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.

Fred Tutman guided a motorboat across a wide expanse of water fringed by trees in southern Maryland.

 “So we’re on the Patuxent River, roughly the central portion of the 110 mile linear watershed,” said Tutman, 57, a former television reporter and producer turned environmental advocate. “This is called jug bay, which is basically a big nature preserve.”

 A field of lily pads slid past, their heart-shaped leaves floating on the shallow water. Bright yellow blossoms on long stalks winked just beneath the surface.

Tutman is a seventh-generation farmer who grew up beside the river. For the last 11 years, he’s devoted his life to running a nonprofit organization, called Patuxent Riverkeeper, that is dedicated to cleaning up the waterway.

 “My job is to protect water quality,” Tutman said, as a great blue heron flew overhead.   “And the way I do that is through community organizing, rallying people, building enthusiasm, and empowering people to fight for the river.”

As he spoke, between the trees at the far end of the lake-like widening of the waterway, the smokestacks of Maryland’s largest coal-fired power plant rose.  The Chalk Point Generating Station looked almost like the City of Oz – but a dark Oz -- looming over the field of yellow lilies.

Last week, Pope Francis released a landmark document that outlined the Catholic Church’s official position on climate change.

The papal encyclical, titled “On Care for Our Common Home,” made it clear to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – including at least three Republican climate change deniers running for President  – that reducing greenhouse gas pollution is a moral necessity, not just a political or economic issue. 

The poor, especially in Africa, suffer disproportionately from droughts, heat waves, flooding and famine caused by global warming.  And the Pope wrote that the scientific evidence is clear:  This warming is being driven by a culture of consumption in rich nations, including the United States.

 “We have come to see ourselves as (the Earth’s) lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” Pope Francis wrote. “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

The implication is that denying the science – or doing nothing – is not just wrong. It’s a deadly sin.  And the pope went beyond just the issue of climate change. He pointed to a wave of environmental problems being caused by over consumption, including deforestation, water shortages, and mass extinctions of animals and plants.

Once nearly extinct in the East, beaver populations are booming.  Their comeback, however, is creating complications for storm water pollution control systems, which beavers love to dam up.

Stephanie Boyles-Griffin, director of wildlife response for the Humane Society of the U.S., is convincing governments to use devices called "beaver deceivers." They foil beaver dams in a way that does not kill the animals.

As the gray clouds parted and a brilliant blue sky opened up, I saw that the kayakers had picked perhaps the most beautiful place on the Chesapeake Bay to set up camp.  A row of pine trees towered over a sandy bluff and a stretch of beach that looked like it must have 500 years ago.  

A three-day paddling and camping expedition down the lower eastern shore  of Virginia to the mouth of the bay had been organized by Chesapeake Bay educator and naturalist Don Baugh, with help from his friend, the renowned bay author, Tom Horton.

“You know, for me, as an environmental writer – and for Don, as an environmental educator – we deal way too much with all the parts of the bay that are in trouble, or are non-existent,” said Horton, gazing out at the water as their team of 20 paddlers ate breakfast and readied their gear. “And it’s very important for us, and for a lot of the people who come with us, to get out in the parts of the bay – the considerable parts, that are still pretty nice, like this one.”

As he spoke, light glistened off the waves, and a cow-nosed ray lifted a tip of its wing from the water.

 “We spend a lot of time lamenting and talking about what we’ve lost,” Horton said.  “But you have to celebrate the considerable amount that’s still here, or frankly you’d burn out in these ‘save the world’ professions, like being an environmentalist.”

Ten years ago, frustrated by the slow pace of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort and facing re-election, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich launched what he touted as a grand experiment in bay restoration.

He promised to concentrate $20 million in water pollution control projects into one small Eastern Shore river, the Corsica.  The goal was to find out if Maryland could quickly improve water quality in one troubled waterway within its own boundaries.

“What really appealed to be about this project, and what I loved – maybe as a lawyer – was that we could isolate one river and bring the best practices, and every level of government and nonprofit organizations, to focus on what works and what doesn’t work,”  Ehrlich said.  “What really appealed to me, most of all, was that could measure it.”

Well, 10 years later, let’s measure the success of the Corsica River project.   A review of the data shows that the effort achieved about two thirds of its concrete project goals. But it fell short of its ultimate target of improving water quality in the main section of the Corsica River.  The reasons for this murky result provide lessons that can be applied to the larger bay cleanup.

Richard Moncure Jr. is the son of a Chesapeake Bay waterman. But as fish and oyster populations in the bay fell, the prospects of his family’s line became as murky as the estuary itself.  So first he first studied religion.  Then he joined the Peace Corps.

  “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future,” the 35-year-old confessed while sitting on a chunk of cement beside the wind-swept, brown waters where he used to fish with his father. “I knew Jesus was a fisherman. But I had a lot of questions.”

During a two-and-a-half-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps in Zambia, met African watermen who had so badly overfished their lake they had nothing left.  Moncure’s job was to teach them sustainable fishing. He instructed them in the business of fish farming: how to grow their own tilapia in ponds, instead of netting the few remaining fish from the lake.

Although the effort was successful, the whole time he was in Africa, Moncure couldn’t help thinking about home.  And when his mission ended, Moncure decided to return to the Chesapeake and his family’s traditional businesses. 

Eighteen years ago, Maryland was gripped by the Pfiesteria crisis. Governor Parris Glendening closed off parts of three Eastern Shore rivers because of reports that a toxic micro-organism – Pfiesteria piscicida  -- was causing fish kills and memory loss in watermen.

Headlines in The Washington Post headlines warned of “the cell from hell.”  Panic drove down sales of Chesapeake Bay seafood.  The source of the outbreak: manure from Eastern shore poultry farms that fed toxic algal blooms.

In the nearly two decades since then, the manure runoff problem has continued and even worsened. But no more fish kills or illnesses have been attributed to Pfiesteria, which seemed to vanish as inexplicably as it appeared.

So what happened?   Was Pfiesteria just a bad dream? There is growing evidence that the Pfiesteria frenzy was a case of scientific error that triggered an over-reaction by government, journalists, and consumers.

Call of the Coywolves

May 12, 2015

Coyotes, which are native to the West, over the last three decades have been moving into Maryland and multiplying in suburban and even urban environments like Baltimore.   

It’s early morning and sun blazes down, flashing off the rapids of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Woodie Walker stands in waders, flicking a fly fishing line into the rain- swollen waters an hour south of Washington, D.C.   All around him, the silvery blue backs of scores of fish flash like blades from the gray-green current and then disappear.

It is the running of the shad, an annual springtime ritual in which the migratory fish surge up Chesapeake Bay tributaries to spawn.   Cormorants stand on the rocks, feasting on the profusion of fish, as vultures circle overhead.

Walker, a conservationist with an environmental group called the Friends of the Rappahannock, said he has seen an increase in several species of fish in recent years – a trend confirmed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

 “The hickory shad is doing very well, and the American shad is doing better," Walker said.  "A lot of the reason is that 11 years ago, Friends of the Rappahannock and other partners, including the Army Corps of Engineers, removed a dam about 5 miles upstream from here. And that dam was obviously an impediment to the migratory fish -- the shad and the striped bass. Removing the dam has really improved access for fish, and as a result our fishery is getting better.”

The Obama Administration this summer is scheduled to release final rules meant to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants by nearly a third within 15 years.

The so-called Clean Power Rule would be a significant step forward in addressing climate change, because power plants are the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the U.S.   The EPA regulations would eliminate as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking 150 million cars off the road – almost two thirds of America’s vehicles.

Before the rule can take effect, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been meeting with governors and offering states a legal blueprint to challenge the Constitutionality of the regulations. His goal is to stop the rules by tying them up in court.