and in supporting public projects through his private consulting company after he retired. He was known throughout the world as “Mr. Dredging”, for his knowledge of dredging and his abilities at diplomacy that united the international dredging community. After Mr. Murden’s death on March 15, 1997, the Corps of Engineers erected a memorial to him on shore, and in June 2002, placed one on Poplar Island. He was a strong advocate of public service, and would have approved the re-naming the project after Sen. Sarbanes.

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