- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

Michael Baker sits in his state-issue sport utility vehicle and peers into the edge of a forest in the shadow of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
He is looking at a symbol of his efforts to minimize the damage the massive bridge project will have on the environment, despite the deforestation and elimination of wetlands.
With a small pair of binoculars, Mr. Baker focuses on a young bald eagle sitting on its nest.
The 6-week-old fledgling's parents have kept to their task throughout the spring, the Wilson Bridge project notwithstanding.
"They really don't seem to mind," says Mr. Baker, who oversees the construction project's environmental efforts.
True or not, the work to replace the six-lane bridge with a 12-lane structure is hard to ignore.
Thirteen cranes are perched on barges in the Potomac River while hundreds of workers drive pilings that will support the pedestals on which the new bridge will rest.
But replacing the 40-year-old Wilson Bridge includes much more than erecting a span of concrete and steel that will let 195,000 vehicles a day stream over the Potomac. The work stretches more the seven miles and includes rebuilding interchanges at Telegraph Road and U.S. Route 1 in Virginia and interchanges at Interstate 295 and state Route 210 in Maryland.
In the middle of all this work sits Mr. Baker, 29.
Mr. Baker is helping to serve as an advocate for Mother Nature.
He has a seemingly impossible job. In what is one of the biggest road construction projects on the East Coast, he must help ensure that all the Earth moving, concrete pouring, dredging, pounding, cutting and general mayhem associated with the bridge and road work does as little harm to the environment as possible.
Mr. Baker's stark view is this: It is impossible to complete a project of this magnitude and not have some deleterious affect on the environment.
"I don't think you can avoid it," he said. "There are unavoidable consequences."
So he must try to minimize the damage.
Mr. Baker is an environmental construction manager for Potomac Crossing Consultants, a joint venture of several engineering companies and the lead contractor in the $2.4 billion effort to widen the Wilson Bridge and rebuild the interchanges. An independent environmental inspector also is monitoring the work of the hundreds of people in the Wilson Bridge project.
Unlike the construction work along the Beltway, Mr. Baker's efforts are hard to notice. He must ensure wetlands are restored, underwater grasses are replanted and the eagles' habitat is not destroyed. He also has unglamorous responsibilities including monitoring runoff generated by the project and finding a place to dump the 500,000 cubic yards of sludge dredged from the bottom of the Potomac.
About $40.3 million will be spent on various environmental projects. An estimated $17.7 million will fund restoration of wetlands. One hundred acres of wetlands have been destroyed to make way for a wider Beltway.
Workers have cleared the land along Cameron Run, a tributary of the Potomac running next to the Beltway in Virginia, and are trying to stabilize the wet, marshy soil to support a wider road.
To try to offset the loss of wetlands due to road widening, Mr. Baker and his colleagues will oversee work to create four acres of wetlands in Alexandria near Four Mile Run Park and 100 acres of wetlands in Stafford County's Aquia Harbor this year. More wetlands will be created at Indian Creek in Montgomery County.
In addition to the loss of wetlands, 109 acres of trees in both states will be cut down. Virginia isn't requiring that trees be replanted, but to offset that loss in Maryland, Mr. Baker said more than 130 acres of woodlands will be planted later this year at various locations in Prince George's County.
The project also set aside 84 acres of land north of the bridge in Maryland for the bald eagle sanctuary.
Bridge work has affected marine life, too. Dredging the river destroyed some fish habitats, and Mr. Baker says workers will plant 22 acres of grasses in the lower Potomac River to help make up for that.
"I think the concern among federal agencies was that the work would have a disastrous impact on the environment. I think they were very concerned when we started," Mr. Baker says.
Others have expressed concern, too. The National Wilderness Institute, a Washington-based conservation group, filed suit last year against five federal agencies, charging that they failed to enforce the Endangered Species Act in approving Potomac River projects associated with the Wilson Bridge construction.
The group charged that three endangered species the bald eagle, the shortnose sturgeon and the dwarf wedge mussel are threatened by construction of the bridge.
"We don't believe their claims have merit," says John Undeland, spokesman for Potomac Crossing Consultants.
And, Mr. Baker says, as long as the bald eagles stick around, he'll feel like he's doing his job to help make sure the Wilson Bridge project doesn't run roughshod over the environment.

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