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A local nonprofit recently finished the first phase of a years-long cleanup project in Portsmouth’s Paradise Creek.

The Coastal Virginia Conservancy, formerly known as the Living River Trust, has now removed about five million pounds of historically contaminated sediment, replacing it with clean sand.

The milestone “represents a colossal step forward in our mission to conserve and restore the marine and wildlife habitat, natural beauty, and ecological health of our waterways," the Conservancy’s Board Chair Mary Ann Saunders said in a statement this week. 

"By revitalizing this tributary of the Elizabeth River, we are not only reversing decades of legacy contamination, but also enhancing and ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future.”

For hundreds of years, industrial operations along the Elizabeth and its tributaries like Paradise Creek made products like tar-based creosote to preserve wood for local shipbuilders.

That left lots of pollution in the water.

“It’s one of the oldest working waterways in the country,” Conservancy restoration manager Dave Koubsky told WHRO in 2022. “Discharging waste into the waterstream, both human waste and industrial waste, was what happened.”

Paradise Creek isn’t the most polluted of the Elizabeth River’s tributaries, but officials have found toxic chemicals there called PCBs accumulated in the sediment. 

These toxins are known to threaten marine life. Creatures like clams and tubeworms burrow into the contaminated ground, then get eaten by fish and bring more chemicals into the water.

The Conservancy began dredging up contaminated sediment on about 17 acres of creekbed back in 2021. They’ve now taken out about 2,500 tons of the material, which goes to a specially-approved landfill.

barge sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

Officials work to dredge contaminated sediment in Paradise Creek in 2022.

Then, the nonprofit replaced it with clean sand – including a layer of activated carbon, “kind of like a sand sandwich,” Koubsky said.

The charcoal-like pellets help absorb remaining pollution, similar to a home water filtration system. 

The Conservancy said this week that recent monitoring has shown reductions in contamination levels by about 60% in the project area – up to 90% in some spots.

The nonprofit, which serves as a land trust, is required to continue monitoring how well the $6 million project works for years to come. 

Their funding largely came from mitigation credits associated with the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion. 

The next two planned phases of the Paradise Creek cleanup are not yet funded but would expand the work to other areas of the waterway.