CHARLES TOWN – The West Virginia Nature Conservancy is asking the county to conserve a group of rare marshes from degradation in the wake of a decision by the Jefferson County Commission to rezone an asphalt plant along W.Va. 51.
Commissioners voted 3-2 last week to rezone the Jefferson Asphalt property from a rural designation to the “Residential/Commercial/Light Industrial” category. Commissioners Dale Manuel and Lyn Widmyer opposed the decision.
Despite its rural zoning, the plot has been the site of heavy industrial activity for more than a century, according to Jefferson Asphalt co-owner John Thomas, who said what was quarried was marl, a lime or calcium carbonate-rich soil, and precisely what makes several marshes downstream – including the Altona-Piedmont marsh — so rare and delicate.
Department of Environmental Protection Diversity Biologist Kieron O’Malley, who was invited by commissioners to weigh in on the area’s ecosytem, said the marshes are home to a wide variety of rare species, some so rare there have been 80 or fewer remaining occurrences worldwide.
Letters submitted by the Potomac Audubon Society and the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, which maintains a conservation easement over the marshes, also emphasized the rare and fragile nature of the ecosystem, which hosts a variety of wetland birds and a turtle that may soon be added to the endangered species list.
O’Malley told commissioners that the marl marshes are already seeing major increases in the growth of cattails, an indicator that levels of phosphorous are already too high in the marsh system. He said a single new development is less likely to spell the end of the marshes than will a slow, continual degradation as a result of new development upstream within the Evitts Run watershed.
Jefferson Asphalt co-owner John Thomas said the company had been considering relocating for years. He said the move will need to be financed by repurposing the land currently being used by the asphalt plant. One of the uses being considered is to build homes on the site.
“We’d like to eventually put some townhomes in,” he said. “We’d probably leave the offices here where they are and just take out the heavy industrial part. We’ve also kicked around various ideas like some self-storage units over in the back corner, maybe.”
Thomas said he believed the rezoning was an improvement over the site’s previous use — a working asphalt plant.
“I thought this would put everyone’s mind at ease, getting this out of here. It’s a dirtier operation,” Thomas said. “It’s construction and an asphalt plant. We’ve got equipment and material stockpiles everywhere.”
He said he believed of greater concern for environmentalists should be the expansion of the Tuscawilla Wastewater Treatment Plant, due to begin increasing its discharge into Evitts Run, and which feeds into the marl marshes downstream.
The expansion of the Tuscawilla plant was motivated by the Public Service Commission’s decision to block the proposed wastewater plant at Flowing Springs and on restrictions on discharge from the Charles Town Wastewater Treatment Plant, as the Charles Town Utility Board outlined in its 2012 Strategic Plan. The Flowing Springs plant was meant, in part, to take pressure off the Charles Town plant to keep it from exceeding discharge limits.
After the Flowing Springs plant was blocked, the only remaining alternative, according to the plan, was to pipe wastewater from the Charles Town plant – which also discharges into Evitts Run, though downstream of the marl marshes – upstream to the Tuscawilla plant, where it will be treated and discharged.
The expansion of the Tuscawilla plant, which is expected to be completed later this year or early next year, will more than triple its current discharge, and, after another approved expansion, it will be allowed to discharge around six times its current amount.
The expanded plant will be permitted to discharge more than five tons of nitrogen and almost one ton of phosphorous into Evitts Run each year.
The strategic plan does outline some steps aimed at reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous which make it downstream, including using some of the discharged water to irrigate the nearby Locust Hills Golf Course and establishing a wetlands area of its own to help filter the discharge.
Amy Cimarolli, a biologist with the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, said in an email that the county should take a step back and consider broad efforts to ensure the health of the marl marshes as a whole, and to increase their connection to each other.
“Since the County expects the ordinances to be serving to protect the wetlands, and given the County’s desire to protect its valuable and unique wetlands, a reasonable next step to me would be to make sure the stream buffer, wetland protection, and stormwater ordinances are the most robust and complete that science suggests for stream, wetland and groundwater protection,” Cimarolli wrote.