- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — Most environmentalists would look at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and shudder.

It’s old and grimy. It uses hazardous chemicals every day and is immersed in a mandatory cleanup of buried toxic wastes that threaten the Elizabeth River.

But last week, the supposed eco-boogeyman was applauded as an environmental role model by local activists trying to restore the river that the yard has degraded for decades.

“That’s what makes this story so cool,” said Pam Boatwright, a program manager for the Elizabeth River Project, the environmental group that recognized the shipyard with its highest achievement status, calling it a “model level River Star.”

“They’re totally changing how they think, how they do business,” Miss Boatwright said.

The River Stars program is a product of the group, which was started 11 years ago around a kitchen table. Its creators figured that confronting or suing people wasn’t the best method to resurrect the waterway. Instead, they chose to win the hearts and minds of riverfront industries.

The group started River Stars in 1997. It publicly celebrates those businesses that do something — anything — positive for the environment.

Companies and organizations get recognized for planting trees, setting aside land, starting a litter pickup — something to start moving in a green direction.

The program has 56 participating companies, schools and government agencies. Members include the Norfolk Naval Station, Exxon Mobil Corp., the Hampton Roads Regional Jail and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Overall, River Stars last year altered operations and reduced 2.9 million pounds of pollutants. They also conserved or restored 160 acres of undeveloped land, Miss Boatwright said.

The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Giant Cement of Virginia and Mitsubishi Chemical were recognized at the highest level this year. They join eight institutions that have shown “exceptional pollution prevention and wildlife habitat results while mentoring others as community leaders in environmental stewardship.”

The Navy shipyard was placed on the national Superfund list of highly polluted properties in need of a cleanup in 2000.

But instead of doing the minimum required, the yard has created wetlands from an old landfill of paint chips and grit. It also has plans to repeat that type of restoration at another landfill. Two larger landfills will be capped and converted to “wildlife meccas,” according to plans.

Jan Nielsen, head of the shipyard’s environmental engineering branch, outlined other eco-friendly advances.

They included reducing metal and contaminants in dry-dock wastewater, cutting overall waste and mercury use, and shopping for less-polluting cleaning agents.

“It’s getting ahead of the problem,” said Mike Host, an environmental officer at the Navy yard. “We’re thinking differently now, how we can be more efficient, less costly and more environmentally friendly.”

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