VMRC to help cities remove abandoned vessels from Elizabeth River

With financial help from the state, southeastern Virginia cities are taking steps to begin clearing abandoned vessels from the Elizabeth River.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission plans to divide $200,000 among Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and other cities where 145 unsightly hulks block navigation, pollute the river and discourage developers from buying riverside property.

The commission is teaming up with the nonprofit Elizabeth River Project to decide which wrecks deserve priority. The cities, meanwhile, are taking legal steps to gain control over the wrecks so they can apply for removal funds.

With the cost of removal approaching $100,000 for big hulks, only the worst sites will get immediate attention. The Elizabeth River Project has come up with a "dirty dozen" list of the river's worst offenders.

"We targeted this first dozen by looking at several issues, including the visibility of the wreck," said Randy Owen, an environmental engineer with the VMRC.

Two of the dirty dozen sites are in Chesapeake: a pair of half-sunken tugboat hulls at Great Bridge Lock Park and a rusting steel barge near Treakle Bridge and Interstate 64.

"We received more calls about the barge by the (Treakle) bridge than any other complaints about the river," Owen said. "It has high visibility."

But the commission also will assess different sites' environmental risk to the Elizabeth, judge how each wreck interferes with navigation and gauge how easily a marooned boat can be removed.

The state and cities are being forced to foot the bill because most of the eyesores have no known owner. And even when owners are found, making them take responsibility for the costly removal can be a headache for localities.

To begin tracking down boat owners and taking control of the wrecks if no owner can be found, Chesapeake passed an ordinance which gives control over the process to the city's inspection department. The department hopes to apply for marine resources commission funds before the end of the year.

Groups sue to halt development at Chapman's Landing

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit asking the federal court to block a wetlands permit for a 4,600-home development in southern Maryland.

The Friends of Mount Aventine and Friends of the Earth asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to give them more time to study the impact on the wooded stretch of land on the Potomac River in Charles County.

The Legend Development Co. was granted a permit to disturb a total of 3 acres of nontidal wetlands on the southern portion of the Chapman's Landing property. The 1,400-acre southern tract contains 84 acres of wetlands.

The lawsuit charges that the Army Corps of Engineers looked too narrowly at the few acres of wetlands that would be disturbed by road and utility line construction.

The tract is a "healthy vital forest, which hosts an unusually diverse community of plants and wildlife," the suit says.

The former plantation along the Potomac has a historic early 19th-century mansion, a bald eagle nest, several declining songbird species and more than a dozen rare plants, the groups say.

The suit, filed July 2, says the Corps ignored or refused to consider the potential environmental harm of the overall development, which would create a city of 12,000 residents on 2,254 acres over 15 to 20 years. "The corps didn't really look at the impacts of this project," said Lynn Sferrazza, a lawyer with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which represents the two environmental groups.

When they issued the permit, Army officials said they had concluded after two years of study that the wetlands disturbances requested by the developer were not significant and did not warrant a formal environmental impact study.

EPA holds off on threat to take over Virginia DEQ

Federal officials said in mid-August that they will hold off carrying out a threat to take over Virginia's environmental programs, although they remain concerned about the state's ability to enforce anti-pollution laws.

The EPA had demanded answers to 16 questions about the reorganization of the state Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ answered the questions July 25. The EPA had questioned, in a letter to DEQ Director Thomas L. Hopkins, whether the restructuring will further hinder an agency already under fire over what federal officials have called the lax enforcement of pollution laws.

W. Michael McCabe, EPA Region III administrator, has requested a meeting with DEQ officials to discuss the concerns.

As an example of why the EPA is so concerned, McCabe cited the case of meatpacker Smithfield Foods Inc., which was fined $12.6 million by a federal judge earlier this month for violating clean water laws-the largest such fine ever imposed in the United States. "The Smithfield case underscores the EPA's concerns that the commonwealth has not been able to adequately address significant (water pollution) violations," he said.

McCabe kept open the possibility of a federal takeover of Virginia's enforcement program, something he said has occurred only twice in EPA history. He said that he remains worried about the state's willingness to carry out anti-pollution laws.

Julie Overy, a spokeswoman for Gov. George Allen, said she felt confident the EPA would not take over the state's programs. "The DEQ and the administration are committed to protecting the environment and upholding the law," she said. "So long as we continue to do that, EPA should have no reason to take any action like that against the state."

The DEQ restructuring has been criticized by legislators, environmentalists and even some business groups that have enjoyed a friendly relationship with Allen's environmental agency.

The realignment gives DEQ five layers of management instead of the four recommended by the General Assembly's investigative agency. Thirty employees, many with decades of experience, were laid off but invited to compete for 34 new positions. All but one were rehired.

CBF seeks strict scraping rules

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is seeking stricter Maryland regulation of the use of scrapes and dredges to catch clams and oysters, a practice it says may destroy valuable underwater grasses.

The Foundation asked the Department of Natural Resources to look into the issue because submerged grasses help clean the water and provide habitat for fish and crabs.

"We are very concerned because we don't have a statewide policy on this," said Tom Grasso, the foundation's Maryland executive director.

He said his organization approached the DNR in part because "we've gotten anecdotal evidence through watermen who called us saying there are problems in the Annemessex River with clamming and in the Choptank and Miles rivers with crab scraping."

The Foundation is not seeking a ban on the use of scrapes by crabbers and dredges by clammers. And it does not object to the use of crab scrapes in the lower Bay around Tangier Sound, where eelgrass makes up most of the submerged vegetation.

Eelgrass grows from the base, and scraping "does minimal damage and may encourage new growth," Grasso said. But in the rest of the Bay, grasses such as widgeon grass and sago pondweed grow from the tip. "If you scrape the tips of the grasses off, you're not going to get the new growth," he said.

Sarah Taylor-Rogers, assistant secretary of natural resources, said the department has met with clammers in the Little Annemessex River and the back bays off Ocean City and Assateague Island seeking a voluntary agreement to avoid dredging in grass beds. So far that seems to be working, she said.

Bill seeks tighter rules on ground water withdrawal

A Perrier subsidiary's effort to pump more water out of a spring in Pennsylvania's Chester County has prompted a state senator to call for tougher restrictions on ground water removal.

Under Sen. Jim Gerlach's bill, municipalities that share watersheds could form regional alliances to regulate land and ground water use, subject to approval by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The bill would become the state's first water-planning law; neither the DEP nor local governments have authority to regulate ground water withdrawals, the Chester County Republican said.

The legislation was prompted a year-old controversy in South Coventry Township. The Great Bear Water Co., a subsidiary of the Perrier Group of America, is trying to draw more water from the local drinking supply. County officials say there is not enough ground water to accommodate future growth and Great Bear's plans to withdraw another 20,000 gallons a day during peak summer months, bringing its total to 75,000 gallons a day.

The Delaware River Basin Commission in Trenton, N.J., has the final say over the company's plan.