My View: It’s not too late to save the Potomac Yard wetlands

My View: It’s not too late to save the Potomac Yard wetlands
(Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

On Aug. 4, the Environmental Council of Alexandria wrote Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) to ask them to reconsider their support for the City of Alexandria’s proposed Potomac Yard Metrorail project in light of the significant impact it will have on wetlands, the Potomac River and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The ECA shares their support for mass transit-based development, but not for a project that needlessly destroys a special aquatic site. We were dismayed to learn recently that Senators Warner and Kaine had written a letter on July 25, 2014 to John Jarvis, who was then director of the National Park Service, to express their strong support for the city’s effort to build a new Metrorail station in Potomac Yard near the George Washington Memorial Parkway. In that 2014 letter they wrote:

“We also appreciate your duty to protect the scenic NPS resources like the George Washington Memorial Parkway and to ensure that any impacts of economic development near these resources be properly mitigated. We understand that as part of the NEPA Environmental Impact Statement process, Alexandria has proposed a $17.5 million mitigation plan for a Potomac Yard Metro station site on GW Parkway property. The plan would not only mitigate the impact of the station’s presence but also improve the Parkway from its current condition.”

Unfortunately, the so-called Net Benefits Agreement between the NPS and the city that you reference in your letter does not protect the Parkway and valuable natural resources such as wetlands.

The ECA has determined that the mitigation plan offered by the city does not fully reduce the station’s environmental impact on wetlands in the immediate footprint of the project. Furthermore, the impacts will extend off site into what remains of the tidal wetlands that historically encircled Daingerfield Island. The Net Benefits Agreement and the purchase of wetland bank credits by the city will not entirely offset these environmental impacts, nor will they improve the scenic character of the Parkway. The environmental benefits offered by these wetlands are irreplaceable.

Their 2014 letter concludes with the following statement:

“With careful planning and cooperative work among all stakeholders, we believe a transit-oriented Potomac Yard community and scenic NPS parkway can coexist. We request that NPS seriously consider Alexandria’s proposal, and we encourage a solution that meets the City’s development goals while following all NPS guidelines.”

If there had been careful planning and cooperation among all the stakeholders, including environmentalists, the city would not have chosen a city park and special aquatic site as its preferred location for the new station. In fact, it is quite clear that the NPS was originally opposed to any development in what was a scenic easement. This land should never have been developed. It was set aside in perpetuity after the construction of Potomac Green. It appears that in 2014, the NPS was pressured politically to give up the easement in exchange for land already protected. Money won’t reverse the damage to these fragile wetlands.

It is clear that the city’s so-called development goals are not in the public’s best interest, since the project will not compensate for the loss of valuable ecological, recreational and scenic benefits. It is also clear that there are a number of alternative sites that satisfy the project’s purpose and need, which the Environmental Impact Statement defines this way: The project is: “proposed to improve local and regional transit accessibility to and from the Potomac Yard area adjacent to the U.S. Route 1 corridor for current and future residents, employees, and businesses.”

Yet city officials have reworked this statement to justify their claim that the only place to build a Metro station is in these wetlands.

For these reasons, the ECA has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality not to issue any Clean Water Act permits for the project until the City of Alexandria agrees to relocate the Metro station to a more environmentally sustainable spot in Potomac Yard.

We urge Senators Warner and Kaine to join with us in saving these wetlands, protecting the Potomac River and preserving the scenic character of the George Washington Memorial Parkway – which they should have done in 2014.

The writer is chair of the ECA and former vice mayor of Alexandria representing the 30th district.