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Potomac Oil Testing Plans Draw Protests : Estuary's Health Troubles Environmental Groups

December 03, 1987|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Exxon and Texaco said Wednesday they plan to begin exploratory seismic testing for oil in the ground under the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, drawing immediate complaints from environmental groups concerned about the health of the troubled estuary.

Ron Jarvis, a spokesman for Exxon, said the testing will be conducted in January and February on a 30-mile stretch of the Potomac about 40 miles downriver from Washington and in a 30-mile area of the bay, from the mouth of the Patuxent River north almost to the Bay Bridge.

Jarvis said the joint effort, following up work done a year ago by an independent seismic-testing firm, is still "very preliminary" and would not affect commercial fishing or recreation on the water.

But Will Baker, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said his group opposes commercial exploration as well as drilling or refining activities on the bay, the country's largest estuary. "One problem we don't have is major oil spills," Baker said. "To introduce the potential for a whole new contamination seems the height of idiocy."

'Sensitive' to Concerns

Jarvis said, "The companies are very aware of and sensitive to environmental concerns on the bay." He said seismic testing involves sending a radio wave from a boat into the rock strata below. The sound wave bounces off the bottom and sends a signal back that paints an electronic picture.

"Preliminary knowledge gained from analysis of rock samples," he said, "suggests a relatively thick rock strata that could hold oil or gas."

He said the seismic testing requires no special permits. The bay and river bottom are owned by Virginia and Maryland and any drilling would require state approvals.

The present concern about the bay grew out of a $27-million federal study in 1983 that suggested a relationship between water pollution and the loss of underwater grasses, which nurture and support aquatic life. With oysters and rockfish in sharp decline, officials fear that failure to deal with Chesapeake pollution problems could further affect the bay's important fisheries.

The oil company's plans were disclosed by Baker as state and federal officials were preparing to conclude an interstate bay cleanup agreement that environmental groups have already criticized as grossly inadequate.

"The (oil companies') timing seems particularly bad now when the governors have reaffirmed their commitment to saving the Chesapeake Bay and have demonstrated how difficult it is to reduce pollutants in the bay," Baker said.

His foundation was one of 16 environmental groups that held simultaneous press conferences Wednesday in Richmond, Annapolis, Washington, Harrisburg and Norfolk to criticize the draft interstate agreement on the bay as toothless.

The bay agreement is scheduled to be signed in Baltimore Dec. 15, and a meeting of state officials to discuss the document's final form is scheduled for Thursday.

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