The Virginia Marine Resources Commission has endorsed a plan to preserve a small clutch of Chesapeake Bay oysters that have thrived despite diseases that have decimated other Bay oysters.

The plan was expected to be formally adopted in late November.

Under the proposal, the state would pay commercial fishermen the market price for up to 2,500 bushels of oysters caught in Pocomoke and Tangier sounds, near the Maryland border.

The adult oysters, some measuring 5 inches, would then be shipped across the Bay and replanted onto a manmade reef at the mouth of the Great Wicomico River. There, scientists hope, a new breed of disease-resistant oysters could start growing.

Two diseases, MSX and Dermo, are blamed for nearly destroying oyster stocks throughout the Bay. Oyster harvests in Virginia and Maryland have dropped to about 1 percent of past bounties.

The preservation plan is a compromise between conservationists, biologists and lawmakers who criticized the commission for voting in September to allow a limited harvest in Pocomoke and Tangier sounds.

Both inlets have been closed to oystering since 1993, as has the remainder of the lower Bay.

The commission Oct. 29 stood by its previous decision. "I think we made the right decision, and I think we took in all the considerations," said VMRC chairman William Pruitt.

Gene Burreson, an oyster researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said he still favors leaving the oysters alone. But he said the transplant proposal is better than selling them for consumption.

Watermen would be required to sell back to the state all the oysters they dredge when the harvest begins Dec. 2, said Jim Wesson, Virginia's director of oyster replenishment.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has offered to pay for a similar preservation effort if the VMRC plan falls though.

Audit Finds Differences in Pollution Reports

Eight Pennsylvania plants where state officials reported no pollution problems should have been identified as "significant violators," according to an audit released in November by the EPA's inspector general.

The eight plants represent 18 percent of the 45 plants given a clean bill of health in 1995 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Also, the state should have identified 56 other plants as "significant violators" instead of just issuing "notices of violation" to them, federal officials said.

A significant violator, by the EPA's definition, is "any major stationary source of air pollution, which is violating a federally enforceable regulation," according to the report. DEP is required to report such violators within a month of the violation.

The audit found that the "facilities that were serious contributors to air pollution continued harming the environment - sometimes for many years," and that the violations varied in severity.

Auditors said a review of 2,053 plants examined by state regulators likely will reveal more than the 64 discrepancies identified in their report.

"When DEP identified violations, it did not always ensure the facility took corrective action," auditors said. "Because of these conditions, violations persisted longer than necessary."

State officials say federal officials complicate their efforts to bring factories into compliance with pollution laws by involving themselves in inspections.

The state agency will open itself to its Citizens Advisory Council for review, air quality director Jim Salvaggio said.

"We think we run a good program. We're proud of our program. That's not to say it's perfect, but we'll lay out the information for the council to decide," he said.

The federal audit was performed because the EPA was concerned about a significant drop in Pennsylvania pollution violations in recent years.

'Subsistence Fishermen' May Be Endangered by Toxic Harbor Catches

A University of Maryland study says blue crabs and some fish in Baltimore Harbor are contaminated with toxic metals and may be unsafe to eat regularly.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Baltimore Urban League, which jointly commissioned the study, urged the state to warn those who catch fish and crabs in the harbor not to eat them more than once a week.

The findings serve as a warning to "subsistence fishermen" who regularly feed their families from harbor catches, Foundation President William C. Baker said.

The study, which reviewed fish that state scientists collected from the harbor from 1983 to 1990, found that levels of lead and cadmium in crabs, eels and catfish were "high enough to cause concern" for children or adults. Small amounts of lead can cause learning and neurological problems in young children. Cadmium can cause kidney problems for older adults.

The state has for 10 years advised against eating large amounts of American eel and channel catfish from the harbor because they are contaminated with traces of the pesticide chlordane, a suspected carcinogen.

Baker cautioned that there is no reason to shun Chesapeake fish or shellfish in general. "The Bay is not as contaminated as the Great Lakes," he said, "but the writing's on the wall: Ignore this problem and it will get worse."

Baker and Baltimore Urban League President Roger Lyons urged the state to reduce toxic contaminants still entering the harbor from storm-water runoff, from sewers and industries and from air pollution.

Westinghouse Fined  $5.4 Million for Water Pollution

Westinghouse Electric Corp. plans to appeal a $5.4 million fine for polluting a stream, groundwater and wells near a Gettysburg, Pa., plant with poisonous degreasers.

The fine was the largest ever assessed by the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, but is less than the $9 million originally sought by the state. The board issued its decision in early November.

Westinghouse, which is based in Pittsburgh, called the fine "unrealistic" and said the site was already contaminated before the company bought the Adams County plant, which it operated from 1968 to 1989.

Company employees testified that Westinghouse regularly dumped the liquid degreasers trichloroethylene and trichlorothane or allowed them to seep into nearby sewers and soil. At least 113 wells were contaminated.

The chemicals can cause memory defects, heart rhythm disturbances and liver and kidney damage.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said the company has spent more than $4 million cleaning up the site and has provided all affected properties with a public water supply.

Federal Officials Give Smithfield 30-day Extenstion

Smithfield Foods Inc. has received an additional month to decide whether to pay the federal government $3.5 million for polluting the Pagan River or face a lawsuit seeking more money.

Leanne Nurse, an EPA spokeswoman in Philadelphia, said Friday that EPA and Justice Department officials agreed to Smithfield's request for a 30-day extension. The meatpacking company originally was given a Nov. 1 deadline.

Neither Nurse nor Aaron Trub, a Smithfield vice president, would elaborate on the reasons for the extension.

"What we're permitted to tell you all is that we met with them and that we are continuing to discuss the situation with them," Trub said.

The federal government's threatened suit is unusual because the state already is suing Smithfield for nearly $3 million, citing an unspecified number of state pollution law violations. Federal law prevents the government from suing a suspected polluter if a state already is "diligently prosecuting" a case under a comparable state law.

Some environmentalists have claimed the state took action only to block a bigger lawsuit by the federal government. Gov. George Allen and other state officials have denied the allegation.

"It doesn't matter what you do, they're going to complain," Allen told reporters in late October.

Smithfield Foods produces up to 3 million gallons of wastewater a day at its two meatpacking plants in Smithfield.

VA Attorney General Wants Power to Prosecute Environmental Crimes

Attorney General James S. Gilmore III wants the General Assembly to give his office authority to prosecute environmental crimes.

"The state should be in a position to enforce its own laws," Gilmore said at the Virginia Urban Forest Council's annual meeting in Roanoke.

Local commonwealth attorneys and federal prosecutors can pursue criminal charges against polluters while the state can only seek civil penalties for environmental crimes.

Gilmore said local prosecutors are swamped by violent crime such as murder and robberies, and lack the staff to pursue environmental crime.

"If a major murder is being prosecuted, it devotes a lot of attention," Gilmore said.

The attorney general's office already has an environmental section that works closely with state regulators.

Gilmore proposed legislation to create concurrent authority for the attorney general and the commonwealth's attorneys.

"This change would add a new law enforcement tool that would enable us, together, to better protect Virginia's air, water and land, and protect our citizens' health," Gilmore said.

There were no specific environmental crimes that motivated the proposal, Gilmore said.

"This is not something that is personal," Gilmore said. "I'm probably not going to be attorney general much longer."

Gilmore plans to seek the Republican nomination for governor next year.