Volunteer associations have been working to improve water quality for decades
August 30, 2011
By John McVey, Journal staff writer , journal-news.net
MARTINSBURG - A lot of attention recently has been drawn to the impact of local waterways on the Chesapeake Bay, but a group of tri-county organizations have been working to clean up bay tributaries for many years.
For decades, several watershed associations throughout the tri-county have "adopted" streams and creeks, taking care of them and monitoring their water quality.
"These are all volunteer-based groups, and they do magnificent work," Matthew Pennington said in a recent interview.
He is the new Chesapeake Bay program manager with Region 9 Planning and Development Council.
"They should be recognized for what they are doing for the watershed," Pennington continued. "There are a lot of great individuals doing great work."
Under a presidential executive order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued new strict limits on nutrient pollution, that is nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment pollution that can get into the Chesapeake Bay via its tributaries.
The greater, eight-county Eastern Panhandle is in the Potomac River watershed, a major tributary of the bay.
The bay restoration program focus is on reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater runoff and agricultural operations.
Through various projects, like removing trash and garbage from streams, repairing and enhancing riparian buffers and reaching out to the community with educational programs, tri-county watershed associations work to improve the water quality of streams and creeks that run into the Potomac River.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection held an informational meeting for Eastern Panhandle watershed associations last week in Romney to bring them up to date on Phase II of the DEP's Water Implementation Plan to comply with the EPA's pollution-limit mandates.
Pennington, who attended the meeting, said what the watershed associations do to clean up local waterways will have an impact on the Chesapeake Bay program.
"I also wanted to add how fortunate this area of West Virginia is to have these volunteer watershed groups," he wrote in an email. "They dedicate a large amount of time and effort to cleaning up local waterways so that all citizens in the area may enjoy them."
Sandra Bernardi with the Opequon Creek Project Team attended the DEP's meeting for watershed groups, which she described as very informative.
"Of course, as a watershed organization, we were most focused on how we can help implement the (Watershed Implementation Plan) and we will continue our education outreach programs ...," she wrote in an email.
Gale Foulds with the Sleepy Creek Watershed Association, who also attended the DEP's meeting, said her group will continue to conduct programs to improve the water quality of local waterways, which at the very least have an indirect benefit for the Chesapeake Bay.
MARTINSBURG - The state Department of Environmental Protection is suing the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District over charges that its wastewater treatment plants violated water pollution standards during the last four years.
However, a district official maintains many of the cited problems have since been corrected and that the organization's overall compliance rate has not been an issue.
Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP Division of Water and Waste Management, is named as the plaintiff in the suit, which was filed Monday in Berkeley County Circuit Court.
The complaint cites water violations stemming from the district's four largest plants as well as half of the 12 smaller, package plants operated by the BCPSSD.
State law prohibits the discharge of any pollutant into its waters unless it's done in compliance with applicable water standards and a West Virginia National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
It limits the maximum daily and average monthly concentrations of pollutants contained in the effluent from the wastewater treatment facilities.
Limitations apply to biochemical oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids, ammonia nitrogen, zinc, silver, lead, cadmium, copper, chronic toxicity, cyanide, fecal coliform and pH levels.
As a result, the suit alleges discharge limit violations occurred March 2007 to February 2011 at the district's Opequon/Hedgesville, Inwood, Baker Heights and North End wastewater treatment plants as well as a pretreatment facility that handles industrial wastewater from Eco Lab.
For example, the suit states that the Opequon/Hedgesville plant experienced 45 minor, 46 moderate and 64 major exceedances of its permit limits.
Under the NPDES permit covering these plants (including the pretreatment facility for Eco Lab), the suit lists a total of 187 minor violations, 125 moderate violations and 108 major violations for a cumulative total of 420 separate violations.
That represents a total of 5,437 days of violations, according to the suit.
Additionally, permit limits were exceeded at the district's Woods II wastewater treatment plant with 146 minor, 131 moderate and 41 major violations.
Other discharge limit violations included Tomahawk Elementary, Northwind, Highpoint Subdivision, Austin (Ghant) Mobile Home Park, Falling Waters and Forest Heights wastewater treatment plants.
In addition to stopping the district from failing to comply with legal limits, the DEP also seeks civil penalties not to exceed $25,000 per day for each violation of the Water Pollution Control Act and WV NPDES permits.
BCPSSSD General Manager Curtis Keller defended the district's organization, stressing that it's not possible to operate a perfect system all the time.
He also said the district reports more than 500 different results to state officials throughout the year.
"So for a four-year period, we have submitted about 2,000 results and they are looking at 100 plus for some of the facility's violations," Keller said in a telephone interview Friday.
"We aim for 100 percent but sometimes things happen that are beyond our control. ... Even with what the suit alleges, we still operate at an 80- to 90-percent-overall compliance rate for our plants although some are more problematic than others," he said.
He also said some of the violations have been corrected since coming to the state's attention.
"We recognized we had a problem at the Opequon/Hedgesville plant and we are fixing it," Keller said.
"I also feel confident some of the violations are part of documentation we've already sent to the DEP, such as when we had equipment malfunction that was beyond our control to foresee. ... I feel we have a defense on a lot of the violations," he said.
Joe Hickman, assistant chief of inspections at the DEP Office of Environmental Enforcement, said action was taken because of the district's problematic track record.
In a telephone interview from his Charleston office, Hickman said the "substantial number of violations were the driving force behind the the lawsuit."
He said state regulators also "looked to determine if there had been a continuing pattern of violations. ... We look at both the frequency and severity of the violations."
If the DEP prevails, the court will ultimately decide how much the district will have to pay in fines, Hickman said.
CHARLES TOWN - The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill to allocate $15 million to the state's 10 highway districts on Thursday, and the Eastern Panhandle will receive almost $1.7 million of that.
Berkeley, Hampshire, Jefferson and Morgan counties are the counties in the Department of Transportation's Division of Highways district that will receive $1,694,646, and the money will be used at the discretion of the district manager, said Sen. John Unger II, D-Berkeley.
The money will be used for work on secondary roads in the four counties. Roads and highways such as W.Va. 9 and U.S. 340 are considered primary roads, Unger said.
"It's to help with repairing roads ... and bridges in the region," he said. "(It will include) repaving, also fixing drainage issues that may flood on the road ... strengthen bridges, things like that. The thing of it is our roads are deteriorating, they haven't had care.
"The road money will not be used for patching potholes, but instead will be used for repaving roads that need it, like roads with potholes," he said. "We want to do more than just put a Band-Aid on it. We want to invest in fixing our roads."
It's estimated that approximately $400 million would be required to fully repair the state's road system, Unger added.
"We need more, but it's a start. ... We're working with the governor to try to identify other funding sources to be able to bring in more money so we can maintain the roads that we have, but also upgrade the ones that we have," Unger said. "Some of our secondary roads, one could argue, could be considered primary with the amount of traffic on them.
"It's very expensive, repairing roads. ... We need to do more and we will do more," he added.
The amount of funding from the $15 million for each highway district was determined in part by the miles of road within each district.
The oily, bony menhaden is caught by the ton each year and ground into meal for livestock and fish.
Washington -- The Atlantic menhaden is one of those big things that come in small packages. It's a pipsqueak of a fish, but it feeds some of the most important fish in the ocean. If it vanished, marine biologists say, the ecosystems of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay could come crashing down.
As the population of this once abundant fish dwindles in dramatic fashion, that theory might be put to a test. Humans don't eat the oily and bony menhaden, but it's caught by the metric ton each year, ground into meal and fed to farm fish and livestock.
Environmentalists fear that the commercial catch takes food from striped bass, bluefish, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna, loons and eagles that rely on menhaden.
The reduction of menhaden, widely dubbed "the most important fish in the ocean," is such a concern that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday to consider whether its harvest for commercial products and sport-fishing bait should be significantly lowered for the first time in years.
"Menhaden is ecologically critical to the marine ecosystem along the east coast," said Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's not much of an exaggeration to call it the most important fish in the sea. It's an essential link in the food chain."
In addition to feeding saltwater fish that Americans love to fish and eat, tiny menhaden feed on phytoplankton that contribute to algae blooms and oxygen-depleted "dead zones." A dead zone currently in the Chesapeake is on track to be the largest ever, Maryland and Virginia state biologists have said.
At the meeting in Alexandria, Va., commissioners will be guided by an assessment that says menhaden have not been overfished, spokeswoman Tina Berger said. But the commissioners are concerned about other data that show the number of young fish entering the population is falling, and that the number of eggs that sustain menhaden has started to dip below a standard they set.
The commissioners are expected to consider a proposal to increase the number of young menhaden, as well as egg production, possibly by reducing the menhaden catch, experts say. A final decision could be made in November after a three-month public comment period is held on whatever proposal the commission adopts, Berger said.
The meeting will be closely watched by Omega Protein, which last year fished about 160,000 metric tons of menhaden in Atlantic coastal waters - 80 percent of the total catch. The other 20 percent is collected by small companies that fish it for bait.
The fisheries commission assessments of the menhaden stock show a dramatic decline: Fifty years ago, the abundance of menhaden a year old or less was nearly 90 billion. Twenty-five years ago, it was 70 billion.
Now, after continued fishing that environmentalists say is loosely regulated, only 18 billion menhaden of that age remain.
Omega Protein spokesman Ben Landry said factors such as poor water quality have reduced the fish.
Nevertheless, 13 coastal states from Maine to Florida under the commission's jurisdiction have banned Omega Protein from harvesting menhaden in state waters with its huge ships and large purse seine nets.
Only Virginia allows the company full access to its waters in the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay. North Carolina gives very limited access, according to Landry and the Coastal Conservation Association that monitors the menhaden harvest.
Virginia also stands alone in managing its menhaden fishery from an unusual place, the state General Assembly.
Others rely on specialists at environmental agencies such as Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and New Jersey's Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) declined to comment on why state politicians gave it control over all other fish species but held on to the menhaden.
"It's political," said John Bello, who sits on the board of directors for the Coastal Conservation Association. The association has unsuccessfully pushed legislation to transfer management of the menhaden fishery to the VMRC for 10 years.
Omega Protein has a processing plant in Reedville, Va.; a reduction in the harvest might threaten 250 jobs there.
"I think there's this notion that environmentalists have put out for a long time that this is a depleted stock and the reason behind the depletion is Omega Protein," said Landry, the spokesman. "Overfishing occurred in one year, 2008, in the last 10."
Landry said the abundance of menhaden is "far over the commission's threshold," and the commission, he said, should keep that in mind. He said there are enough spawners and eggs in the population to replenish itself.
"Trillions of eggs are released in the water," he said. If they do not survive, poor water quality, water temperatures and predators share more of the blame than Omega Protein's giant nets. But environmentalists say those factors cannot account for an 88 percent drop in menhaden since 1984.
Without menhaden, the ocean's ecology would be thrown out of whack, marine biologists and environmentalists say.
The commission's focus should rest on the menhaden's importance to the Atlantic's food web, said Jay Odell, director of the Nature Conservancy's Mid-Atlantic marine program.
"It's impossible to imagine that reducing the menhaden stock so much has not had some negative impact," Odell said. "Fisheries scholars differ on exactly what the cause and effect of the different changes are. But menhaden sit at the very base of the food chain, and scientists around the world are saying they need to be managed more conservatively."