WASHINGTON – The Maryland Department of the Environment issued a permit Wednesday for Fairfax County, Va., to build a disputed water intake pipe in the Potomac River, even as the agency head declared the project was “not in the best interest of the public.”
Maryland environmental officials said they had no choice but to grant the permit after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge refused to block it. But Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida vowed to continue fighting the project.
“As this project moves forward, our concerns over water quality and environmental damage within the Potomac River persist,” Nishida said in a prepared statement. “MDE will continue to press these concerns on appeal before the court.”
Virginia officials said they were not surprised that the permit was granted, but added that they were not about to rush out and begin construction on a project that will likely be tied up in court for some time.
“It is not a surprise that they are issuing a permit. They were ordered by their own final decision maker to issue a permit,” said James Warfield, executive officer of the Fairfax County Water Authority. “[But] I don’t think our board of directors is going to do anything until they see a permit in hand and they will make a decision at that time.”
The authority, which supplies water to 1.2 million Northern Virginia residents, has been seeking since 1996 to build a new water intake pipe to replace its current pipe near the Virginia shoreline, which is silted and muddy.
The authority wants to construct a new pipe that would extend 725 feet from the Virginia shoreline. Because Maryland has had jurisdiction over the Potomac River since the Colonial era, any such projects must get approval from the state.
But Maryland insists the pipe would cause environmental harm and that it would degrade the quality of the river water.
“We have jurisdiction over the river and we also have laws and regulations that are specifically designed to protect the environment, including Maryland’s waterways, which includes the Potomac,” said John Verrico, an MDE spokesman.
“We are concerned that this project will require a trench that is 18 feet wide, 18 feet deep and 725 feet long cut into the middle of the river bed. That will cause a significant amount of sediment and adversely impact the water quality,” Verrico said.
But an independent arbiter ruled in November that there would be little, if any, environmental impact from the pipeline project and that a permit should be issued.
Maryland officials appealed that ruling, but Baltimore Circuit Judge Evelyn Cannon refused to stay the arbiter’s decision.
“She said that MDE had failed to show there would be any adverse environmental impact,” said Stuart Raphael, the special counsel for Virginia in its Supreme Court case against Maryland on the jurisdiction over and usage of the Potomac. Raphael is also counsel to the Fairfax water authority.
He said optimistic that the judge will ultimately rule in Virginia’s favor.
Raphael said the larger issue over jurisdiction and usage of the river — now before the Supreme Court — will ultimately determine whether or not Virginia even needs a permit.
Maryland claims that its jurisdiction over the river was given in 1632 by King Charles I. Virginia argues that subsequent compacts from 1785, 1877 and 1958 overruled the Colonial compact.
Maryland critics maintain that Virginia’s current intake pipe is in such poor condition because of unchecked suburban sprawl on the Virginia side that results in run-off. They also said Virginia’s growth demands too much water.
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