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.

To meet federal pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and other bay region states and counties are planning to rely on a politically fashionable --but questionable – scheme to reduce pollution.

That system is pollution trading.  Pollution trading is a strategy conceived by Republicans in the 1980s, when Reagan Administration held up free markets and de-regulation as magic elixirs for all that ails America.

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was helping to lead a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk. While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

 “If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”

In a remote valley in the Appalachian mountains, as the setting sun lit the tops of sycamore trees with gold light, Keith Eshleman strode down a ragged logging road, past yellow and white wildflowers, to his workplace.

Eshleman is a water quality scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s lab in Frostburg. He stepped on mossy rocks through a stream called Black Lick, which has a water quality monitoring device in a box mounted atop a pipe.

It was here, nearly 200 miles from the Chesapeake Bay, that Eshleman made a discovery that turned the bay upside down. Over two decades of monitoring this and a dozen other streams that flow into the  Potomac River, Eshleman found that levels of nitrogen – a pollutant that fertilizes algal blooms and dead zones in the bay -- plummeted as much as 70 percent  in forested streams from 1995 to 2010.

The Spirits of Jamestown

Sep 28, 2016

To really know the Chesapeake Bay, you have to know its past and its southern root – and that means the James River in Virginia.

And so on a recent evening, when the sun was sinking low, I dragged my kayak through brambles and shoe-sucking mud to launch into the waters that flow through the dark heart of American history.

I paddled into the sleepy current flowing past Jamestown Island.  As I pulled the thorns from my shirt and slid over the glassy water, it struck me as downright bizarre that the first English colonists in North America (after the ominous disappearance of the Roanoke settlers) would choose this briar-ridden, brackish swamp as the home base for their dreams.

The more than three-decade history of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort has been a little like a football game, in which – after a few quarters – the teams get bogged down around the 50 yard line with no score. So the officials move the goalposts closer.

Here’s an example of these goalposts on wheels:  Back in 1987, the bay region states and EPA signed an agreement to reduce nitrogen pollution by 40 percent by the year 2000.  But as the author Tom Horton pointed out in his book, “Turning the Tide,” shortly after the goal was set, “40 percent” was redefined to mean “40 percent of controllable sources,” which arbitrarily excluded half of all nitrogen sources – including from air pollution (although this is controllable) and from New York, Delaware and West Virginia, which had not signed on to the agreement.

With this subtle tweaking of this language, the target for 2000 suddenly moved much closer – essentially requiring a 21 percent reduction in pollution instead of a 40 percent cut. 

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.'"