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Energy & Environment

Financial Cost and Environmental Impact of Ship Freed from Chesapeake Bay Muck Remain Uncertain

The Ever Forward was freed early Sunday morning after being stuck over a month. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard, via WTOP.

A 1,095-foot container ship called Ever Forward is finally moving again after it ran aground near Craighill Channel in the Chesapeake Bay on March 13. But the costs associated with trying to dislodge the ship and its environmental impacts to the Bay remain unclear.

Attempts to refloat the ship, owned by Evergreen Marine Corporation, began at the end of March, when authorities dredged around the vessel and removed debris and mud to a depth of 43 feet. The material dredged was taken to Polar Island. After two days of failed attempts to set the large ship free, authorities decided to reduce the weight of the ship by removing some of its 4,964 containers.

For the last two weeks, a coordinated team consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maryland Department of the Environment and Evergreen Marine Corporation removed 500 containers with two crane barges during daylight hours and directed them to Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore.

On Easter Sunday morning, two pulling barges, two tugs from Donjon-SMIT, two tugs from Moran and two tugs from McAllister freed the Ever Forward ship — 35 days after it ran aground.

Before dredging, the Bay water was only around 20 feet deep with enough oxygen at the bottom to support marine life such as clams, according to Doug Myers, a scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The mud bottoms also include buried oyster shells, which have good habitat value, but dredging doubled the depth of the Bay, he continued.

“When a vessel like [Ever Forward] grounds, it’s basically plowing into all of that and probably killing all of the organisms that are in there,” Myers said. And below 20 feet, there is not as much dissolved oxygen to support marine life.

“I think this was a wake-up call as far as the risk of a fuel or oil spill,” Myers said. He said he hopes that there are changes to state policy so that Maryland can be as prepared as possible if another ship runs aground in the Bay.

The U.S Coast Guard, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the shipping company took steps to mitigate any environmental harm, by regularly monitoring the fuel tanks on the ship and preparing a containment boom, or a temporary floating barrier used to contain an oil spill, in the event one happened, to make recovery easier, according to Jay Apperson, the spokesman for MDE.

The agency issued an emergency wetlands license for dredging to Donjon-SMIT, a salvage team involved in dislodging Ever Forward. The wetlands license requires Donjon-SMIT to assess the dredging impacts to a natural oyster bar, provide a report to the MDE Tidal Wetlands Division now that Ever Forward was removed and develop a mitigation plan for impacts to the oyster bar, Apperson said.

Dredging permits in non-emergency situations usually require a year of environmental review and an environmental impact statement, according to Myers.

When asked how much it cost the state agency for its response efforts, Apperson said cost estimates were not available at this time. Asked the same question, Michael Ricci, spokesman for Gov. Lawrence. J Hogan (R), deferred to the Department of the Environment.

“Given the potential harm posed by this huge ship, with fuel and other materials on board and grounded on an oyster bar, successfully protecting Maryland’s environmental interests has made for one of the most significant responses in our agency’s history. This now continues into the restoration and compensation phase,” Apperson wrote in an email.

Last week, state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, a Democratic candidate for governor, called on Benjamin Tsai, the president of Evergreen Shipping Agency Corporation to set up a $100 million “responsibility fund” for reimbursement for labor hours and resources that federal, state and local agencies laid out for refloating efforts and compensation for watermen and the seafood industry for the ship’s impact on their harvest season.

“The establishment of this fund will send a clear message that Evergreen is a good faith actor; understands the environmental and economic damage this incident has caused to the State of Maryland; and truly lives up to its commitment to environmental protection,” Franchot wrote in a letter to Tsai.

Franchot also expressed concerns that the dredging required to dislodge the ship could have damaged oyster beds and disrupted spawning season for species that the seafood industry is expected to harvest. Franchot also mentioned the possibility of an oil spill, which “would be an environmental and economic catastrophe for the state, the region, and the country,” he wrote.

Franchot’s office has not received a response yet, according to spokeswoman Susan O’Brien.

A year ago, another ship owned by the same company named Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal, which received plenty of fanfare and disrupted the supply chain worldwide. It took six days with more than a dozen tugboats and high tide to dislodge the boat.

Evergreen Marine Corporation and the U.S. Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request to comment.