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.

As the Chesapeake Bay region states near a critical 2017 mid-point in a federal effort to reduce pollution in the nation’s largest estuary, the evidence is increasingly clear that pollution from Pennsylvania farms is the largest single roadblock to cleaning up the bay.

Jeff Corbin is the Chesapeake Bay “czar” (top advisor) at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA is trying to cut pollution into the bay by about 25 percent by the year 2025 through a set of pollution limits called the Total Maximum Daily Load.

 “We acknowledge in our own assessments that we are behind.  And a lot of that – about 80 percent of that gap – belongs to Pennsylvania,” Corbin said.  “And because they are relying so heavily on agriculture, about 80 percent of their own gap has to come from agriculture.  So it’s a significant shortfall.”   

The Ugly Apple

Sep 9, 2015

An apple tree grows in the last place you’d expect to find the Garden of Eden: beside a street in Baltimore City.  The fruit on this tree grows plump, but mottled with spidery black splotches.

I found the ugly apples while on a jog through a park near my neighborhood,  Evergreen.  And so I brought a few of the monsters home as kind of a freak-show curiosity to show my family. I lined them up them on the window sill in our dining room. And for a while, we were afraid to touch them – or even to go over to that side of the room, for fear that – I don’t know, the black plague might ooze out of a wormhole.

But then, I screwed up my courage and plunged a knife into one of the greenish black fruits.

In June, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration imposed new regulations on poultry manure meant to reduce a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The phosphorus management rules mean that as much as two thirds of all chicken litter once used as fertilizer on Eastern Shore farm fields will be homeless. Farmers will no longer be able to spread the waste in fields, just to get rid of it.

That creates mountains of headaches for farmers like Michelle Chesnick, who grows  a half million chickens a year, which produce about two million tons of manure.

“ You have to ask yourself?  Where does it all go?” Chesnick asked. “What do we do with it now? I don’t know where it is going to go.”

In an attempt to answer this question, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has been giving away millions of dollars in grants to experimental projects that will recycle the manure into a range of innovative and useful products.

Earlier this month, a fisherman in southern Maryland hooked into something toothy and alien in a creek off the Potomac River. It was a record-breaking, 17 pound snakehead fish, native to Asia.

Where did this invasive species end up?

At the Alewife restaurant, at 21 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore.   Chef Chad Wells was the first person in Maryland to cook up a snakehead 13 years ago, when the predatory, fast-reproducing fish first appeared in the state.

Since then, Wells has championed the idea that the best way to fight invasive species is to eat them. 

On Friday in Ocean City, Maryland, an armada of 100 kayakers – the captain wearing a pirate hat – paddled up to the town’s waterfront convention center.  The kayaktivists waved signs proclaiming “Don’t Drill the Atlantic!”...”Kill the Drill!”…and “Don’t BP my OC!”

The self-proclaimed “Sea Party Coalition” called on local government officials attending the Maryland Association of Counties convention, inside the building, to oppose the Obama Administration’s proposal to open up the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil drilling.

“It wouldn’t take a BP-sized oil spill to be catastrophic,” said Matt Heim, outreach coordinator for the Assateague Coastal Trust. “If Ocean City’s beaches were closed even for a weekend in the summertime, the impact could have really big consequences for local people and businesses here.”

Last week, President Obama released regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants. The reaction among many Republicans was that the plan to reduce greenhouse gases was heavy-handed and would trigger a spike in electricity bills -- and possibly blackouts.

“Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who is from the coal producing state of Kentucky has already been a very, very vocal opponent of this,” Fox News reported. “In fact he wrote all 50 governors urging them to reject these kinds of EPA regulations. He called them ‘extremely burdensome’ and ‘costly.’”

How burdensome would Obama’s Clean Power Plan be, exactly?  Well, the regulations require a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions nationally by 2030.  But that number is based on a starting point of 2005.  Emissions from power plants have already fallen by 16 percent in the 10 years since. That means the electric utility sector would only have to trim its carbon pollution by another 16 percent over the next 15 years – or, by about one percent a year. That’s less than the rate of decline that has already been underway for a decade.

In the year 2000, Maryland and the other Chesapeake Bay region states set a goal of increasing the number of oysters in the bay by 10 fold by 2010.   But despite taxpayer-funded projects to plant millions of young oysters, the number of oysters in the bay actually fell by half over that decade, plummeting to just a third of one percent of historic levels in the northern bay.  The continued decline of the bay’s keystone species was in part because of disease, and in part because watermen continued to harvest oysters at rates far beyond what was sustainable.

Since 2010, oyster populations in the bay have begun to creep upward again. Good weather conditions have helped reproduction. And in 2010 Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration created sanctuaries to protect 24 percent of the bay’s remaining oyster reefs.

This fragile progress may be threatened, however, by a new push by watermen under Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration to open up these no-harvesting sanctuaries and expand power dredging for oysters in the bay.

  “These oyster sanctuaries as we got them now, I don’t see how they are benefitting anyone,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. 


This spring, an outbreak of avian flu among chickens in the Midwest killed about 47 million birds and drove up the price of eggs across the country, causing them to nearly double.

The germs responsible, called the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A viruses (H5N2, H5N8, and H5N1), are believed to have come from Asia and are spread by migrating ducks and geese. Wildfowl carry the viruses but don't get sick from them, and neither do people – so far.  But chickens and turkeys confined in commercial poultry houses are rapidly wiped out by the disease.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is predicting that the avian flu will likely hit the state’s Eastern Shore this fall as ducks migrate from the upper Midwest and Canada. The disease could threaten Maryland’s billion-dollar-a-year poultry industry.

This is the sound of the giant armadillo that is trying to reproduce in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It’s a clattering, splashing machine covered with a shell of stretched fabric and metal.  The futuristic-looking device uses a water wheel and the power of the largest river flowing into the harbor --as well as a glimmering solar panel on its back -- to drive mechanical rakes and a conveyor belt that pull trash from the river before it can pollute  the Inner Harbor.

Daniel Chase, is a partner in Clearwater Mills, the company that built the water wheel trash interceptor, better known as the Trash Wheel, which is located next to Baltimore’s Pier 6 Concert Pavillion.

 “It picks up all the trash that comes down the Jones Falls, because every time it rains, all the trash in the streets gets swept into the storm drains and comes down the river,” Chase said. “And we are here to catch it before it spreads out into the harbor. We have deployment booms that guide it to our conveyor, and then our conveyor loads it directly into a dumpster, and then the dumpster goes to shore, and gets taken to RESCO for the incinerator, where it gets burned and turned into energy.”

Some aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere may actually be helped by the rising carbon dioxide levels that are causing global warming, researchers suggest.

Underwater grass beds are critically important to the Bay and other waterways, because they produce oxygen, filter out sediment, feed ducks, and provide shelter for young crabs and fish.