Volunteers and others began planting 10 million oysters in a marsh near the Patuxent River last week as part of a $2.7 million effort to restore natural habitat damaged by the April 2000 oil spill at the former Pepco power plant at Chalk Point in Aquasco.
The planting Monday, attended by state and local officials, highlighted ongoing efforts to address the environmental effects of the spill, which fouled the river and its tributaries after fuel oil leaked from a pipeline with a flaw that went undetected because consultants misread inspection data.
"There's been a lot of activity -- it just hasn't been the kind of thing you wanted to invite everybody over to say what a good job we've done," said John Collins, a marine habitat specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The project begun last week will create almost five acres of oyster reef sanctuary in the Patuxent to address oil spill harm to fish, shellfish, marine organisms and birds. About 350,000 oysters were planted in the marsh, near the Calvert County shoreline. The remaining planting will be done over the summer, officials said.
"Putting 10 million oysters down at one point would be impossible," said Penny Jurick of the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership, which coordinated the planting.
C. Bernard "Bernie" Fowler, a former state senator from Calvert who heads the Patuxent River Oil Spill Citizens Advisory Committee, said the effort would provide "a little better chance at reversing the demise that we've seen here recently."
Officials developed the final restoration plan after an extended process that included public comment on how to address the damage. The oyster planting is just one of several projects intended to restore damaged habitat, as required by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Those responsible for such a spill must "return injured natural resources and services to pre-spill conditions" and "compensate the public for the loss of natural resources and services from the time they are injured until they are restored," the law says.
The work is being done with funds provided through an agreement of Pepco and the company's pipeline operator, ST Services. Pepco sold the Chalk Point plant in 2000 to Mirant Mid-Atlantic LLC, which reopened the 51.5-mile pipeline after repairing it and installing equipment to monitor its oil flow.
Federal and state agencies said the spill caused light, moderate or heavy oiling of 76 acres of wetlands and 10 acres of shoreline and figured in the deaths of 553 ruddy ducks, 376 muskrats, 143 assorted birds and 122 diamondback terrapins. Turtle hatchlings were reduced by 10 percent, they said, and thousands of pounds of fish and shellfish were lost.
Other restoration projects will include the creation of five to six acres of inter-tidal wetlands adjacent to Washington Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent River just south of Chalk Point. Collins said a contractor is working on the final technical design of the wetlands, and construction is expected to be completed by the end of next summer.
The restoration plan calls for the creation of facilities to compensate for recreational opportunities lost because of the spill. Projects are to include the addition of two river camping areas, one north of Golden Beach and the other at Milltown Landing, to be reached only by canoe or kayak. A kayak and canoe launch also will be established at Greenwell State Park. It would be accessible to the disabled. The plan calls for other recreational improvements, at Maxwell Hall Natural Resources Management Area, Forest Landing, the Kings Landing boardwalk, Cedar Haven Park and Nan's Cove, north of Broomes Island.
Those projects, though, have been delayed because potential contractors have been busy with recovery work related to damage caused by Hurricane Isabel in September. Collins said that "it's likely that some of them will be built this year," or next year at the latest.
"After Hurricane Isabel all the marine contractors are engaged in other activities," Collins said.
Another part of the plan that is being implemented involves the restoration of nesting habitat for ruddy ducks that migrate to the Chesapeake Bay. One aspect of that project involves obtaining conservation easements on private property in the Midwest, in South Dakota, Collins said.
"We have over 400 acres already in the program," he said.
The goal is to acquire 1,800 acres, Collins said. He said it would take "three years, maybe, to fill the required number of acres."