Environmental group signals that it could sue Beltway HOT lane contractor

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An environmental group announced Tuesday that it intends to file suit against one of the contractors building high-occupancy lanes on the Beltway in Virginia, saying dirt from the construction site has choked a nearby creek.

The group, Potomac Riverkeeper, said in a letter that it would give contractor Fluor-Lane LLC 60 days -- as required by the federal Clean Water Act -- to fix the problem.

So far, the river group said, Fluor-Lane has not done enough to keep mud-laden water out of Accotink Creek, a Potomac tributary. The creek runs alongside the Beltway in the Annandale area, and it catches rainwater flowing off the construction site.

"This site is terrible," said Ed Merrifield, head of Potomac Riverkeeper. "Something has to be done."

Fluor-Lane -- a partnership of two construction companies -- is the main construction contractor for a Virginia Department of Transportation project that will build new "HOT" lanes along 14 miles of the Beltway, roughly between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road.

The lanes will be accessible to high-occupancy vehicles and single-passenger vehicles that pay a toll.

"We feel strongly that the project is adhering to any and all local, state and federal environmental requirements," Fluor-Lane project director Mitch Lester said in an e-mailed statement. "We think this is an unfortunate situation since we have made ongoing efforts over the last couple of years to engage members of this and other environmentally focused groups in an open and transparent manner."

Dirt may not sound like an environmental hazard, but activists say too much of it can be a major problem for rivers and streams. In the water, sediment can block the sunlight that underwater plants need for photosynthesis. Or it can fill in the small spaces between river rocks that are home to the insects that constitute the base of a stream's food chain.

The environmental group said dirty water washing off the Beltway construction site should have been trapped, using settling ponds or small dams made of rocks, to keep it out of Accotink Creek.

Instead, the group said, the contractor allowed it to flow quickly into small tributaries of the Accotink, carrying large amounts of red clay.

"I've seen them literally filled to the top with mud," said Jeff Kelble, a member of the group. In that environment, he said, only two things can live: "Leeches and worms."

A spokesman for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation said state inspectors had written up the site seven times in the past year and a half. Most recently, spokesman Gary Waugh said, an inspector found in January that there were failures in systems designed to stop dirt-laden rainwater.

Waugh said the state was supposed to return for a checkup Monday. "We would have if it hadn't been for two feet of snow," he said.

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