Virginia reverses plans to scale back pollution standards for waterways

Virginia is withdrawing several proposals to change standards that protect rivers after reviewing new studies and receiving a flood of outraged letters.

The state Department of Environmental Quality said in late May that it was scaling back plans to change standards for pollutants including fecal bacteria, chlorine and a toxic boat paint called TBT. The agency also extended until June 14 the period during which the public can comment.

The proposals a year ago drew nearly 600 letters, most in opposition.

The debate centers on the DEQ's efforts to update water-quality standards. The standards set specific concentrations for about 100 pollutants that are allowed in rivers.

Here are some of the original proposals to change the standards and the new proposals:

  • Chlorine. The DEQ last year proposed lifting the chlorine ban on some trout streams and waters containing endangered species, mainly in western Virginia. The DEQ now proposes retaining the ban.

  • Fecal bacteria. Under current rules, the standard for fecal bacteria is 1,000 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. The agency had proposed relaxing that number but the latest proposals retain the current limit.

  • TBT. The current standard is no more than 26 parts per trillion of tributylin in fresh water and one part per trillion of salt water. The previous proposal retained the numbers but said they could not be exceeded in a four-day average. That would have allowed some concentrations above the current limits. Agency officials still propose that standard, but they now are proposing an additional standard that could not be violated for even one day - 460 parts per trillion in fresh water and 360 parts in salt water.

  • Staunton River. The previous proposal would have removed the stretch of river between the Leesville Lake dam and the Kerr Reservoir from the list of public water supplies, which gives a higher level of protection. This proposal drew the most opposition and the new proposals keep the Staunton on the water-supply list.

  • Scenic rivers. The previous proposals deleted a listing of Virginia's scenic rivers from the water-quality regulations. State officials said other regulations already deal with the rivers but critics feared the rivers would get less protection. The new proposals keep the scenic river list "for informational purposes only."

  • Copper. Now, as last year, standards designed to protect marine life from this toxic metal would be relaxed slightly. For example, one standard for copper in salt water would rise from 2.9 parts per billion to 3.8 parts.

The DEQ will review the letters it gets during the extended public-comment period and could further modify the new proposed standards. The agency plans to put its proposals before the State Water Control Board by fall for adoption. The changes also must be approved by the federal EPA.

Groups threaten to sue Md. over wetlands protection

Environmental groups that believe Maryland is not doing enough to protect ecologically valuable wetlands are threatening to go to court.

Maryland Secretary of the Environment Jane Nishida insists the state commitment is stronger than ever. But that has not stopped six organizations from submitting a notice of intent to file a suit demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reclaim some of the enforcement powers it turned over to the state.

Unless a satisfactory response from the corps is received within 60 days, a suit will most likely be filed, said Thomas Grasso, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The corps has signed an agreement with the state agency giving it permitting authority over projects impacting up to five acres of nontidal wetlands and three acres of tidal wetlands. The stated purpose of the agreement was to allow small projects to be handled by the state alone, relieving landowners and developers of the necessity of dealing with two levels of government.

"We don't object to eliminating duplication and other inefficiencies in the application process," said Joy Oaks of the Maryland Sierra Club, one of six organizations giving notice of intent to file suit. "What we object to is sacrificing environmental protections on the altar of efficiency and economic development. Everybody loses in that game."

Doug Garman, a spokesman for the corps, said the agency is reviewing the notice of intent to sue that was filed on April 28 and would not comment further.

Among the environmental groups' complaints:

  • The department authorized destruction of 56 acres of wetlands in 1996, almost double the average of 30 acres for the previous five years.

  • In 1996, the agency insisted on changes in proposed development plans that reduced the impact on wetlands by 17 percent, compared with the average over the prior five years of 37 percent.

  • The agency's enforcement procedures were lax, as shown by a drop in stop-work orders in 1996 of more than two-thirds from the average of the previous five years.

Nishida said that during the first nine months her agency operated under the new authority from the Corps of Engineers, it authorized destruction of just 8.67 acres of wetlands, and 97 percent of that was for tracts less than 5,000 square feet. "We think what we'll see in 1997 may be the lowest number on record in terms of impact on wetlands," she said.

She said her agency has tried to streamline the permitting process, but has not sacrificed wetlands protection. "We think Maryland's wetlands program is a leader in terms of effective management of our wetlands resources," she said.

Environmental groups also say there is less chance for public scrutiny because fewer hearings are now held on applications to disrupt wetlands.

The department's own statistics show that "this is really a serious problem, and nibbling around the edges is not going to solve it," Grasso said.

"It was only as a last resort that we've now filed this notice of intent to go to federal court."

Pennsylvania launches forest buffer initiative

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge recently launched a multiagency initiative to establish and preserve streamside forest buffers. The initiative follows the establishment last fall of a Bay Program goal to create 2,010 new miles of riparian forest buffers in the Bay watershed by the year 2010.

Fifteen state agencies will help with the initiative, which will apply statewide. Streamside forest buffers help filter the run-off of sediments and fertilizers; assist with nutrient uptake; provide canopy and shade for temperature control; and provide habitat and leaf food for aquatic life. They are important in urban, agricultural and residential settings that border waterways.

"Riparian forest buffers link our landscapes to our rivers - while at the same time providing great value to aquatic life and the quality of the stream," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary James Seif.

Groups unite to protect wetlands, streams, uplands in Bay region

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited Inc. recently announced they have joined forces in a multiyear initiative to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, stream buffers and wildlife habitat in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Between this spring and December 1998, the partnership's goal is to restore 3,800 acres of wetlands, 1,150 acres of upland habitat and 34 miles of river and streambanks at a cost of $500,000 from the two organizations and another $1 million from government conservation programs and participating landowners.

During the next 5 years, the partnership plans to restore more than 10,000 acres of wetlands and 120 miles of streambanks to improve water quality in the Bay region.

The conservation groups formalized the partnership with the signing of a memorandum of understanding at the Tayloe Unit of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Richmond County, Va., the site of an ongoing wetlands restoration project by the two groups.

Eastern Shore farm donated to Audubon Society

A stretch of undeveloped land along the Chesapeake Bay will become a sanctuary for rare and migratory birds and preserve precious shoreline, the National Audubon Society announced.

William Mason Shehan, a former Maryland state senator, and his wife, Jean DuPont Shehan, donated a 1,000-acre property known as Wells Point Farm to the Audubon Society in May. It includes about eight miles of forested waterfront on the Eastern Shore.

John Flicker, Audubon Society president, called the gift "a priceless legacy for future generations. It may be the last opportunity to ever assemble that much contiguous, undeveloped shoreline anywhere on the Chesapeake."

The Shehans will retain the use of a house and some other buildings, but the Audubon Society has taken over a hunting lodge to use for educational programs.