AT the 7th St. Marine Terminal here, mammoth gantry cranes unload cargo from a 1,000-foot-long container ship.To the north, the Sacramento/San Joaquin River delta spills into San Pablo Bay, distributing a silent threat southward that without remedy would make this port obsolete: silt. Upstream erosion, a legacy of blasted hillsides as far back as the gold rush, has long threatened one of the most valuable building blocks in the San Francisco Bay area economy. The Port of Oakland handles 90 percent of the region's container traffic, creates thousands of jobs, and accounts for $4 billion in other benefits. But burgeoning Pacific Rim trade has put a new urgency on the silt's impact. With demand for Asian trade has come pressure for larger high-speed ships, whose 42-foot-plus hull depths outsize the port's 38-foot maximum. With deeper waters in Seattle, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Calif., and elsewhere, Oakland port has dropped from first to fourth place in West Coast shipping trade.
Lost cargo and commerce "No other port on the West Coast has the depth restrictions Oakland does," says Gil Roeder, spokesman for American President Lines. He estimates three of four ships coming to Oakland have depths over 35 feet. "If a long-term solution is not found, ocean carriers will no longer bring their ships here." Port authorities estimate $700 million in wages, taxes, and local sales, and 4,000 jobs have been lost since 1988 in forfeited business. Mr. Roeder says his Oakland-based company loses $10 million annually in working around Oakland's depth problem: time lost waiting for high tides; increased tug fees; added fuel costs; overtime for idle personnel; shipping at under-capacity. Mel Wax, head spokesman for the port, says the serious economic threat is loss of "discretionary" cargo - goods destined for the Midwest and Far East. "These things can be delivered just as easily through other ports," he says. "Competitively, we are in a losing situation." Under new executive directorship since August - following poor real estate investments that have helped put the Port of Oakland nearly $18 million in debt - authorities have made dredging their No. 1 priority. Even though the federal government authorized dredging and appropriated money in 1986, court actions over the disposal of dredging material have kept the process stalled. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers approved a site 11 miles out in the ocean in 1987, but local fishermen, saying the resulting turbidity affects fish populations, blocked the dumping in the San Mateo County Superior Court. A second solution was to distribute dredge spoils as levee supports in the San Joaquin delta. But a local water board sued, claiming that contaminants might pollute local water supply. Though the port won a two-year court battle and appeal, the elaborate precautions and monitoring demands by local agencies pushed the cost skyward. The project was abandoned. In August, the port received help from Washington in a water appropriation bill signed by President Bush. Until port authorities can come up with a long-term strategy that will meet the area's dredging needs over the next 50 years, the material will be dumped at a US Navy test-dump site offshore, or near Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Both solutions are being resisted by environmental groups.
Sludge and wetlands Meanwhile, a 32-group consortium that includes the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Sierra Club, and others, is participating in a $16 million search of other sites. Although recommendations are not due until 1994, one option is attracting optimism. "We are very excited about using the dredge material to restore lost wetlands," says Barry Nelson, executive director of Save San Francisco Bay Association, an environmental group that has opposed several other solutions. He mentions two projects known as the Montezuma Wetlands and the Sonoma Baylands are at various stages of planning. The former wetlands area, near estuaries of the Sacramento River, is 95 percent depleted, he notes. "The idea has win/win potential, ... solving the dredging crisis while restoring wetlands," Mr. Nelson adds. Jim Levine, principal engineer of the consulting firm that helped identify the Montezuma site, says the brackish area can hold 50 million cubic yards, nearly seven times the amount needed to be dredged by Oakland. Though Nelson and spokesman for other environmental groups express enthusiasm for using the dredge spoils to replace wetlands, they caution about the need for continuous testing of the dredge material. "Some of that stuff is filthy and will never be disposed of fitly," Nelson says.
Adverse effects Denny Larson, campaign director for Citizens for a Better Environment, a statewide environmental watchdog group, says the most dangerous contaminants in the sludge are heavy metals disposed of illegally. California's five-year drought and water diversions to the southern half of the state have exacerbated the pollutant problem by decreasing the fresh-water flow into San Francisco Bay from the San Joaquin delta. Nelson observes that marsh studies are attempting to determine what effect the dredge material has on wetlands food chains. "The truth is, we don't yet know what this will do to the wetlands," says Nelson. "But the idea is extremely promising." Mr. Levine says an environmental impact statement should be ready by next summer, and permits to proceed by 1993.