The Environment in Focus

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing Maryland's natural world.  There's a story behind every bend of the Chesapeake Bay's 11,684 miles of shoreline, in every abandoned coal mine in the Appalachian Mountains, in every exotic beetle menacing our forests and in every loophole snuck into pollution control laws in Annapolis.  Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday at 9:35 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Tom Pelton is a national award-winning environmental journalist, formerly with The Baltimore Sun.  He is now director of communications at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.   The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation, which is working to enhance the quality of life in Baltimore and in Maryland.  The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com

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  Michael Helfrich stands near a wall of weather-beaten concrete 10 stories tall and nearly a mile long that holds back the force of the Susquehanna River – the largest source of fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay.

Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, explains that the Conowingo hydroelectric dam, built in 1929, has been both a curse and a blessing to the nation’s largest estuary.  It blocks the passage of migratory fish upstream. But until recently, it has also been blocking about half of the soil, fertilizer and other heavy pollutants washed by rain from Pennsylvania farms and towns down into the Bay.

"The dam has accumulated about 185 million tons of sediment and pollution that otherwise would have entered the bay," Helfrich said.

Suddenly, as he spoke, a siren sounded beside the dam.  "Luckily, we’re not down by the river, because there’s the alarm saying that they are going to open some more turbines and the water is going to come up," he said, as a frothing surge of water boiled and grew near the base of the dam.  “That siren is the warning."

Alarms have been going off all over Maryland because of the Conowingo Dam.  Some have called it a pollution "time bomb" that could rattle bay cleanup plans because the Conowingo Reservoir, behind the dam, is now just about full with sediment. The dam's days as a pollution filter are done. And so now major storms scour millions of tons of sediment – loaded with phosphorus fertilizer, as well as more exotic chemicals-- and flush them over the dam down into the bay.


Tom Pelton

Privately, officials at the Baltimore Department of Public Works have been candid that they made a major mistake in a federally-mandated, billion-dollar project to upgrade the city’s leaky and overwhelmed sewer system.

By closing off 60 sewage outfalls before they increased the capacity of the system, city contractors caused sewage to overflow into hundreds or potentially thousands of city homes during rain storms, flooding basements with human waste.

"We didn’t really know the right order to do things in, necessarily," said Dana Cooper, general counsel for the city department, speaking in her office in November.   "And so when we closed those other 60 overflows that actually increased the number of basement backups that we saw in the city. Again, because the sewage has to go somewhere."

In public, however, city officials have taken a different position on who’s at fault for the rash of sewage floods in homes.  Almost 5,000 city residents reported backups last year. City and federal officials often blame the victims in Baltimore and suggest that the city ratepayers are negligent by throwing things like carpets, shoes and sanitary napkins into the sewer system.


In a small victory for clean water activists in Baltimore, the Maryland Department of the Environment has decided to halt the city’s practice of secretly dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Inner Harbor.

In an email on Friday, May 27, the state agency said it will require the Baltimore Department of Public Works to start following a state law that requires public notification for sewage discharges of more than 10,000 gallons.  However, under a revised federal consent decree guiding $2 billion in upgrades to Baltimore's sewer system proposed on Wednesday (after this radio program aired), the city will have until 2022 to stop most of its sewage discharges into the Inner Harbor's main tributary, the Jones Falls.  And overall, the city will have a 14 year extension -- until 2030 -- to complete all required repairs to its leaky sewer system, which were supposed to be finished by January 1, 2016.

David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, noted last week that the public reporting of sewage overflows is important.  “There is no reason the city shouldn’t be sharing that data with the public. People need to know when there are millions of gallons – or tens of thousands of gallons of sewage – pouring into our waterways, especially downstream here on the Inner Harbor where we have folks boating and recreating pretty regularly,” Flores said.

This change  in public reporting requirements -- and improved transparency by the city -- came because of this radio program’s investigation of the issue, with the Environmental Integrity Project, David Flores, and the Baltimore Brew news blog.


In 1987 and again in 2000, governors of the Chesapeake Bay region states signed agreements to reduce pollution and restore the health of the nation’s largest estuary. 

These agreements contained lofty language and voluntary programs, but none of the actual regulations that would be necessary to achieve the cleanup goals.

As a result, by most measures the Chesapeake Bay’s health got worse – not better – between 1987 and 2011.  According to statistics from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the bay’s overall health declined over this quarter century, as did the amount of dissolved oxygen in the bay, while the amount of algae increased, water clarity worsened, and underwater grasses were starved of light and large amounts died.

But then something miraculous happened five years ago: A turn-around. Most of these important trends reversed and started heading in a positive direction. Between 2011 and 2015, the bay’s overall health improved from a 38 score out of 100 to a 53, according to a recent University of Maryland report card on the bay’s health.  


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.


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