In constructing a new Severn River Bridge, the State Highway Administration has violated federal rules protecting wetlands, state officials acknowledged yesterday.
The SHA has a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build in the wetlands along the banks of the lower Severn River. But construction crews destroyed an eighth-acre of wetlands outside that permit area because of a "small design error," spokeswoman Liz Ziemski said.
Wetlands are considered important because they provide a natural filter of pollutants before they are carried by storm water into the river. They also are considered valuable habitat.
"It's something we take seriously, and we regret it," said Ziemski.
Critics of the high-span bridge agree the destruction of the wetlands is serious. They have asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for injunction to stop construction of the bridge.
"To stop any further damage to the wetlands or allow more construction than necessary for a low-level bridge, we thought an injunction would be appropriate," said Richard Nettler, a Washington attorney with the firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, which represents the high span's foes.
Citizens for a Scenic Severn River Bridge fear a high span would damage the Severn's environment and Annapolis' historic skyline. They would prefer a lower span similar to the existing Route 450 drawbridge.
The group also contends the state never conducted proper environmental impact studies before proceeding with the $40 million high span.
But a lower court has rebuffed the group's attempt to block the project. A stop-work order would allow the appeals court time to reconsider the case, Nettler said.
"Since there is no impact study and the state is proceeding full bore, we're arguing that we could be irreparably harmed," said Brian Miller, president of Citizens for a Scenic Severn River Bridge.
Nettler said the request for injunction was delivered to the Richmond, Va., court yesterday.
Ziemski said the SHA has met with the Army Corps of Engineers about the wetlands violation. A sediment trap used to control erosion was misplaced on the original permit application, causing the error, she said.
The sediment trap will be removed after construction, allowing the site to revert back to a wetland, she said. The SHA also will create an additional half-acre of wetlands, she said.
State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, a leading environmental activist in the State House, said the SHA was wrong for violating its permit. But "the acreage is minimal, no more than the footprint of your average house.
"The high-bridge, low-bridge debate is the only thing that makes this controversial," said Winegrad, an Annapolis Democrat. "And they were building a low bridge, it would be disturbed anyway."