The EPA has charged 10 tidewater Virginia property owners and developers with illegally destroying wetlands and, in some cases, polluting nearby waterways.

The crackdown announced May 8 is one of the largest of its kind in Virginia, according to the EPA. The agency is seeking wetland restoration of five to 45 acres in each case.

Most of the administrative orders are aimed at operations that took advantage of a 1998 court decision that created a loophole in federal programs by allowing wetlands to be drained if a certain ditching technique was used.

Since a court threw out the so-called ”Tulloch Rule,” developers drained more than 2,600 acres of wetlands in the tidewater area. The loss helped spur Virginia’s General Assembly this year to create a state program to regulate nontidal wetlands. [See “Virginia begins to regulate nontidal wetlands,” April 2000]

Although the full state program does not begin until October 2001, a measure allowing the state to halt ditching under the Tulloch loophole will go into effect July 1. Environmentalists and others had worried there could be a spate of wetland draining before July, as happened when North Carolina launched a similar wetland program.

The EPA’s action discourages such attempts. Although prohibited from regulating certain types of ditching, the agency charged firms for other water violations related to the ditching. For example, the agency said any construction project of five acres or more had to have a permit to discharge pollutants in stormwater.

“We have taken these actions under the U.S. Clean Water Act to prevent the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands, which would seriously damage the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem,” said Bradley Campbell, administrator of EPA Region III, which includes the mid-Atlantic states.

“We look forward also to enjoying the protection of Virginia’s new law to protect wetlands. This new state law … takes a strong stand to stop wetlands destruction and supplements the Clean Water Act,” he said.

EPA officials suggested no fines would be sought as long as the affected wetlands are restored in a timely manner.

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said the DEQ is cooperating in the crackdown.

The EPA’s action deals with seven properties in Chesapeake, and one each in Suffolk, Virginia Beach and Newport News.