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.

Huffington Post

Last month, the Trump Administration banned from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board any and all scientists who receive EPA grants.

Instead, the administration invited onto the board – which is supposed to be an impartial panel of distinguished researchers -- a vice president of the Phillips 66 oil company, Merlin Lindstrom; and an manager for a coal-fired power utility, Larry Monroe of the Southern Company.

Also picked for the EPA Science Advisory Board was a California professor, Robert Phelan, who takes the minority position that clean air is not good for children, because their lungs need irritants to learn how to ward off pollution.

John Walke, director of clean air programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees a pattern.

“The Trump Administration’s views on climate change and other dangerous pollution are well outside of main stream science,” Walke said. “So the Trump Administration is purging those expert mainstream scientists and replacing them with outliers and deniers of basic science concerning climate change, smog and soot.”

Kimberly Holzer

Around the world, ships moving from port to port and dumping their ballast water have often spread invasive species, including zebra mussels, toxic algae, parasites, and even cholera.

In an effort to crack down on the growing nuisance of exotic species in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, the U.S. Coast guard in 2004 imposed a new rule for most ships entering American ports. The ships were required to dump their ballast water hundreds of miles away from shore and instead fill up their tanks with water from the open ocean. This deep water typically contains fewer coastal life forms and more salt, which can kill fresh-water creatures like invasive zebra mussels.

But when scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, studied the impact of the new regulations, they discovered something unexpected: The number of marine hitchhikers multiplied instead of decreasing.

Tom Pelton

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.

San Antonio Express News

Biologists have long known that Monarch butterflies have been in sharp decline since the late 1990s. A  likely culprit is the increased spraying on farms fields of a weed killer, called RoundUp, which kills the milkweed plants that monarch caterpillars depend on as their sole food source.

At the same time, scientists have documented a decline in bees and other pollinators.  The causes of the bee collapse are likely complex. But again, one factor frequently discussed is modern industrial-style agriculture, which relies on large volumes of pesticides.

These conclusions, however, raiseda logical question:  Of course we take note of what’s happening with large, colorful butterflies and bees. Everyone, even children, notices them – and lots of scientists monitor their populations as their full time jobs.

But what about all the millions of species that are so obscure that nobody studies them or even thinks about them?  An answer to that question was recently published in a scientific journal called the Public Library of Science (PLOS Online).  Ecologist Caspar Hallman and colleagues documented a 75 percent decline in all flying insects over three decades across Germany. They counted bugs trapped in wildlife preserves surrounded by farm fields – and concluded that the pesticides sprayed on the farms is a possible cause.

 

Bay Journal

On Monday, the administration of President Trump – who falsely asserts that climate change is a ‘hoax’ – cancelled the appearances of three EPA scientists who were scheduled to talk about global warming at a conference in Rhode Island.

Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the oil and gas industry, has terminated EPA grants related to the study of greenhouse gas pollution. He’s also removed EPA web pages related to climate change, according to The Washington Post.

On August 23, the Trump Administration abruptly cancelled a $325,000 annual EPA grant to the Chesapeake Bay Journal in the second year of what was supposed to be a six-year agreement.  This put the 27 year old journalistic institution, which reports on climate change and many other issues critical to the Chesapeake, in immediate risk of severe cuts or closure.

Ecowatch

Earlier this year, I was in southeast Texas, taking pictures of an oil refinery for a report about air pollution and the harm it causes to lower-income communities like Port Arthur, Texas.

As I stood on a public roadway, a private security guard pulled up behind my car and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing.  I showed him my driver’s license and patiently explained the environmental journalism project I was researching. He reported me to the FBI as a potential terrorist.

My wife was startled when an FBI agent showed up at our house in Baltimore to investigate. I provided the agent with a detailed, written description of the report about air pollution I was working on. That seemed to satisfy the FBI, although it sent a chill down my spine.

I told my story to Alleen Brown, a reporter with The Intercept who has been investigating the increasing coordination between oil and gas companies, their private security firms, law enforcement – and efforts to smear and intimidate environmentalists.

“Yeah, actually that story doesn’t surprise me at all,” Brown said.

Tom Pelton

Most consumers know the ‘buy local’ and 'organic' labels for produce. But not everyone knows that just because something is grown locally and organically does not mean it is good for the Chesapeake Bay.

After all, factory-farmed chicken from Maryland’s Eastern Shore is local, but organic manure from this industry and Pennsylvania dairy farms are major sources of water pollution.  People who want to pick food that is healthy for both the bay and their bodies should consider supporting visionary farmers who are also dedicated to clean water.  That would include farmers like Brett Grohsgal, 56, who has been running the Even’ Star Organic Farm in southern Maryland for almost 20 years.

Instead of growing vast fields of a monoculture – like corn or soybeans –  Grohsgal allows half of his 100 acres in St. Mary’s County to remain forested.  And he aggressively rotates 70 different crops -- including cucumber, sweet potatoes and flowers -- from plot to plot on much of his remaining land. To protect the health of the two streams that flow through his property, he planted rows of black locust trees and loblolly pines to act as natural water filters.

Grohsgal is part of the new "Fair Farms" movement in Maryland.  Fair Farms is an alliance of 90 farmers, environmental organizations and farmers that supports growers who are not only organic, but also using practices like forested buffers along streams, which many conventional farmers do not use.

Tom Pelton

In the early 19th century there was a Baltimore tavern owner and merchant named Joseph Hart. He had his own, unconventional way of looking at the world – and he did not trust banks.

He was also somewhat strange and secretive. And so all of the money that he earned from his tavern, he snuck offshore in a boat and buried on a tiny, marshy island east of Essex, at the mouth of the Back River in the Chesapeake Bay.

As legend had it, the tavern owner – in his legitimate business dealings or otherwise – also somehow came into possession of a barrel full of gold pieces.  And so he also buried that on what became known as Hart Island.


WBAL-TV

Last week, in the far south Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay, an accident at a chemical factory released a huge cloud of chlorosulfonic acid – a gas that can burn the lungs and even be fatal.

Longshoreman Kasimir Kowalski was working nearby.  “A truck of chemicals inadvertently pulled off with the line still hooked up, and ripped the line and the chemicals came out and hit the ground and that’s why you got the flume,” he said.

The Baltimore Fire Department issued a “shelter in place” warning. City officials told 18,000 households within a mile radius of the Solvay Inc. USA chemical plant at 3440 Fairfield Road in Baltimore to remain indoors, close their windows, and try to avoid contact with the toxic yellow cloud drifting over the city.

No serious injuries were reported. But several Curtis Bay residents were angry about the lack of effective safety procedures and good public information about the numerous chemical and industrial plants that surround their homes.

 


@RepGoodlatte/Twitter

From the 1980s until 2010, the health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve – and it even worsened in some areas, with the waters becoming murkier with algae – despite three state-led, voluntary bay cleanup agreements.

After the failure of the third agreement in 2010, President Obama’s administration changed directions and asserted more federal leadership. EPA for the first time imposed numeric pollution limits on each of the bay region states and threatened penalties against states that did not meet the goals of what was called the bay pollution “diet.”

Despite opposition from the farm lobby and real estate developers, the new system worked.  According to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, from 2011 to 2016, the overall health of the bay surged, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution fell, dissolved oxygen levels improved, the water became clearer, and the extent of underwater grasses in the bay doubled.

On September 7, however, U.S. Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and ally of the farm lobby, sponsored a bill designed to end the new system.

 


The Daily Oklahoman

With hurricanes and floods recently swamping Florida, Texas, India and Bangladesh, and wildfires raging across California and the U.S. west, climate change is at the forefront of public policy discussions around the world.

An American agency with a central role in studying climate change is NASA, with its satellites providing critical data about temperatures and weather conditions. President Donald Trump has nominated as the next Administrator of NASA Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, Navy aviator and booster of the idea of privatizing space exploration. 

Bridenstine is strongly supported by the commercial space flight industry. But his confirmation is being opposed by many scientists, environmentalists and others who object to his denial of the scientific consensus that global warming is real.

CNBC

With Texas officials predicting more than $100 billion in cleanup costs from Hurricane Harvey, and Florida now threatened with flooding from Hurricane Irma, Sandra Knight couldn’t help thinking about flooding right here in Maryland.

Knight is a former deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is now a research engineer at the University of Maryland’s Center for Disaster Resilience. She said that with climate change driving up sea levels, cities like Baltimore and Annapolis in recent years have been experiencing far more frequent floods – and should prepare for even higher storm surges in the near future.

“Some of the statistics from NOAA tell us that, since the 1950s or 1960s, Annapolis and Baltimore have had their rates of sunny day flooding increase over 900 percent,” Knight said. “That tells us we’re very vulnerable.”

 


Marinas.com

As sea levels have risen because of climate change, and the geology beneath the Chesapeake region has settled naturally over the last two centuries, more than 500 islands – large and small – have vanished beneath the waves.

Some of these bay islands held hideaways for pirates, hunting lodges for the rich, brothels for watermen, the sites of illegal boxing matches and gambling dens, even an unusual enterprise to breed and skin black cats to sell their fur to China. This last scheme failed when the bay froze and the cats, wisely, ran off across the ice, according to William Cronin’s book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.  Others – such as Sharp’s Island and Holland Island -- were simply the homes of farmers and fishermen, or mosquito-infested scabs of marsh grass.

On a recent afternoon, I set off in a kayak to find a tiny island that – strangely enough – has been heading in the opposite direction: rising from the bay, and  growing over the years.

 


Tom Pelton

In the Guilford neighborhood of North Baltimore, what had been a scenic man-made lake – a drinking water reservoir, high atop a hill, surrounded by a walking path -- has been transformed into a muddy construction site.

The Guilford Reservoir has been drained, and the tall grassy dams surrounding it are being bulldozed.  Cranes, backhoes and teams of workers are replacing the open drinking water storage pond with underground water storage tanks.

It is part of a $400 million project by the Baltimore Department of Public Works to rebuild five post-treatment, above-ground drinking water storage reservoirs – including Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton – to comply with new EPA drinking water safety regulations.  

Tom Pelton

On January 1, 2016, Baltimore missed a deadline from the U.S. Department of Justice to halt its chronic and illegal releases of raw sewage into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.

After negotiating with federal officials and the Maryland Department of the Environment, city officials last week released a revised consent decree that would give Baltimore another 14 years to fix the problem. 

Repairing and replacing all of the city’s leaky sewer pipes will eventually cost local ratepayers a total of $2 billion.

Speaking at a construction site, Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the city plans to stop the vast majority of sewage overflows within three years. The city will spend $430 million removing a sewer line obstruction at the entrance to the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant that has been causing a 10-mile sewage backup under the city, Raymond said. 


Tom Pelton

It’s a warm afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay, with a light breeze and the clouds piled high, and Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is in a skiff motoring toward Marshy Creek.

After weaving between channel markers, she finally reaches a cluster of floating islands of underwater grasses.  It’s a dense jungle, with seedpods projecting from the surface like clusters of grapes. Hundreds of minnows dart between the branches and a Chesapeake stingray glides past.

Landry, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s aquatic vegetation research workgroup, reaches down into the forest and pulls up a handful of plants.

 “The one I’ve got in my hand right now is Elodea canadensis, Canadian waterweed,” she says, fingering a feathery shaft. “It’s a lovely, beautiful plant. The second one I managed to grab was redhead grass, Potamogeton perfoliatus. It’s different from a lot of grasses in the bay because it has these small, maybe one inch long leaves that grow alternately all the way up the stalk.”

 


Solar Gaines

The solar energy industry has been growing rapidly in Maryland and across the U.S. over the last eight years. One of many signs of that explosion can be seen here at the Gilman School in Baltimore, where a local company called Solar Gaines last year installed 288 black glistening solar panels on the rooftops.

Hans Wittich, president of Solar Gaines, said the installation not only saves the private school money on its electric bills, but also provides an educational example for the students about how pollution-free energy can be practical and affordable.

“It’s visible. It looks great. And it generates, I believe, 20 to 30 percent of their electricity needs,” Wittich said.


Phys.org

Political winds are blowing hard this time of year off Ocean City.

In May, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved a $2.5 billion wind farm east of the Eastern Shore that would raise as many as 187 wind turbines, each more than 50 stories tall, 17 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But then last week, U.S. Representative Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and parts of central Maryland, threw a wrench into the turbines.  He introduced language into a federal appropriations bill that would block the U.S. Department of the Interior from spending any money evaluating the U.S. Wind Project.


Tom Pelton

Devra Kitterman dug up the lawn of her home on Hawthorne Road in Baltimore and replaced the turf grass with a lush jungle of ferns, dogwoods and a pond floating with lilies and frogs. She also planted several milkweed plants to feed monarch butterflies.

“Butterflies need milkweed – especially Monarchs – to lay their eggs,” said Kitterman, a beekeeper and Pollinator Program Coordinator at the Maryland Agricultural Resources Council.  “And monarchs are very, very dependent on milkweed. All of the types are really important. And I encourage people to plant as many as you can." 

Like many other gardeners across the country, Kitterman been trying to fight back against a sharp decline in butterflies, bees and other insects. Scientists say this decline has been caused in part by widespread spraying of agricultural pesticides and herbicides, including Round Up (the trade name for glyphosate), which kills the milkweed that many farmers regard as a nuisance.

 


EPA

The Trump Administration recently announced that it would eliminate an Obama-era regulation called the Clean Water Rule, which was imposed in 2015 to limit development in wetlands and streams.

During President Trump’s announcement, he explained why he thinks the regulation is burdensome on economic growth and job creation.

 “If you want to build a new home, for example, you have to worry about getting hit with a huge fine if you fill in as much as a puddle – just a puddle – on your lot,” Trump said at a press conference. “I’ve seen it. In fact, when it was first shown to me, I said, ‘You’re kidding, aren’t you?’  But they weren’t kidding.”


Tom Pelton

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.

Tom Pelton

It’s a warm June night and a full moon is painting a silvery path across the gentle ripples on Delaware Bay.

I’m on the beach, southeast of Dover.   And from the darkness of the bay, I watch what looks like an invading force of army helmets with eyes on them emerge from the murk to crowd, clatter and scrape against each other along the shoreline.

These are horseshoe crabs – prehistoric creatures that have been summoned by full moons and high tides like this for hundreds of millions of years to perform this springtime mass mating ritual on the beach.


Think Progress

For decades, the federal government has neglected the infrastructure of Baltimore and other urban areas across the country -- allowing sewage systems to leak, water pipes to burst, and roads to become pock-marked with holes.

So, when Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail last year that he would invest a trillion dollars rebuilding American infrastructure, it seemed like the one area where urbanites and suburbanites, Democrats and Republicans, Trump and even Bernie Sanders, could potentially agree. 

It’s a patriotic impulse:  We need to rebuild a crumbling America.  But then, last week, Trump held a press conference to announce his actual plans. As it turns out, instead of spending more taxpayer money to improve America’s roads, bridges and pipes, Trump plans to do to the opposite.


Tom Pelton

Baltimore, my home, has its troubles. But one thing the city has done remarkably well over the last year is to encourage urban bicycling – which cuts down on traffic and air pollution, and supports a healthier quality of life.

As part of a new network of bicycle lanes, the city last fall opened a protected, double-wide bike lane down 2.6 miles of Maryland Avenue, connecting the Johns Hopkins University campus at 29th Street, in the north, to Pratt Street and the Inner Harbor, in the south.

In past decades, city officials have painted numerous bike lanes on streets, of course. But these have been essentially meaningless, because cars drive right over them, sometimes killing cyclists. But this new Maryland Avenue bike lane is different. It’s a biking superhighway, 10 feet wide, totally protected from traffic by a line of white plastic divider sticks, and then a row of parked cars, which have been moved a dozen feet away from the curb.


Maryland Department of Natural Resources

I was paddling down the Big Gunpowder Falls near Sparks, Maryland, when I saw a great blue heron standing on a log in the river, tall and elegant.   As I drifted closer, it launched into the air and flew over my head, its six-foot wingspan and knife-like beak all the more impressive at close range.

Nearby, atop the riverbank, was a house.  I thought:  what is the economic value of this heron to that homeowner? 

Would he be able to sell his house for $505,000 instead of $500,000 if a buyer saw the heron before agreeing to the price? Or maybe the location and the view of the river are all that matter in the fast-moving world of real estate transactions. 

Tom Pelton

It was just after dawn when I set out paddling in my kayak to find nature in one of the least natural places on Earth.

I had launched into the Patapsco River from Fort Armistead Park near the base of the Francis Scott Key Bridge south of Baltimore. Truck traffic roared overhead on Route 695.   Ahead of me, the morning sun sparkled silver in a rippling path toward the old Sparrows Point steel mill.  Behind my back rose the smokestacks of a pair of coal-fired power plants, a chemical factory, sewage plant, and the mounded back of the city’s Quarantine Road landfill.

But the sky was blue, the breeze was balmy, and out on the water I felt away from it all.

 

Kimberly Holzer

Around the world, ships moving from port to port and dumping their ballast water have often spread invasive species, including zebra mussels, toxic algae, parasites, and even cholera.

In an effort to crack down on the growing nuisance of exotic species in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, the U.S. Coast guard in 2004 imposed a new rule for most ships entering American ports. The ships were required to dump their ballast water hundreds of miles away from shore and instead fill up their tanks with water from the open ocean. This deep water typically contains fewer coastal life forms and more salt, which can kill fresh-water creatures like invasive zebra mussels.

But when scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, studied the impact of the new regulations, they discovered something unexpected: The number of marine hitchhikers multiplied instead of decreasing.

 


IFL Science

The Washington Post reported on Monday that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has set a deadline for humanity to find a new planet to live on.

100 years. That’s it.  After that, according to Professor Hawking’s projections, we pass the tipping point for messing up the Earth so badly, we’re all going to perish. So Hawking argues we’d better start seriously investing right now in long-distance space travel and technology that will allow interplanetary colonization.

As BBC put it, paraphrasing the scientist: “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”

 

Shenandoah Riverkeeper

Cows.  People don’t often think about the environmental impact of livestock.

But for more than three decades, the Chesapeake Bay region states have recognized that one of the most obvious and affordable ways to help clean up the bay is to fence cattle out of streams, where they defecate and release sediment by trampling the banks.  However, because of the political influence of the farm lobby, not one of the bay states requires streamside fencing on cattle farms.

More strangely, none of the states -- or even the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program --  knows, or even attempts to track, what percentage of farmers follow this best management practice to protect public waterways.

Cows wading into streams has been contributing to fecal bacterial contamination and odious algal blooms in Virginia’s Shenandoah River. So the nonprofit Shenandoah Riverkeeper organization last year decided to conduct its own survey of streamside cattle fencing, because the state had not.

Examining detailed aerial photographs from Google Earth, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper discovered that 80 percent of the 841 farms with both cattle and streams in Virginia’s biggest agricultural county – Rockingham – had failed to fence their animals out of the waterways.

 


Tom Pelton

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people marched in support of science in Washington D.C., waving signs with slogans such as “Science is the Poetry of Reality," “Defiance for Science,” and “Make America Smart Again.”

The obvious question is: Aren’t scientists supposed to be objective? Isn’t marching in the street and political advocacy like this the opposite of objectivity?

Several marchers I talked to made a distinction between the dispassionate process of searching for the truth And then, after the facts have been tested and are established, the need to passionately advocate for a system of government that acts on the basis of facts and objective truth and not ideology and propaganda.


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