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.

Clean water activists with Blue Water Baltimore this month released the most recent report card on the health of Baltimore Harbor. They found that water quality worsened in 2015, falling to a 51 percent rating out of 100 – an F grade – compared to a 53 in 2014.

“We frankly did not see improvement in the bacteria levels in the harbor, Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls,” said David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with the organization.  "The bacteria levels remain really high, both during dry and wet weather, and as a result, our waterways are not safe for contact.”

This is newsworthy in the context that Baltimore over the last decade has spent almost a billion dollars –raised by tripling local sewer and water rates --with the goal of solving this problem by fixing its leaky sewer system.

A billion dollars spent by the Baltimore Department of Public Works, but no evidence the water is any cleaner.  


Scientists have long known that burning fossil fuels increases global temperatures by wrapping the world in an insulating blanket of greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide melts polar ice and also expands the volume of the oceans, driving up sea levels and causing coastal flooding.

But there is a second – invisible -- impact of fossil fuels on oceans: Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid.  Since the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of the oceans has jumped by a third – weakening the shells of clams, oysters, coral and plankton.

A new study, published yesterday by scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, suggests this acidification may also be having an unexpected impact on the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways: More frequent fish kills. 


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.


It’s just after sunrise, and James “Ooker” Eskridge, a Chesapeake Bay waterman and Mayor of Tangier Island, is in a skiff motoring across the harbor in his morning commute to his office.  The soft morning light illuminates rickety crab shacks on pillars above the water and workboats heading out into the bay.

Above it all rises a water tower, painted with a blue crab on one side and a huge cross on the other, representing the two things that keep this island town of 470 people afloat: the seafood industry and prayer.

When the mayor pulls up to his work shed on a platform over the water, he introduces his political staff: Four stray cats that work with him out here with his tanks full of soft crabs.

”That’s Condi Rice,” Eskridge says of the first cat. “That’s Sam Alito, John Roberts and Ann Coulter.”

The cats’ names hint at his conservative politics.  And yet, when he’s not tending his soft crab business, he spends much of his time on an issue that not many Republican office holders want to tackle:  The impact of climate change, which is driving up sea levels and rapidly eroding Tangier and scores of other low-lying islands in the bay and around the world.


When she was just 17 years old, Destiny Watford decided to take on the entire political establishment in Maryland over a development project proposed near her neighborhood in Baltimore’s Curtis Bay.

A New York-based company called Energy Answers was proposing to build what would be America’s biggest trash-burning incinerator in Fairfield, near the southern tip of the city.  The project would generate electricity by burning pulverized garbage. But it would also add air pollution to a frequently dumped-upon working-class neighborhood already burdened with some of the worst air quality and asthma in the state, not to mention a sewage plant, chemical factories, and coal-piers.


The Maryland General Assembly session ended at Midnight on Monday with the reading of the traditional Latin words “Sine Die,” meaning literally “without day.”  There is no tomorrow for bills that have not yet passed.

It was, in general, a mixed session for environmental legislation.  If it was a weather report, I’d call it stormy and overcast, with a few dazzling bursts of sun.  

On the positive side, lawmakers passed a bill that makes Maryland the first state to prohibit homeowners from using pesticides linked to the die-off of bees.  And legislators approved a study of oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay to determine if they are being overharvested.


Three decades ago, the great Chesapeake Bay writer Tom Horton wrote in the conclusion to his book, Bay Country: “Any meaningful cleanup of the bay will be literally impossible without a huge effort from the third of the watershed that lies in Pennsylvania.”

That effort from Pennsylvania – by far the bay’s biggest source of pollution -- never came. And so the restoration of the nation's largest estuary has hit a brick wall.

The Bay region states are approaching a critical 2017 mid-point assessment in the most recent Bay cleanup agreement: EPA's “pollution diet” for the bay.

These federal pollution limits, imposed in 2010, were hailed as “last, best chance” for the Chesapeake Bay because EPA was finally threatening penalties to states that failed to meet critical milestones while reducing their pollution by 25 percent by the year 2025.

But while Maryland and other neighboring states are on track to meet pollution reduction goals, Pennsylvania recently admitted that it is way off track.  


Populations of bees and other pollinators around the world have been in decline over the last decade. Research has suggested that one of the likely culprits is an increasingly popular class of insecticides call neonicitinoids.

“Neonics,” as they are called, are chemically similar to nicotine. The poison appears to work on the nerve cells of bees, making them intoxicated so they stop eating or wander away from their hives and die.   The seeds of nearly all corn and many other crops are soaked in neonics, so the toxin spreads throughout the plants and their pollen.

The European Union restricted the use of neonics in 2013.  And on March 19, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 97-38 in favor of a bill that would make Maryland the first state in the U.S. to limit the use of neonics. This followed a 32-14 vote by the state senate on March 9.


Ecologist John Parker walks through a corn field beside a stream. The water flows into the Chesapeake Bay six miles south of Annapolis.

This spring, instead of corn, Parker and his fellow scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have planted an alternative crop: eighteen thousand bamboo poles. Each is marked with colorful  flags -- orange, blue, red, and yellow.

These colors signify different species of tree saplings that Parker is planting --- red maple, tulip poplar, American elm, hickory, and a dozen others.  He is creating a diverse, native forest to replace a monoculture of corn, which requires lots of chemical fertilizers that seep into the stream and pollute the Bay.


The Environmental Film Festival is opening this week in Washington, D.C., and there is at least one movie playing that I strongly recommend.  It is filmmaker Josh Fox’s new documentary, which has the comically unwieldy title: “How to Let Go of the World and Learn to Love all the Things Climate Can’t Change.”

Fox was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for his first documentary, “Gasland.” It was an edgy work of investigative journalism into the hydraulic fracturing industry that featured infamous footage of people lighting their tap water on fire.

Fox’s new movie is radically different in both its tone and scope...


  Bonnie Bick is an unassuming person.  She’s a 72-year-old former flower child and pre-school teacher with a soft voice, who has little money and few possessions, but loves walking in the woods near her small brick house in southern Maryland.

The Maryland General Assembly held a hearing last week on a bill that would force poultry companies to take responsibility – and pay for – the management of their chickens’ waste to prevent it from polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

 “It’s the bill of the hour,” said Senator Joan Carter Conway, a Democrat from Baltimore and chair of the senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.  “Senate bill 497, the Poultry Littler Management Act.”

Here’s the background:  The 300 million chickens produced every year on Maryland’s Eastern Shore produce about a billion pounds of manure, which runs off of farm fields to pollute the bay.


  Legislation is once again being debated in Annapolis that would change the state’s controversial official song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” a confederate battle hymn that calls President Lincoln a “despot” and northerners “scum.”

But what should replace it? That’s the question that has tripped up similar legislation in past years. To solve that problem, I had a conversation with Bay Journal writer Rona Kobell, who published a blog article about the debate.  We listened to – and ruled out -- several alternative tunes that might better represent what people love about Maryland.

Marilaine Savard is a 41-year massage therapist and mother from Quebec who travelled to Baltimore last week to speak about an issue now before the Maryland General Assembly.

The subject she discussed with community and environmental activists at St.  John's of Baltimore United Methodist Church is the exponential growth in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail car across the United States. 

Hydraulic fracturing has created a boom in oil and gas production in places like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. And so thousands of trains are carrying Bakken crude oil – which is unusually volatile and explosive–through cities including Baltimore and Savard's town of Lac Megantic, which is near Quebec’s border with Maine.

Savard told the harrowing story of what happened on the night of July 5, 2013 to Lac Megantic, a town of about 6,000 people and tourist destination beside a picturesque blue lake of about 10 square miles.


Natural gas is often touted as a “green” fuel that produces about half as much carbon dioxide pollution as coal when burned to generate electricity.

But new research suggests that so much gas escapes from thousands of leaks in pipes under city streets, as well as from industrial and drilling sites across the country, that the benefit of natural gas to the climate may be much less than people think.


In some ways, the recent scandal over lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, was unique. 

An appointee of Republican Governor Rick Snyder wanted to cut costs. So he switched from a clean and reliable source of drinking water – Lake Huron – to the more corrosive waters of the Flint River. This damaged the pipes, releasing toxic metal particles from old lead water lines and plumbing in homes.

Both the state and city then failed to add a required corrosion inhibiting chemical that could have easily and cheaply prevented what has become a national tragedy: the potential brain damage to thousands of children.

But in another way, the Flint story hints at a much broader problem with drinking water testing across the U.S., clean drinking water advocates and experts suggest.


Tundra Swan

Jan 28, 2016
chesapeakebay.net

The epic journey of tundra swans from Canada and the northern U.S. states to Maryland and Virginia is one of the most beautiful things you can see and hear in the Chesapeake region's winters. But the arctic angels are visiting less and less often, because water pollution and disease are destroying their food supply of underwater grasses and shellfish.

On Saturday, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan, freeing up $5 million to help the city deal with a water contamination crisis.

The city’s drinking water supply was contaminated with lead – risking permanent brain damage to potentially thousands of city residents.  Why?  The state-appointed manager of the city tried to save money by switching water sources, from Lake Huron to the more corrosive waters of the Flint River, which damaged city pipes.

Marc Edwards is an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and an international expert in drinking water who has been investigating the case. He said the tragedy in Flint has lessons for Baltimore and other aging cities with neglected pipes and infrastructure.


The Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opens today in Annapolis.  The most important environmental bill being proposed would provide money to help solve a problem that has been choking the life out of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Big poultry companies, like Maryland’s Perdue, own the nearly 300 million chickens raised every year on the Eastern Shore, but not the more than billion pounds of manure they produce. 

The companies dump the responsibility and cost of managing this waste on taxpayers and family farmers. And that financial burden is expected to grow because of new manure application limits issued by the Hogan Administration last year to reduce runoff pollution into the bay.


On January 1, Baltimore missed a deadline that had been imposed by a federal consent decree to fix its leaky sewer system and stop intentionally dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment are now discussing how much of an extension to give to Baltimore, and whether to penalize the city or loosen up the requirements of the cleanup agreement.

This is a subject I discussed last month on this program. Today, I am going to go into more depth about why, exactly, Baltimore missed the deadline – despite being given nearly 14 years and more than a billion dollars to fix the leaky pipes and stop its illegal sewage dumping.


Someday, when a history is written about the long and not always successful war to restore the Chesapeake Bay, a chapter will be devoted to one of the bay’s greatest heroes:  John Griffin.

Over more than three decades, Griffin labored – often behind the scenes, working 70 hour weeks-- for four Maryland governors as the state’s deputy secretary or secretary of Natural Resources.  With the change in administrations in January, Griffin – now 68 years old -- finally resigned from his final job with the state, as Governor Martin O’Malley’s chief of staff.


Life on the Wing

Dec 29, 2015

Children are so sensitive to the natural world, sometimes all it takes is a single moment to alter the course of their lives.

Lincoln Brower is now 83 years old.  But he still remembers with perfect clarity a time one day when he was six and growing up in Northwest New Jersey.  He was lying on his stomach in the grass, near where his parents were playing tennis.

“In those days, the lawns were full of an array of weeds and wild plants and caterpillars galore,” Brower recalls at his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  “And this little copper butterfly appeared on a clover blossom, sipping nectar.  And I got really interested in that butterfly, probably because I was lying down really close to it. And I could see this gorgeous pattern on the wings.”


Thirteen years ago, the federal government sued Baltimore because its leaky sewer system was releasing so much raw sewage into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay it was violating the federal Clean Water Act.

To settle that lawsuit, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a consent decree that required the city to fix the problem and eliminate all sewage overflows by January 1, 2016.

  Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton and other experts recently discussed a great paradox of the bay cleanup effort during a forum held by the nonprofit Abell Foundation in Baltimore.

The federal and state governments have been successful in imposing regulations that have worked reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants, cars and power plants. But for the largest source of pollution the bay – farms – government continues to rely on mostly voluntary programs that do not appear to be working.

  At Baltimore Polytechnic high school, water gurgles through a series of 500 gallon tanks filled with fish.   The fat, foot-long tilapia produce waste that fertilizes basil and cabbage sprouts growing in pots suspended in the water. The plants help to filter the water and make it clean enough to recycle back into the fish tanks.


Every fall, thousands of chimney swifts migrate through Baltimore, swirling at night into an old smokestack in Hampden and other locations to sleep in sheltered spaces.


Not long ago on this program, I offered an analysis of what would be required to really save the Bay.


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