The Maryland Department of the Environment, complying with a court order, issued a permit yesterday that allows Fairfax County Water Authority to build a new intake pipe halfway across the Potomac River.
The department had appealed in Baltimore Circuit Court a decision by its own hearing officer, Bernard E. Penner, to issue the permit and asked to delay the effect of that decision until the case is heard, but Judge Evelyn O. Cannon refused.
Her ruling could be the final blow in Maryland's 3-year-long attempt to deny the permit and is another strike against Maryland in its centuries-old battle with Virginia over rights to the river that forms their common border.
Maryland owns the river under a 1632 land grant from King Charles I and claims jurisdiction over construction projects that would affect it. Virginia officials argue that a 1785 compact between the states - signed at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, on a bluff overlooking the river - and an arbitration in 1877 allow them to use the water.
The Supreme Court agreed in May to sort out the competing claims. But the more immediate question of the permit remains in the Baltimore court.
Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida said yesterday that she was forced to release the permit, despite misgivings about the project.
"MDE continues to believe that the issuance of this permit is not in the best interest of the public nor the health of the Potomac River," Nishida said.
Fairfax, which draws its water from a pipe near the river's shore, said it needs the longer pipe to improve the quality of water supplied to its 1.2 million customers. Water drawn from closer to the shore is laden with sediment and could carry diseases, officials said.
Maryland argued that dredging a trench 18 feet deep by 18 feet wide, 725 feet into the river, would create a significant amount of sediment and impetus for new shoreline development on the Virginia side of the river.
David Botkins, a spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office, hailed the permit as "another victory in the effort to ensure clean, safe drinking water for Northern Virginia."
Jim Warfield, executive officer of Fairfax County Water Authority, cautioned that the "fat lady is not singing yet," because the matter has not cleared the court system.
The authority's board of directors will take up the issue at its regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow "if we have the permit in hand," Warfield said. "I think our board will have to take it all in to decide what the next move will be."