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Pr. George's decries loss of environmental projects for ICC

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; B04

Prince George's County Council members are accusing officials overseeing construction of the Intercounty Connector of penalizing the county by canceling or changing more of its environmental projects than those in Montgomery County.

ICC officials said they plan to cut some previously required environmental projects and reclassify others because the highway's final design ended up sparing almost a mile more of streams and 30 more acres of wetlands and forests than they'd planned for, leaving less environmental damage for them to offset.

Three of 10 stream and wetlands restoration projects in Prince George's have been replaced with similar work in Montgomery, and none of the remaining Prince George's projects is needed as part of the federal approval process. They have been reclassified as part of the state's voluntary efforts to repair environmental damage that occurred before the highway's construction.

Montgomery lost two wetlands restoration projects but added three projects and retained 30 others. Six of those were reclassified from required "mitigation" to voluntary "stewardship" programs.

During a hearing Thursday, council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) told ICC officials that the changes largely spared Montgomery, whose public officials pushed for the highway, at the expense of Prince George's, whose council had objected to it.

"I guess because we've been so opposed to the road, this is payback from the State Highway Administration," Dernoga said.

The environmental projects remaining in Prince George's "are very minor compared to what's left in Montgomery."

Council members said they have appealed to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). The Federal Highway Administration, which must approve the changes, is reviewing them, ICC officials said.

Rob Shreeve, the ICC's environmental manager, said ICC officials kept those restoration projects that would most benefit the Anacostia watershed, regardless of which jurisdiction the streams and wetlands are in.

He said environmental agencies required the Maryland State Highway Administration to pay close attention to the Upper Paint Branch stream in Montgomery because, as the breeding ground for dwindling numbers of brown trout, its waters must be cold and clean. Montgomery also has the sensitive headwaters of the Northwest Branch and the North Branch, Shreeve said. Cleaning them up will help their entire watersheds, including in Prince George's, Shreeve said.

The cuts are closely watched because the Maryland State Highway Administration had touted the ICC's $370 million environmental package, saying it would make the ICC one of the "greenest" highways in the country. The 18.8-mile toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel had stalled for 50 years, primarily because of concerns about its environmental impact.

The Prince George's projects that were replaced by work in Montgomery were deemed unnecessary or "technically unfeasible" when examined more closely, Shreeve said. For example, a project intended to help fish swim by deepening a concrete flood-control channel in Prince George's could potentially flood adjacent houses, he said. A wetlands area adjoining Indian Creek near the ICC's interchange with Interstate 95 in Laurel, slated to be restored, has substantially repaired itself, he said.

"To go in and do a project there would do more damage than good," Shreeve told the council.

Shreeve said an interagency group, which includes representatives from federal, state and local environmental agencies, approved the changes to the ICC's environmental package. But Prince George's officials who attended the group's meetings said their objections were ignored.

Melinda B. Peters, ICC project director for the highway administration, said the $370 million for environmental projects remains in the highway's $2.5 billion construction budget. She said those projects once required as "environmental mitigation" efforts that have been reclassified as voluntary "environmental stewardship" projects will be completed. Even though the state volunteered to do those projects by going "above and beyond" initial requirements, she said, they now must be completed as part of the federal approval process.

"We're committed to constructing those projects," Peters said.

The ICC is scheduled to open in stages beginning this fall.

Greg Smith, a longtime ICC opponent, said the state shouldn't cut any environmental project if it truly aims to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which is fed by the Anacostia River.

"The goal is to restore the Anacostia and its tributaries," Smith said, "not to leave them lying on a deathbed forever."

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