Once considered by the community to be “dead,” Virginia’s Elizabeth River is being revived through the efforts of one local non-profit organization. That's the role of the Portsmouth, Va.-based Elizabeth River Project (ERP), a non-profit organization devoted to restoring the Elizabeth River, located near the mouth of the James River in southeastern Virginia.
Few would consider the ERP's mission an easy task. The Elizabeth River watershed encompasses over 200 square miles of urbanized land from parts of four cities: Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, Va. Ninety percent of the land in the watershed is developed.
Furthermore, the Elizabeth River, along with the Anacostia River and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is one of three Regions of Concern —the most contaminated areas of the Bay watershed. The river's heavily industrialized Southern Branch has some of the highest levels of PAHs in bottom sediments found anywhere around the Chesapeake.
“The primary focus of the Elizabeth River Project is to try and tackle these known areas of contamination,” said Joe Rieger, Director of Watershed Restoration for the ERP. “If we can either clean up or remediate these sediments, that would be the most useful result for the entire watershed from a restoration standpoint.”
To accomplish this, the ERP has concentrated on doing intensive restoration of small sub-watersheds within the larger river watershed. The first area to be targeted was Paradise Creek, a 2.9 square mile watershed in southeastern Portsmouth . In 2002 the ERP received one of the first Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed legacy grants for this innovative cleanup and restoration project.
In 2003 the ERP published its five-year Paradise Creek Restoration Plan, which describes the cleanup of Paradise Creek “as a model for how to restore the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay —one creek at a time.”
In addition to cleaning up contaminated sediments, the ERP is reviving the landscape around the creek by planting buffers and restoring tidal wetlands. Soon, ground will be broken on the 40-acre Paradise Creek Nature Park , which will include trails, native flower meadows and a tree canopy boardwalk.
Recently the ERP published its second sub-watershed plan for Money Point, a 35-acre industrial area in Chesapeake that is one of the most polluted spots in the Bay watershed. The vision of this ten-year plan is to make Money Point “a model for the co-existence of thriving waterfront industry and ecological regeneration.”
Some of the goals of the plan include:
The cleanup plan for Money Point is significant from a Bay-wide restoration standpoint. It is one of the first efforts in Virginia to clean up contaminated sediments in the Bay and the first community-led sediment cleanup in the nation.
In addition, removal of toxic sediments will significantly reduce the amount of contamination that is transported to the James River and the lower Bay. “Once you start eliminating the hotspots, the overall regional PAH concentrations will start to drop,” said Rieger.
The ERP is also getting local schools, businesses and government facilities involved in the overall river restoration effort through its River Stars program. River Stars is a voluntary program for organizations in the Elizabeth River watershed that go above and beyond the law to reduce pollution and restore habitat. Over the past ten years, River Star organizations have:
The 59 River Star organizations “are making environmental stewardship the industrial ethic on the river,” said Lynn Louria, Director of Development and Communications for the ERP.
Despite the ERP's extraordinary efforts, the community perception that the river cannot be restored still clings on.
“We always hear people say that the river is dead,” said Rieger. “People are surprised at how many species live in the river.” Many important fish species, such as striped bass, menhaden and croaker, use the Elizabeth as a nursery area. And the river typically has one of the highest oyster spat sets of any area in the Bay.
As the restoration of the Elizabeth River progresses, it is likely that local residents—and the entire Chesapeake watershed—will come to recognize the river itself as a star. By taking the lead on creative and intensive restoration activities, the ERP has given the larger Bay community a model for successful restoration and a bright star to watch rise in the coming years.
While they are relatively unknown to the public, PAHs—a class of chemical contaminants - have been shown to cause high rates of lesions and tumors on bottom-dwelling fish in at least two Bay tributaries: the Anacostia and Elizabeth rivers.
PAHs, or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, are formed when coal, gasoline and fuel oil are burned. They are also a major component of tar and coal-tar based products. Specific sources of PAHs include:
In particular, coal-tar based driveway and parking lot sealants are a significant source of PAHs to the environment.
According to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Austin, Texas, the average yield of PAHs from sealed parking lots was 50 times greater than that from unsealed lots. Estimates from this study indicate that total loads of PAHs coming from parking lots in the watersheds studied would be reduced to about one-tenth of their current loads if all of the parking lots were unsealed.
PAHs enter water bodies through run off from roads, driveways and parking lots into the closest storm water drain. Like PCBs, PAHs attach to sediment in water, where they are known to be toxic to plankton and bottom-dwelling organisms such as oysters and some fish.
Population growth and development are recognized as specific causes of PAH contamination of sediments. The USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program found that the most rapid increases of PAH collection in sediments were found in areas undergoing urban sprawl and increases in motor vehicle traffic.
Tumors and lesions found on fish in two Bay tributaries have been linked to high PAH concentrations.
In a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), between 50 and 60 percent of fish collected from the Anacostia River had liver tumors. These rates are alarming, as scientists consider an area with a liver tumor rate of more than 5 percent to be highly contaminated. Tests on fish tissues and bottom sediments suggest that exposure to PAHs is likely responsible for the tumors.
A related study examined the effects of PAH-contaminated sediments on mummichogs in Virginia's Elizabeth River. The study showed a strong correlation between tumors and liver lesions in mummichogs and PAH concentrations in the river.
Scientists are also taking a close look at the South River, located in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. In a 2005 study by the USFWS, 53 percent of brown bullheads had visible skin tumors and 20 percent had liver tumors. However, monitoring data for the South River do not show high PAH concentrations in bottom sediments.
Since the USGS study that found coal-tar sealants are a major source of PAHs, the city of Austin, Texas, has banned these sealants from use on parking lots. While there are no federal regulations against coal tar use in products, consumers can instead choose for their own driveways asphalt-based sealants, which contain significantly less PAHs.