Agreement On Stream Restitution 'Imminent'

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005

More than four years after chemical runoff from an Arlington golf course washed into Donaldson Run, killing fish and other aquatic life, officials say the government is close to an agreement with the golf course for restitution.

"We're hearing it's imminent," said Aileen Winquist, an environmental planner for Arlington County who coordinates stream monitoring. "We're hoping it's good news."

Local and federal officials said Monday that a final resolution could be announced as early as next month, and county officials said the agreement may include stream restoration or stream buffer improvements on the golf course at Washington Golf & Country Club.

Golf club manager Peter Judge declined to comment on the matter except to say, "There are ongoing discussions that we think will lead to a settlement with the Department of Justice."

While county officials said the wait has been long, the delay has been particularly frustrating for environmentalists and neighbors who live near the stream. They have been waiting for Washington Golf & Country Club to make amends since Aug. 23, 2001, when heavy rains washed Basamid, a powerful soil fumigant used to kill insects, weeds and other pests on the club's fairways and greens, into Donaldson Run and Gulf Branch streams.

The chemical posed minimal risk to humans, but it did kill a significant amount of aquatic wildlife, leaving fish, crawfish and migratory eels washed up on the banks of the two streams. The dead fish were initially spotted by stream monitors trained by the Audubon Naturalist Society.

Golf course officials have said they've tried to be a good neighbor and a conscientious caretaker of the environment. During the application of the chemical, for example, a representative of the manufacturer was on site, course officials said. But the ground evidently had been so saturated with the fumigant that the rainstorm flushed the chemical downstream. Golf course officials have since characterized the incident as an "act of God."

Largely slowing a final resolution on restitution has been the involvement of two federal agencies, officials said. The two tributaries flow through property owned by the National Park Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved when it learned that migratory fish -- in this case eels -- were affected by the chemical runoff. Each federal agency follows a different set of guidelines, adding to the complexity of the negotiations.

John Schmerfeld, a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, runs the Resources, Damage, Assessment and Restoration Program in Virginia and is involved in the talks. More often than not, he said, these negotiations take time.

"It's kind of a slow process," Schmerfeld said. "Very rarely do we go from point of spill to restoration process in less than three years."

Larry Finch, a member of the Donaldson Run Civic Association, said neighbors understand that time is needed to hammer out these agreements. But what they want, he said, are assurances that the county will be notified if similar herbicides are used again on the golf course.

While Finch hopes the club will refrain from using them again, he said the golf course is obligated to let the county know right away if there is a resulting problem, something he said golf course officials did not do when the spill first occurred.

"As a result, children and pets were out there before the danger was discovered," Finch said. "The damage has been done. The important thing is to not have this incident repeated."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company