Environmental group recruiting seniors to protect Mother Nature

It could be said that Else Elliott has greened in her golden years.

The Alexandria resident, who will say only that she is older than 60, is among a group of Virginia retirees who have become environmental activists.

“Our generation has seen such a radical change in the environment over the years,” she told The Washington Post. “If I went on a picnic when I was a child, we could drink the water in the creek. You wouldn’t think of it today.”

Senior citizen volunteers commonly turn up at hospitals, libraries or schools. The Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement, though, is sending them outdoors to measure water quality in streams, monitor birds and inspect groundwater for contamination. They call it the Senior Environment Corps.

The alliance, a private-public organization with chapters across the country, wants to create meaningful work for Virginia seniors while providing skilled, free labor for environmental projects.

For two years, a handful of seniors have run an informal environmental project by working with Alexandria children to create and tend a flower garden on school grounds. Seniors say it’s gratifying to teach children who live in apartments or condominiums with barely a patch of grass to value the soil and tend plants.

In addition to the northern Virginia corps, six others are planned throughout the state — one in each of the major river watershed areas.

Projects to be launched include monitoring water quality in the Potomac River, picking up trash from streams, planting vegetation along riverbanks and working with young volunteers to identify sources of water contamination.

The EPA has given the Senior Environment Corps $5,000 for its first water quality project. The group also is seeking grants from charitable organizations and money from the state.

“The treasure of this program is in attracting retired professionals, people who have experience in the field,” said Paddy Katzen, special assistant to the secretary of natural resources. “But training is a big part, too, so that we have very strict quality control over the information and data that the volunteers produce.

For information about the Senior Environment Corps of Northern Virginia, call 703-549-1609.

Study says seafood industry not fully recovered from pfiesteria

A new study found that mid-Atlantic residents have cut back on their consumption of seafood for fear of pfiesteria, while nearly two-thirds of residents think that their local seafood is unsafe to eat because of recent outbreaks of the toxic microbe.

The University of Delaware study revealed that Maryland’s seafood industry has yet to fully recover from the toxic outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida two years ago, and is susceptible to another scare.

The study, which polled residents of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York, also found that more than half would cut back on their consumption of local seafood if an outbreak occurred in their state’s waters.

One-fifth have cut back on their consumption of seafood during the past five years for fear of pfiesteria, the study said. Of those who said they were wary of seafood, more than half changed vacation plans because of pfiesteria outbreaks.

An outbreak of the toxic form of single-cell organism killed up to 50,000 fish in the Pocomoke River in 1997 and sickened 13 people, who were diagnosed with memory loss, confusion and other mental problems.

The response is shocking, said James M. Falk, a researcher with the University of Delaware’s Sea Grant College Program, which announced the results of the survey yesterday in Washington, D.C. Though nearly all the respondents knew that pfiesteria was dangerous, their understanding of the organism was often limited, he said.

Respondents were split over whether pfiesteria is a form of pollution, a disease in fish or a poison and only 5 percent knew it attacked fish.

Maryland seafood sales dropped as much as 70 percent in the weeks after the 1997 outbreak. In an effort to reassure consumers, state seafood and tourism agencies launched a $500,000 advertising campaign highlighting the safety of the industry. Gov. Parris Glendening made a concerted effort to be photographed eating Maryland seafood.

“The advertising we did seems to have helped it bounce back,” said Noreen Eberly of the state Seafood Marketing Board. “There are still some people who won’t buy seafood no matter what, but for the most part, it’s returned to its former levels.”

Montgomery planners propose $100 million land preservation plan

Hoping to create a huge expanse of undeveloped open space in Montgomery County, MD, municipal planners are proposing to spend $100 million over the next decade to permanently set aside tracts of open spaces and historic property.

The program, called Legacy Open Space, would rely on public and private money to buy land, which will form a broad, circuitous band of green space, planners say.

County planners have assembled a list of more than 4,000 acres of “open space lands of exceptional significance” for possible purchase.

The purchases would require significant money from the county. Land purchases are now paid for almost entirely by the state and Gov. Parris N. Glendening has aggressively used public funds to protect sensitive land from development.

“This request is warranted and justified given the rate at which critical resources will be lost if we don’t,” said William H. Hussmann, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board.

County planners propose selling bonds to raise money for the land purchases, including $18 million in the next fiscal year. In the next two years, planners propose spending $36 million in county, state and federal funds and private money raised from corporations and foundations on land purchases.

Under the plan, the county would buy property that was part of the underground railroad used by slaves to escape bondage and a site commemorating the county’s Quaker heritage. The two sites together could cost as much as $12 million.

Planners propose buying 258 acres near the Potomac known for rare rock formations and an additional 335 acres ripe for future residential development in western Montgomery. The plan calls for spending as much as $3 million to buy 900 acres along the Patuxent River to protect the watershed from development.

PA group sues over cleanup bonds

A coalition of Pennsylvania environmental and sportsmen groups filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, PA, asking the court to enforce state and federal laws requiring coal companies to post adequate financial guarantees to clean up environmental damage caused by mining.

The Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future says bonds currently being posted by mining companies only cover a fraction of the true cleanup costs. New rules instituted in early October require all new mines’ bonds to cover the full cost of cleanup. But the environmental coalition wants that requirement to include all existing mine permits.

The lawsuit names the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Office of Surface Mining as defendants.

Worth Noting:

  • Utility Post: Former Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin has been named the general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the giant water and sewer utility serving 1.6 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Griffin takes over the post at a time when county and state officials are deciding whether to sell the utility to a private operator. A task force studying the proposed sale concluded its work this month without making a formal recommendation.

  • Smog central: Maryland’s Anne Arundel County had the worst air conditions on the Eastern Seaboard for the first half of this summer, the Maryland Public Interest Research Group said recently. But a MaryPIRG spokesman said the county is a victim of its location, as wind blows pollution from the Washington area toward two monitoring stations in Anne Arundel. The county also gets pollution from power plants in West Virginia and Ohio.

  • Suit Settled: Baltimore officials agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle a lawsuit that claimed discharges from water filtration and sewage plants polluted the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment sought penalties in May 1997 for excessive discharges from the Ashburton drinking water and Patapsco sewage treatment plants. The suit contended that chlorine and other waste were released from the Ashburton plant into the Gwynns Falls since 1992, and that the Patapsco plant sporadically emitted chlorine, phosphorus and fecal matter since 1993. Under the settlement, the city will pay $2.5 million to fund three environmental projects and $1 million to the federal government — one of the largest penalties the U.S. Justice Department has ever levied against a municipality.

  • Once is Enough: Virginia circuit court Judge Glen Tyler ruled that state environmental officials cannot fine pork processor Smithfield Foods Inc. for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act because the EPA already fined the company for a related case. The EPA fined Smithfield $12.6 million in 1997 for dumping hog waste in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest water-pollution penalties in the history of the Clean Water Act. A 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Richmond upheld the ruling last month.

  • Appeal shot down: The Virginia Court of Appeals said that a circuit court judge was correct in ruling that environmentalists lack legal standing to appeal the State Water Control Board permit for a Newport News reservoir planned for King William County. The appeals court said the environmental groups lacked standing because the damage to wetlands and the Mattaponi River they believe will happen would not be caused by the water board’s permit but by a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The appeals court is still considering an appeal of the same case by Mattaponi Indians who say the project violates a 322-year-old treaty.