Virginia, CBF plan artificial reef in former oyster hotbed

Virginia fisheries officials hope an artificial oyster reef will help restore the Lynnhaven River as a major oyster producer.

The river has been closed to oyster harvesting for about a decade because of pollution and parasites, but scientists recently found a few hardy, saucer-sized survivors.

The artificial reef is intended to create a favorable habitat for spawning because oysters breed better in close quarters. Scientists hope the result will be a resilient breed of oysters that can be transplanted to cleaner waters.

“This is experimental, no doubt,” said Jim Wesson, director of oyster restoration at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. “But what we have in there is a very valuable gene pool of oysters that we think is worth trying to salvage.”

Wesson said the $100,000 project will start with the construction of the reef — a pile of oyster shells extending 60 feet wide and 500 feet long — in May or June.

The state and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation enlisted the help of students from nine Hampton Roads high schools and middle schools. The students will grow baby oysters in protected pens this fall, then set them onto the Lynnhaven reef next spring. If successful, the Foundation would like to expand the oyster-rearing work to the rest of the region, perhaps as early as next year.

Two parasites, known as MSX and Dermo, are blamed for devastating the oyster population in the Bay, especially in the Virginia half of the estuary, where stocks are just 1 percent of their historic average.

Wesson said that watermen took 16,891 bushes of market-size oysters, “an all-time low,” from Virginia waters last fall and winter. The previous low was 35,535 bushels in 1993-94. “It will probably be about the same or slightly better this year,” Wesson said. The oyster season ends April 30.

In Virginia, only the James River continues to support a public oyster harvest. Oystering in the open waters of the lower Bay was banned in 1993, mostly because there were so few oysters left.

The Lynnhaven reef is one of four the state will construct this year to try to stimulate an oyster comeback. Another is planned on the Eastern Shore and two others near the Potomac River.

Concerns raised about pace of PA environmental lawsuits

Delays in the handling of environmental lawsuits have prompted Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher to set up a meeting with Ridge administration officials to try to speed up the system.

Fisher, who took office in January, told a Senate committee that he is concerned that the Department of Environmental Protection has not referred cases to his office fast enough to allow for effective prosecution.

In some instances, Fisher said, it has taken years for cases to be forwarded to the attorney general’s office for action. Such delays can lead to “stale” evidence or faulty memories by witnesses, he said.

He told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee during a budget hearing that a meeting to seek improvements is scheduled between his staff and DEP officials.

Under state law, the attorney general’s office cannot act on a case until it has been referred to the office by a state agency or county district attorney. The DEP and the attorney general operate under an agreement that Fisher said he would like to change to speed the referral process.

Fisher said he had some concern that the current arrangement does not give his office enough involvement in cases that eventually are referred to it by the DEP, especially those involving significant environmental hazards. He said he sensed that DEP officials were open to the idea of renegotiating the agreement with the attorney general’s office.

DEP spokeswoman Christina Novak confirmed that a meeting was planned between the two agencies to discuss the referral agreement and several specific cases. “We were happy to hear that there was increased interest in improving our record on environmental cases,” she said. “We did not see as much interest in the past.”

Bethlehem Steel plans Sparrows Point cleanup

Bethlehem Steel Corp. will pay $350,000 to Maryland for air pollution violations and has promised to cut in half the amount of toxic substances released from its Sparrows Point plant.

Under an agreement reached with state and federal environmental agencies Feb. 25, the steel manufacturer also agreed to assess the hazardous waste it releases into soil, groundwater and surface water and develop a cleanup plan, according to the EPA.

The agreement resolves two Justice Department lawsuits against the company on behalf of the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment, which will assess the penalty for violations between 1990 and 1995.

Bethlehem Steel agreed to a 50 percent reduction of releases of toxic substances covered by the federal Toxic Release Inventory.

The settlement requires the company to reduce wastewater into Bear Creek, which feeds into the Patapsco River and eventually the Bay. The company has also agreed to reduce wastewater discharges, implement waste minimization and recycling projects and change policies on visible air pollution.

Pennsylvania-based Bethlehem Steel agreed five years ago to pay a record $3.5 million in fines for emitting potentially cancer-causing gases and sulfur dioxide from its coke ovens. It has since shut down the three ovens, laying off 400 employees.

The steel maker has also been cited three times since 1995 by the state for visible air emissions. From January 1994 through July, Bethlehem Steel reported 43 violations of its water pollution discharge permit.

In 1994, the company reported 1.7 million pounds of toxic chemicals. Materials released included chromium, copper, cyanide, lead, sulfuric acid and zinc. About 1 million pounds of those toxins were disposed of on land, while 222,000 pounds escaped into the air and 211,000 pounds went into the Patapsco River, Old Road Bay and Bear Creek. Those reported releases are legal under state air and water pollution permits.

Navy scraps Patuxent plan

The Navy has scrapped plans to berth five large, mothballed ships just offshore from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

Prompted by the closing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the Navy said in December that the Patuxent River, with its unusually deep water, was among several East Coast sites under consideration as an anchorage for two World War II-era battleships and three old aircraft carriers.

But the idea was opposed by local politicians and watermen who worried that the ships might bring pollution to the river and could be an eyesore that would dominate the landscape. The battleships are 887 feet long, and each of the carriers are more than 1,000 feet long.

“I think it’s probably a good thing,” Barbara Thompson, president of the St. Mary’s County Board of Commissioners, told the Washington Post. “I believe the community wasn’t ready to accept that. The arguments against it were just beginning to heat up.”

The Navy issued a statement saying that it would make a final decision about where to place the ships by December, but did not say why the Patuxent River was being removed from the list of potential sites.

The ships would have added about a dozen maintenance jobs to the estimated 7,700 jobs at the Patuxent Base.

MD environmental officials will investigate sick fish

Maryland environmental officials are mystified by what is causing lesions and open sores to appear on fish harvested from the Pocomoke River.

The Department of Natural Resources has decided to launch a study after fishermen reported catching the afflicted fish in an area that ranges from the mouth of the river to Snow Hill.

“We received the reports in late October when the fishing season was closing down,” spokeswoman Nancy Howard said. “We’re waiting for the fishing season to open in April so we can determine what pathogens may be in the water and where they might be coming from.”

Investigators, after initial studies were performed on the fish in the fall, have said the lesions may have been caused by a fungus in the water.

Commercial fisherman Ray Maddox, 36, of Shelltown, said he’s been waiting since October for state environmental officials to tell him what caused lesions and open sores to appear on almost 50 percent of the perch, catfish and rockfish he and others harvested from the mouth of the Pocomoke River last fall.

“They were open, eating sores,” Maddox said. “It looked like half the skin was taken off some of the catfish — like they had been dipped in acid.”

He said he also delivered approximately 40 of the fish to state officials at the Department of the Environment in Annapolis for examination but received no results from that agency.