The abrupt halt to the federal exploration of the environmental consequences of the planned mega-development known as National Harbor on the Maryland shoreline of the Potomac River at the gateway to the nation's capital has left many questions unanswered.

At the behest of two Maryland congressmen, a rider was attached to a major appropriations bill in the last session. The rider removed the authority of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the central planning agency for the federal government in the national capital region, to complete its environmental impact study.

The bill containing the rider was signed by the president. Apparently, the administration did not consider a special exception for National Harbor to be one of the anti-environmental riders that it had vowed to exclude. At the bill signing ceremony last Nov. 29, the president said: "We value the environment, and this budget protects the environment and preserves our precious natural heritage. It includes our historic lands legacy initiative to set aside more of our magnificent natural areas and vital green spaces, and does not include anti-environmental riders."

(On the editorial front, while the legislation was pending, The Post [Oct. 24, 1999] said the president should "Unhorse the Riders . . . all of them," and the New York Times [Nov. 21, 1999] praised him for intending to discard "riders designed to aid commercial interests at the expense of the environment.")

The Friends of Dyke Marsh, which for 25 years has helped protect the federal wildlife preserve diagonally across the river from the proposed National Harbor development, wrote the president last Oct. 23 urging consistency in blocking anti-environmental riders. The letter was referred to the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, which responded on Dec. 20 after the bill had been signed. EPA noted that its power to influence the project had been curtailed. It did point out that EPA had given the draft environmental impact statement a rating of "EO-2 (Environmental Objections, Insufficient Information) based principally on issues involving the purpose and need for this project, the 27.63 acres of aquatic impact, environmental justice concerns, and air quality/transportation questions." And EPA, the administration's environmental guardian, added that "in our view, the subsequent [environmental impact statement] did not fully address our concerns regarding any of these issues."

EPA was not alone. For instance, the Dyke Marsh organization had been seeking a credible explanation of how the widely known and respected preserve, set aside by Congress in 1959 for the preservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat, would be protected--along with neighboring shorelines--from the erosion caused by heavy boat traffic.

Also expressed were fears that submerged aquatic vegetation beds--highly productive fish nurseries--on the Maryland side would be destroyed, that important wildlife habitat would be permanently lost and that the slowly increasing health of the river signaled by the return of bald eagles would be adversely affected.

Other commentators raised questions about environmental and historical consequences. Although the National Capital Planning Commission investigation thus far had not been penetrating or comprehensive, hopes were that in the final phase the commission would grapple with the unanswered questions in preparing its record of decision. Now, of course, this is not to be.

The need for economic development in Prince George's County is clear. What is not clear is why the environmental impact study of a major project in an environmentally sensitive area should be cut short, and why a legislative rider bringing about such a termination should be considered acceptable.

--Jeb Byrne

is a longtime member of the Friends of Dyke Marsh.