- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jeff Kelble, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, applauds Virginia’s Water Control Board for not allowing the Merck pharmaceutical company to increase the amount of nutrient pollution it could discharge into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

It all has to do with new pollution-reducing rules in the Chesapeake Bay. By virtue of being a tributary to the Potomac River that empties into the Bay, the Shenandoah plays a mighty role if anyone wants to add unhealthy or dangerous substances to our waters.

Actually, Kelble is being nice about all this after having fought all manner of polluters in the historical waterway, some of which no doubt are responsible for recent fish kills and entire “dead” zones in the river that contain too little oxygen to sustain life.

So the decision by the state’s Water Control Board to defer action on a request by the Merck plant in Elkton, Va., rates a pat on the back, but Merck and everybody else that harbors thoughts of dumping things into a waterway better thank their God that I’m not in charge.

The board deferred action until its March meeting. It has told the Department of Environmental Quality and Merck to come back with either a different approach or more information so the board could be sure the nutrient levels were set at the lowest level possible under the circumstances. According to Kelble, Merck wanted the rules changed so it could increase its nitrogen pollution cap by roughly 30,000 pounds (a 300 percent increase) and its phosphorus pollution cap by roughly 3,000 pounds (a 400 percent increase).

“The nutrient caps were created so Virginia can honor its commitment to the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement,” Kelble said. “One major problem is that Virginia has already over-allocated its pollution levels in the Shenandoah and Potomac.”

Kelble said the South Fork of the Shenandoah “continues to suffer from declining water quality, including increasing levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.”

What bothers me is when representatives for Merck argue that Virginia’s original caps on nutrient discharges were too low. They said there would be no guarantees that they could be met and, believe it or not, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality agreed with the pharmaceutical firm. It endorsed Merck’s proposed increases.

It is clear that some Virginia state offices are more interested in keeping a company that hires people and provides a tax base for state coffers than it cares for the waters and environment and how a declining quality there can affect the human condition.

I’d tell Merck to stop all pollution or its corporate officers risk jail sentences. This state-sanctioned allowance of certain amounts of pollutants into water or the air - chemical or otherwise - reeks to the heavens. It must stop.

By the way, Shenandoah Riverkeeper is a part of Potomac Riverkeeper, Inc. - an organization that protects water quality in the Potomac and its tributaries through community action and enforcement. Check out Kelble’s work at shenandoahriverkeeper.org.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Visit Mueller’s Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.