Danger in fossil excavations

September 15, 2010

It was interesting to read Frank Roylance's article of September 10 on the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons excavating a recently discovered whale fossil from the Calvert Cliffs near Chesapeake Beach ("Calvert Cliffs fossil recovered, identified"). We have owned our home on the Calvert Cliffs since 2000. While we appreciate the contributions the museum makes to our community, we are very concerned with the way government officials allow the museum to handle fossil excavations.

Our first concern is safety. The cliffs, composed of clay and sand, are well known for their instability and frequent landslides. It is dangerous for the museum to ask and for a homeowner to give permission to dig in the cliffs. For all concerned, the museum's employees and the student volunteers from the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology should not be working under such dangerous conditions. They should not be putting our community's citizens in greater danger by weakening the cliffs. Shame on paleontologist Stephen Godfrey and museum collections manager, John Nance, for stating they "are happy to have the extra labor on hand to remove clay and encase the fossil in plaster for transport to the museum."

As Calvert Cliff landowners, we are concerned with the museum's ability to excavate in the cliffs without official permits, indeed, with only the permission of the homeowner. We know firsthand any modification in the critical area requires federal, state and county permits. Our home is on a 70-foot cliff and severely threatened by shoreline erosion. During a 14 months in 2003-04, we lost more than 35 feet of land. Our home was only 25 feet from the cliff's edge when we applied for an "emergency" permit in August 2004. (Since 1984, Maryland has required permits for any land grading or disturbance within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, which includes all land within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and wetlands.) Many of our 80 neighbors face similar situations.

Unless we stabilize the cliffs and restore the beaches, we will continue to experience severe erosion and regular landslides. Had we been the museum and only been required to have "permission from the homeowner," we would have implemented a long sought plan for beach restoration and cliff stabilization.

Instead, we worked through 17 federal, state and county agencies for more than two years to negotiate an agreement to build a near-shore continuous breakwater at considerable personal expense. We applied for stone revetment (armoring) in August 2004. As many are aware, the Calvert Cliffs are inhibited by several species of tiger beetles. One of these, the Puritan tiger beetle, is on the endangered species list, which put our application in jeopardy. It is doubtful we would have received a permit in December 2006 without the support of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and state Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell.

The best outcome of the museum's latest excavation would be to set a precedent long sought by property owners living on the bay. It is time for the federal, state and county authorities to alter their position regarding cliff stabilization. It is time for government officials to institute shoreline erosion control measures, stabilize the cliffs, preserve land values and help stop sediment from polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

Phyllis Bonfield and Marcia Seifert, Lusby

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