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From PORTFOLIO WEEKLY, December 2, 2008

2020 VISION:  A journey to three spots along the waters of the Elizabeth shows how art, science and kitchen table scheming may be able to change the course of a river.

By Elizabeth Blachman

VISIONS OF THE RIVER: ERP founder Marjorie Mayfield Jackson sat at this dock along Scotts Creek and thought about the trouble below the water.

On Scotts Creek, where the Elizabeth River runs through Portsmouth, a dock juts out over the water. Marjorie Mayfield Jackson—now the executive director and founder of the Elizabeth River Project (ERP)—used to sit and dangle her legs over the edge of that dock in the evenings after days spent reporting on education for The Virginian-Pilot. Herons would roost in the mulberry tree, and mullet would jump from the water. In a faded photo she keeps on her shelf, the younger Jackson gazes into the fog from her perch at the end of the dock.

"I’d go out on the end of that dock and just enjoy how beautiful it was," she remembers, "and I’d try not to look down, because I knew that the river was sick and the fish had cancer."

That spot is one of the places where the story of the Elizabeth River Project begins. Jackson was 35 years old and had been at the Pilot for 10 years.

"I thought that was mid-life," she laughs. "What did I know?"

Some people’s mid-life crises involve getting pierced and buying a Ferrari. Jackson wanted to clean up the river.

"As a reporter, you know, you’re supposed to stay on the edges, and if nobody does anything you just have to say, ‘Oh well,’" she says. "I just wanted to change to acting."

A CALCULATED HOPE: When Marjorie Mayfield Jackson planned the Elizabeth River Project with a group of concerned citizens, they decided that since they couldn’t roll back the tide of industry, they would try a collaborative model.

In 1991, Jackson sat at a kitchen table with three other concerned citizens—Sharon Quillen Adams, Michael Kensler and Robert Dean—as the four spoke of whether it was possible to gain community support to turn a dying river into a living one. Jackson quit the Pilot and freelanced and waited tables as she worked toward creating the ERP.

"A lot of great people helped make it happen," she says.

When the grassroots ERP was founded in 1993, there was a widespread belief that the Elizabeth River, one of the most traversed and industrialized rivers in the world, was dead. Ironically, the hub of industry and the military that gave birth to Hampton Roads as we know it is also the reason the river is so sick today.

In September of this year, the ERP had a party by the river and launched a bold plan to make the sick river swimmable and fishable by 2020. The plan involves a comprehensive list of seven actions, each with clearly defined challenges, goals and solutions. They run the gamut from extensive cleanups of the worst sites on the river to creating a "grassroots army" of citizens who will work to save the Elizabeth.

One of the strategies that has set the ERP apart from other environmental action groups has been its willingness to make partnerships with local business and industry. The ERP is one of the first such groups in the country to take this approach, setting up conferences instead of lawsuits. Jackson says that this was one of the early decisions that the four citizens sitting around the kitchen table made.

"You weren’t going to put the cow back in the barn," she says. "You weren’t going to have a pristine river where there was no industry and where there was no development …. We had a port that was already the lifeblood of the economy in this part of Virginia. We figured we’d just be little mosquitoes if all we did was point fingers and say, ‘Why did you do that?’ So we decided to work with the powerful partners that are here on this river collaboratively and not point fingers, not talk about the past, and see if those very powerful players would help. And in fact they have."

Currently the organization has 64 "River Stars," companies that have voluntarily worked to reduce their environmental impact and clean up the river. Jackson points out the window of her Portsmouth riverfront office at the great bulk of BAE Systems Norfolk, where that River Star participant has planted five wildlife restoration sites in the shadow of its dry docks.

It’s not always easy. A massive expansion at Portsmouth’s Craney Island by the Virginia Port Authority—also a River Star—will cover up between five and six hundred acres of the river.

"That’s a really huge pill to swallow," says Jackson.

But the ERP, the Port Authority, the government, the Army Corp of Engineers and other stakeholders in the project have worked together to find the "win-win." To offset the Craney Island project, the companies will help pay for the expensive task of cleaning up toxic hotspots and restoring wetlands and oyster beds on the worst part of the river—an area roughly comparable to that of the water that is being annexed for the expansion.

"While you lose one area," says Jackson, "the worst part of the river gets better, so that in the end you hope that the river’s better off. And the economy goes forward—which probably it was going to go forward anyway."

Another approach would have been to sue and organize the community for a fight, but the ERP is taking what Jackson calls a "calculated hope" that this method will prove to be more successful.

River Stars, the Navy, the EPA, the government and other environmental and community groups have invested time and millions of dollars on cleanup projects. Local governments are involved in cleaning up the storm water runoff that is one of the biggest sources of new contamination. And the community has begun to believe in the river again.

But the Elizabeth is still home to some of the most contaminated sites in the world. Key problems include toxic sediments, wetland loss and harmful bacteria in the water. In particular, the Southern and Eastern Branches of the river are considered "severely degraded." Three contaminated spots along the river are on the EPA’s list of "Superfund" sites for necessary remediation.

Despite all this, or because of it, the river is also a place of groundbreaking collaborations—people addressing environmental problems in new ways that are models for the entire country. And of course, Jackson stresses that stewardship of the river also comes down to individual choices: driving less, using less fertilizer, picking up after dogs, making the decision to pitch in and clean up the river for the next generation.

That dock on Scotts Creek is still there, though Jackson has moved to a different part of the river. The spot came up again as Jackson knit together the web of partnerships that is the engine of the ERP. Bobby Bray, who retired in 2007 after a 20-year tenure as head of Port Authority, and his brother, Judge Richard Bray of Portsmouth, used to play on the dock in their childhoods when the house was owned by their grandmother.

Judge Richard Bray is the CEO of the Beazley Foundation, which gives grants to the ERP, and Bobby Bray worked with the ERP on the big expansion project at Craney Island.

"Bobby would tell me, ‘I love the river, Marjorie—I grew up fishing and crabbing there,’" Jackson recalls. "And he grew up fishing and crabbing—who knew—right where I used to sit on that dock. Isn’t that something?"

Bobby Bray is now a board member of ERP.

"I think that spot helped inspire these leaders and me to do right by the river," says Jackson.

Well, the creek runs to the river

And the river to the bay

And the bay runs to the ocean

But it doesn’t wash away

The poisons stay beneath the river

Beneath the river, the poisons stay.

-from "Window on the River" by Bob Zentz

On a Saturday morning in 1952, when Bob Zentz was 8 years old, one of the guys from his neighborhood got a bunch of the kids together to watch the opening of the Downtown Tunnel that would span the Elizabeth River, making the ferryboat obsolete. Zentz remembers the thousands of cars lined up as the Norfolk and Portsmouth mayors cut the ribbons on both sides. On the Norfolk side, the ribbon-cutter would have been Mayor W.F. Duckworth, who became notorious six years later for his role in closing Norfolk Public Schools rather than integrating them. That day, Zentz sat for hours in the line of cars creeping for the first time below the waters of the Elizabeth, so bored that he was counting the tiles along the tunnel walls.

"And I was going, there’s gotta be a porthole here somewhere," he recalls. "My mind’s eye view of it was this glass tube going under the water—a living mural. Squid and octopus and whales. And it was just this tile."

Now in his 60s, the folk singer and local icon strums his autoharp in the art gallery at Skipjack Nautical Wares, singing a song about what was missing on that first ride through the tunnel.

We need a window on the river

We need to see what’s right and wrong

We need to look beneath the surface

We need to find a river song

‘Cause we belong along the river

Along the river, we belong.

Zentz has become the troubadour of the Elizabeth River Project, writing songs about the Elizabeth and toting a dozen instruments to events and conferences. He learned some of his ideas about art and environmental stewardship working in the ‘80s with the Clearwater project—legendary folk singer Pete Seeger’s plan to clean up the Hudson River in New York. But the Elizabeth River has been a part of Zentz’s life for as long as he can remember.

As a child, he rode the ferry back and forth across the Elizabeth with his grandfather. Zentz—who grew up to become a sailor, among other things—was fascinated by the foreign names on the wooden boats in the harbor and the freight ships unloading wooden crates. From the docks in Norfolk where Nauticus stands today, Zentz and his family would catch the Old Bay Line steamer for its overnight ride up the Chesapeake to Baltimore. He and his friends would hang out at the concrete bulkhead near his Colonial Place neighborhood in Norfolk, and scoop crabs up in a net. They would fish from the platform underneath the Granby Street Bridge.

"We’d catch all kinds of bizarre things like toad fish. But also spots and croakers and we’d cook ’em up."

His mother would steam the crabs the kids bought home. No one talked about pollution.

"We weren’t afraid of nothin’," Zentz remarks wryly. "We didn’t know what to be afraid of in those days."

Zentz’s involvement in the project is connected to one of the most miraculous alchemies of the Elizabeth River Project—giving Hampton Roads a vision of a living river. A September plein air art project gathered local artists to "paint the river clean." UVA professors of art and architecture Sanda Iliescu and Phoebe Crisman created a massive art installation that streamed from concrete silos at the Money Point cleanup site. Zentz stresses that art is a necessary part of the vast task of saving the river.

"I think that people are much more sensitive to a picture of a beer can washed up on the edge of the river than they are to what thousandth of a thousandth percentage of pollution it’s going to cause," he says.

He also notes the power of art to join people together and help them to see beyond their own life spans.

"I often have looked at satellite pictures of this planet and noticed how much the river systems look like the circulatory systems in the human body," he muses.

"Part of that whirlpool that the Elizabeth River Project creates is that you’re bringing together people from the military, people from the art community, people from industry, people who just want to get in their boat and have a good time—water-ski—but by gosh if they fall in the water they don’t want their skin to fall off. It’s connecting the dots, that’s what it all does …And trying to connect it into some useful kind of web pattern is like pulling back and looking at a planet that is connected by rivers. So there."

A TIME FOR ACTION: (Top to bottom) One of the slogans of the 2020 Action Plan is "The goo must go!"; Chris Daniel’s photograph presents a bleak picture; along the water at Money Point; an unlikely place to grow; an engineer from Science Applications International Corporation lowers an underwater camera as part of the study on contamination and cleanup at Money Point; River Star BAE Systems Norfolk ship repair restored wetlands and oyster reefs along its property; Van White's photo shows the heavily industrial Money Point in Portsmouth, the site of a major cleanup effort.

If the land and the river are the body and pumping veins that Bob Zentz imagines them to be, then Portsmouth’s Money Point is some sort of disastrous tumor. In the grey light of a November morning, the remnants of a fog over the river soften the industrial landscape, with its cylindrical fuel tanks, metal piers and the squat, abandoned-looking Navy buildings that line the far shore.

Below the surface of the water, the river is poisoned, and the fish have liver cancer, deformities, cataracts and lesions. Over 200 years of intense industry have resulted in high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), caused partially by old wood-treatment facilities like Republic Creosote and Eppinger & Russell. The latter was the site of a 1963 fire, which ruptured tanks of harmful creosote.

In "hot spots," PAH levels are more than 500 parts per million, even as high as 6000. PAHs begin to harm aquatic life at 45 parts per million. In other words, when scientists placed spot—the sport fish that the young Bob Zentz and his friends fished for in the ’50s—in water from parts of Money Point, the fish were dead in two hours. The Elizabeth River Project reports that the 35 acres along the Southern Branch of the river have been a "biological dead zone" for decades.

A few years ago, restoring Money Point seemed an impossible task that no one would take on—a tangled web made up of the difficult and expensive cleanup of the river bottom, the coordination of the industries that line the waterfront, the complicated process of obtaining permits and the legacy of the creosote spill at the now-defunct Eppinger & Russell.

But the Elizabeth River Project is currently engaged in a 10-year-plan for Money Point. The strategy was launched in 2006 after intensive planning with scientists, the industries on the river, and community members like the congregants of First Baptist Church Money Point and the handful of residents who remain in the once-bustling town center.

"It’s a dance," says Money Point project manager Joe Rieger.

Rieger, who has worked with the ERP for five years, got his masters in ecology from Old Dominion University. He strides in tall wading boots across the sandy border between lands owned by industry giants Kinder Morgan and Hess, both River Stars. Rieger says that the approach to the Money Point cleanup is unique, and effective given the convoluted problems that kept the government from tackling Money Point.

"In the past, you didn’t have community groups like ERP taking on projects like this," he says.

Rieger thinks that the community approach to the cleanup has been a success.

"It gets done quickly, it gets done effectively and efficiently, and for a reasonable amount of money, too. Because we’re a nonprofit, our heart is really in cleaning up this river, and so a lot of times people are willing to come to the table with resources and give us in-kind resources like [the companies giving us] the land."

In his experience, the industries often do want to do the right thing but need a group like ERP to initiate and coordinate projects.

Today, the shore is quiet, but come spring and summer there will be scientists and contracting firms working in the water and along the banks to execute the plans that have been several years in the making. They will spread 12 inches of sand out into the water, extending the wetlands and planting marsh grass once they know that the sand won’t sink. They’ll lay down a field of oyster shells along parts of the river bottom, making a habitat for marine life and anchoring the sand. The worst spots will be dredged, and 85,000 yards of toxic river bottom scooped onto a barge and carted away. Families will plant marsh grass and clean up the habitat on the shore.

The ERP is using a scaly indicator to test whether its plans are working. The improbably named "mummichog" is the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" for the river’s health because the small, brown fish lives its whole life within a 50 yard radius, and lives and lays eggs on the bottom of the river. Currently, 83 percent of the mummichogs have pre-cancer and 38 percent have cancer. As the river becomes less poisonous, the mummichogs’ cancer rates should decline.

"A lot of people say, ‘Well, why are you spending all this money to restore wetlands in an urbanized river that’s impacted already?’" says Rieger. "Well, we’ve been doing fish surveys—and finding that little pocket wetlands, like one by the Jordan Bridge, formerly had contaminants, and now there are over 20 species of fish using that habitat. We’ll see the same thing here. When you build it, they will come."

Along the shore at Money Point, just past a stream of boot-sucking muddy water, a colony of oysters has already arrived, making their home in an old truck tire abandoned on the shore, a tiny vernal pool. A bit further along the shore, a forest of marsh grass grows out of another tire, a riot of life emerging from the rubber.

Rieger points to more oysters clinging to driftwood along the shore, a rusty pot. When the river was young, there were enough of these little mollusks to filter the water and keep it clean. The oysters’ dark, rough shells are outlined with the white, pearly edges of this year’s growth.

"There’s a source out here for these, so once we plant this reef, I think it’ll go gangbusters," says Rieger cheerfully.

THE MARCH OF PROGRESS: The Elizabeth River Project wants to create a "grassroots army" to care for the river. They hope to recruit at least 25,000 citizens for their river revolution by 2020.

Amy Waters Yarsinske, author of the rich and comprehensive history The Elizabeth River, writes that a capital of the Native American people who lived along the Elizabeth River, Skicoak, may have been located along the river shores near Ghent, somewhere between Fort Norfolk and Lamberts Point Coal Terminal. As the sun sets over the Elizabeth, just past Port Norfolk, giant metal vessels line the far bank, and a forest of cranes and scaffolding reaches toward the sky, twinkling with lights. If those Algonquian tribes who paddled their canoes on the Elizabeth could see what lines these banks today, it’s hard to say whether they would think it the work of gods or monsters.

It’s easy to view progress as an interminable march across the land, with the unstoppable momentum of an aircraft carrier. But Bob Zentz doesn’t remember seeing pelicans around here when he was a boy, and he’s noticed that the broad-winged birds have returned to the river. Out at City Park, the Army Corps of Engineers has just discovered an ancient oyster bed that has been filtering the river all along.

Sometimes marsh grass and oysters can grow in old truck tires. Sometimes people sit around a kitchen table and decide to change the course of a river.

To get involved, go to www.elizabethriver.org. For more information on Bob Zentz or his music, go to www.bobzentz.com


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