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Biologist spearheads ICC environmental projects

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Betsy Weinkam remembers growing up in the 1960s hearing her mother talk about how a proposed Intercounty Connector would destroy the pristine Montgomery County streams and woods where their family spent weekends fishing and hiking.

Fifty years later, Weinkam is helping to build the $2.56 billion toll road, overseeing $110 million worth of environmental work designed to reduce and offset its impacts on the streams, wetlands and wildlife in its path.

So how did a self-avowed, lifelong environmentalist end up a leader on one of the Washington area’s most environmentally controversial highway projects?

“No one loved this area like I did,” said Weinkam, 54, a biologist who lives in Anne Arundel County and grew up in Wheaton a couple of miles from the ICC’s path. “I fished all these streams and hiked these areas with my dad . . . I realized if they were going to build the road anyway, I could help make that happen in the most environmentally sensitive way.”

Weinkam’s consulting job as the ICC’s environmental manager is highly unusual. Many transportation projects have someone who oversees federally required work to reduce and offset a new road’s environmental impacts. However, Weinkam’s job goes even further because the 18.8-mile ICC project is one of the few that also will repair environmental damage that occurred long before the six-lane highway’s construction.

Weinkam oversees 51 projects, mostly restoring eroded stream banks and installing storm water management systems in older neighborhoods upstream from the highway. Those projects, along with design changes such as building longer bridges to span entire flood plains along streams, are credited with helping the ICC win federal and state approval after decades of debate. The first 7.2-mile section opened between Gaithersburg and northern Silver Spring in February; the remainder is scheduled to open by early 2012, stretching between northern Silver Spring and Interstate 95 in northwestern Prince George’s County.

Some ICC opponents have accused the Maryland State Highway Administration of trying to “greenwash” a road that they argue will never be environmentally sensitive. But if Weinkam and her team succeed in their mission to actually improve local streams in the road’s shadow — rather than merely reduce any damage the highway will cause — the ICC could at least become a national example of a more eco-friendly approach to road building, some environmentalists say.

“It’s just a monumental task,” said Charlie Gougeon, a fisheries specialist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and an expert since the 1980s on streams in northern Silver Spring.

Most critical, Gougeon said, is the Paint Branch stream, home to one of Montgomery’s only self-sustaining brown trout populations. The ICC crosses the Good Hope tributary, where dwindling numbers of brown trout lay their eggs and young fish mature.

“I’ve never in my whole career seen such environmental disturbance of a stream in such a critical location,” Gougeon said. “Nor have I seen such success with erosion and sediment controls [during highway construction] and such attention to detail to do the right thing.”

‘Willing to hear us’

David Dunmire, vice president of Eyes of the Paint Branch and an anti-ICC activist since the mid-1980s, said he still believes the ICC will cause “irreversible and irreplaceable” environmental damage.

But he and other environmentalists say now that the highway is being built, they are eager to help Weinkam spend millions in ICC money to restore streams badly eroded from decades of rainwater rushing off dirty roofs, streets and driveways. With the influx of ICC money, local officials say, the state has accelerated into a few years stream improvements that would have taken 20 years for local governments to afford.

“She’s been willing to hear us,” Dunmire said of Weinkam. “I was stunned when they invited us to participate in their meetings. . . . They actually let us talk.”

Weinkam has a friendly, relaxed style. On a recent workday at the ICC project headquarters in Beltsville, she wore a bright turquoise sundress and sandals.

As she led a monthly meeting of the ICC’s Brown Trout Work Group, a dozen staffers from state and federal environmental agencies discussed ways to slow down storm water running off a townhouse development off Good Hope Road in northern Silver Spring. Rainwater rushes down a hill, carrying soil and trash into the Good Hope tributary below, where the brown trout spawn.

ICC officials and their engineering consultant said directing the water through a specially designed pipe would slow it down, causing less erosion where the water would reach the stream. But several agency staffers said a rock-lined trench would work better, adding that heavy equipment required to dig and bury a pipe would cause too much damage in the wooded stream valley.

Weinkam remained quiet for most of the two-hour discussion beyond going around the table, asking each person, “What do you think?”

“Let me make sure I’m understanding you,” Weinkam finally said to a Montgomery parks department staffer opposed to the pipe plan. “What I’m hearing is the concern about where all this water in the pipe is coming from and what’s in it — oil, debris, whatever.”

Weinkam would meet later with engineers to ask how dirty the storm water in a pipe would be.

Husband-wife team

The ICC is a family affair. Weinkam’s husband of 20 years, Chuck Weinkam, is a senior scientist for her Annapolis-based environmental consulting company, Coastal Resources, Inc. He directly manages the environmental contracts and technically reports to his wife, although she said they end up collaborating.

Chuck Weinkam declined to be interviewed. When asked what it’s like to be a spouse’s boss, Betsy Weinkam laughed, saying: “I could tell him to do whatever I want. Whether he’ll do it is another question.”

She said they try to refrain from talking about the ICC too much at home — at the request of their two teenage children, who Weinkam said are tired of hearing about it after seven years of planning and construction.

In addition to the ICC, the wife-and-husband team has provided environmental consulting on some of the Washington area’s most high-profile transportation projects, including planning the extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement.

Environmental groups keeping an eye on Weinkam and her team say their work in the Paint Branch will prove critical beyond replenishing fishing buffs’ supply of brown trout. Because the brown trout need cold, clean water to spawn, they are considered an “indicator species” that signals a stream’s overall water quality. The Paint Branch feeds into the Anacostia River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

Dunmire, of the Paint Branch conservation group, praised ICC officials for being “meticulous” about controlling and monitoring sediment running off the construction site and into streams. More important, he said, will be determining whether the projects that Weinkam and her team oversee will be enough to offset a highway slicing through wilderness.

“That answer will only be known throughout time,” Dunmire said. “What remains to be seen is the magnitude of the good they’re doing compared to the magnitude of the destruction they’re doing.”

Weinkam said she started work on ICC planning two years before her mother died in 2005. And what did her mother think of her work? “I think she was happy,” Weinkam said, “that I was doing something good back in my old stomping ground.”

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