Tom Pelton | WYPR

Tom Pelton

Host, The Environment in Focus

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007.  He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.  From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

I was paddling down the Monocacy River in central Maryland on a cool fall afternoon, watching leaves from sycamores trees drift down into the rocky shallows, when a bald eagle flew from a branch over the river. 

At first, I was startled by the eagle’s closeness to me as it launched, and by its sudden and powerful wing strokes and massive silvery head.

But then I thought to myself: “Oh, it’s just a bald eagle. They’re everywhere these days.”  My mental shrug – my ‘so what?’ -- made me reflect.  All too often, we take environmental progress for granted, because it is so common around us.


Almost a century ago, an unknown railway clerk on Maryland’s Eastern Shore revolutionized the world’s way of farming.

His name was Arthur Perdue and he’d never even been a farmer.  But he was brilliant in understanding the importance of transportation and organization in moving large numbers of chickens from rural areas up to big cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

The story of how Perdue’s business inspired a global revolution in how hogs, cows and other farm animals are raised in factory-like conditions is told in a new book by Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  It’s called “Chickening Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals and Consumers,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


Diamondback terrapin are a proud symbol of Maryland: a handsome turtle with a white neck spotted with black that is uniquely adapted to swimming in the mix of salty and fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Almost a decade ago, news stories about the sale of thousands of captured ‘terps from an Eastern Shore turtle dealer to brokers to who sold them in China sparked outrage among Maryland legislators, who passed a 2007 law banning the commercial trapping -- and even possession -- of terrapin.

Jack Cover, general curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, was among those who feared for the turtle’s declining populations.

 “Basically the bay’s ecosystems could not produce terrapin at a fast enough rate to satisfy that market demand,” Cover said. “And there was an insatiable demand coming from Asian markets in the years prior to the closing of the commercial fishery.”

But, oddly enough, nine years after the ban, the Eastern Shore turtle breeding and dealing business that triggered the state action is not only still in business, but has more than doubled in size, according to state records.


For 80 percent of Maryland residents, when we flush the toilet, the waste gets treated in a sewage plant to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  State taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the state’s largest sewage plants with state-of-the-art technology.

But 20 percent of state households – mostly those in rural areas – use a far more primitive waste disposal system:  A septic tank.  They are basically pits underground that are designed to slowly leak pollutants into the groundwater and nearby streams.

Septic tanks were not much of a problem when they served a few scattered farmhouses. But then developers began building whole cities of McMansions out in rural areas linked to these old fashioned, leaky waste pits. And that meant more pollution oozing into the bay.

Four years ago, Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration imposed regulations to help address this problem. The rules mandate that any new homes built in areas not served by sewage treatment plants need to install septic systems with the best available nitrogen removal technology, which can cost $10,000 per house.

When Republican Governor Larry Hogan took office last year, real estate developers and their allies in rural county governments complained that the additional costs were hurting profits and suppressing the sales of new homes in places like Carroll and Frederick counties. On so on Monday, the Hogan administration responded by revoking O’Malley’s rule. 


  Blue crabs are an important part of the Chesapeake region’s culture, diet, and economy. But crab remains are rare in archeological sites around the Bay. This has led some scientists to believe that Native Americans did not eat the beautiful swimmers that today we find so delicious.

"What we know about Native Americans ate is based on some historic records, but also on looking at the trash piles that Indians left, mostly on the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay," said Tuck Hines, Director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. "And the majority of those trash piles are made up of oyster shells. But not much in the way of blue crab remains are generally found in those trash piles or 'middens.'"


EPA Chesapeake Bay Program

It was just before sunrise, and in the shadow of the Domino's sugar plant in Baltimore Harbor three friends were fishing from a small boat. Nearby, even though it was on a Sunday, employees were hard at work outside the factory in hardhats and yellow vests, using a giant crane to unload a Panamanian freighter.   The sugar plant’s nearly century-old, eight-story brick building rose up over the ship next to three metal tanks labelled "blackstrap molasses."

The fishermen used an electric motor to purr slowly along beside a long wooden pier, casting their lines into the dark, smooth water.  A cool breeze stirred, the sun rose above the horizon, and light flashed off the glass office buildings of downtown Baltimore like they were on fire.

After a while, one of the fishermen caught something – and reeled in a striped bass.

  There is a growing movement to measure the worth of nature by quantifying its economic value.  Trees, for example, provide billions of dollars in "ecosystem services" by producing oxygen for humans and absorbing our carbon dioxide pollution.   What, then, is the value of fireflies? I thought about this as I sat on a bench on a summer night, watching a constellation of tiny golden lights wink and wander over the shaggy grasses and darkened trees in the park near my home.

I suppose you could argue that the aesthetic value of fireflies enhances the beauty of the park, and therefore increases the real estate values of the houses around it.

But that’s a stretch. And in fact, real estate development over the last several decades has been causing a decline in firefly populations.


  A growing number of scientific studies link hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Pennsylvania to health problems, including asthma attacks, sore throats, eye irritation, bloody noses and premature births.

The research is being cited by public health advocates in Maryland as evidence that the state should not allow fracking, which involves the blasting of water mixed with chemicals into shale rock formations to release gas.

A two year moratorium on fracking in Maryland expires in October of next year. A political fight is expected in this January’s General Assembly session over whether to open up the state to unconventional gas drilling.

The most recent study was led by researcher Sara Rasmussen at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She and colleagues examined data from the hospital records of more than 35,000 asthma patients across Pennsylvania and found that those who live near larger or more numerous fracking wells were 1.5 to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks as patients who lived farther away.


  It's a hot afternoon in Tuscarora, Maryland, and dairy farmer Chuck Fry is feeding 170 of his Holstein and Jersey cows in an open barn longer than a football field, as huge fans whirl to cool the animals off.  He then leads a visitor to a pair of tanks holding milk's byproduct.

"For every gallon of milk I get I am benefited by three gallons of manure," said Fry, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "Now, that’s a curse and a blessing.  We use that three gallons of manure to grow next year’s crops. So we store it and treasure it because it has tremendous value."

But manure also has a tremendous impact on the Chesapeake Bay, with farm runoff the single largest source of pollution in the estuary. And so Maryland, four years ago, imposed regulations to require farmers to mix and incorporate manure into the soil of their fields to reduce runoff, and prohibit spreading in the winter when the ground is frozen and crops can’t absorb it.

The pollution control rules were to take effect July 1. But because Fry and his allies complained to Governor Hogan’s administration about the cost to the state’s 430 dairy farmers, the administration has proposed to weaken the regulations.  "Those regulations would have driven those dairy farmers out of business," Fry argued, explaining the rules require the construction of manure storage tanks that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.


 I was on vacation in Michigan and I was amazed to see no bottles or cans littering the sides of roads, or in Lake Michigan or the Galien River where I went kayaking and sailing.

This struck me, because it was in sharp contrast to Maryland.  Everywhere I go in my home state, I see cans and bottles strewn at bus stops, floating in farm ditches on the Eastern Shore, even trashing the beaches and marshlands of the most remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay.

Why is Maryland so much trashier than Michigan?  The Great Lakes have much less garbage floating in them than the Chesapeake Bay we claim to love. The reason is simple: Michigan residents recycle 95 percent of the cans and bottles they use– almost four times the rate that we here in Maryland recycle.  We throw most of our beverage containers away -- into landfills or onto roadsides, where they end up in streams and the bay.


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