The Environment in Focus | WYPR

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 7:46 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

Full Archive of Environment in Focus

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.

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.



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 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.

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.

The New York Times

The Trump Administration is reportedly preparing an executive order that would lift a federal ban on drilling for oil off the East Coast and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

It is the most recent of several moves by Trump to strip away environmental regulations and gut the Environmental Protection Agency. He has proposed to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent, eliminating 3,200 positions, and terminating 50 programs nationally – including the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program.

The rationale for all this rolling back of environmental rules is that they have been allegedly killing U.S. fossil fuel industries, and in particular holding back innovative oil and gas businesses that should be enjoying more of a renaissance.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the liberation of American energy companies.


Capital News Service

Maryland’s General Assembly session concluded with cheers at Midnight on Monday. State lawmakers made history by passing a law that outlaws hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas in the state. 

Maryland is now only the second state – after Vermont – to legislatively ban fracking, and the first state with gas-rich shale rock deposits to do so.   Other states, including Florida, may potentially follow – presaging a new front in a national war over unconventional gas extraction.

Paul Roberts is a winery owner in Western Maryland. He helped to lead a grass-roots uprising of local business owners and others against fracking in the state through an organization called Citizen Shale. Many of its members feared that drilling rigs, noise and air pollution would hurt the tourism industry and human health in Garrett County.


Tom Pelton


With President Trump proposing to defund and dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, I thought I’d take a look at a bigger question: Why do we even need environmental regulations?

So I took a trip to the site of the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Chesapeake Bay: Hopewell, Virginia.

There, outside what is now a weedy lot beside a NAPA Auto repair shop at 501 East Randolph Street, back in 1974 and 1975 stood a small three-story building where a company called Life Sciences Products manufactured an insecticide, kepone.

The owners of Life Sciences had a financial incentive to rapidly manufacture 1.7 million pounds of this roach and ant-killing poison for a larger company, Allied Chemical.  Workers earning about $3.75 did not wear masks or gloves, and were told not to worry about the odorless white powder that coated their faces, clothes, and sandwiches at lunch.

The Toronto Star

President Trump recently proposed to eliminate all federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, reducing appropriations from $73 million a year down to zero.

His budget, which must still be approved by Congress, is part of a bigger plan to slash the funding and power of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Trump has proposed cutting EPA’s budget by 31 percent nationally, eliminating 3,200 positions, and terminating 50 programs nationally, including not only the Chesapeake Bay Program but also the Great Lakes restoration.

The Washington Post

It was one of the most stunning reversals in Maryland political history.  On the campaign trail, Governor Larry Hogan praised hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a potential economic gold mine for the state. And, once in office, the Republican proposed regulations that would have allowed fracking for the first time in Maryland, although the rules were put on hold by Democratic lawmakers.

But then, unexpectedly on Friday, Hogan called a press conference in Annapolis to suddenly announce that he was supporting a bill that would permanently outlaw fracking in the state.  His endorsement positions Maryland to become the first state in the U.S. with rock formations containing natural gas to legislatively ban fracking, which has been linked to air and water pollution and higher rates of asthma attacks and premature births.

Governor Hogan said: “Because the legislature has failed to enact our tough regulations, and because there is now a move by the senate president to allow for fracking, today I have decided to announce my full support for the Maryland fracking ban, which has been sponsored by Senator Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County.” 


National Park Service

Populations of frogs and other amphibians have been declining around the world and biologist Lisa Schloegel believes that she may have discovered why.

Schloegel and her fellow researchers concluded that the breeding and farming of bullfrogs in Brazil, Taiwan and China, and the international sales of these live frogs may be spreading a fungus that causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is often deadly in amphibians.

Tom Pelton

Last week, more than a thousand activists marched down Main Street in Annapolis, then paraded in a circle around the State House, chanting, cheering, and waving signs reading “Don’t Frack Maryland.” 

Even bagpipers joined the protest, with their wailing adding a militant sound to the protesters, two of whom wore skull masks and costumes that made them look like devilish oil rigs.

The people were voicing their support for a bill that would have Maryland lawmakers permanently ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

Two years ago, Maryland imposed a temporary moratorium on the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale rock to release gas. But that moratorium will expire in October, and fracking and drilling will likely begin in Western Maryland after that if lawmakers do not act this spring.

I’m at the Giant supermarket on York Road in Baltimore and I’m shopping with McKay Jenkins, a professor at the University of Delaware and author of a fascinating new book called Food Fight, about the battle over genetically modified organisms in the American farming and food system.

We wheel a cart down the store aisles, hunting for these organisms – called GMO’s for short. They are usually plants that have a gene from one species artificially inserted into another species. For example, scientists working for biotech companies take a type of bacteria commonly found in the dirt called Bacillus thuringiensis, remove some of its genetic material and inject it into corn. The resulting crossbreed (called Bt corn) manufactures a protein that acts as an insecticide to kill a crop-eating pest, the European corn borer.

Jenkins suddenly grabs and holds up a two liter bottle of Coke.


EPA Chesapeake Bay Program

The Chesapeake Bay defines Maryland geographically, historically and culturally.  And for millennia, what defined the Chesapeake Bay were oysters. The shellfish were not only an important food for people -- but, more importantly, they were the ecological cornerstone of the living bay, filtering and cleaning the bay’s waters; providing a home for blue crabs, fish and countless other species; and building reefs that were the necessary foundation for the reproduction of more life.

After the Civil War, however, watermen began ripping the lungs out of the bay by using ships to drag heavy metal rakes with bags across the bottom.  By 1891, Maryland’s oyster commissioner, Dr. William K. Brooks, began raising alarms that the bay’s seafood industry was not sustainable.

“Everywhere, in France, in Germany, in England, in Canada, and in all northern coast states [of the United States,] history tells the same story,” Brooks wrote.  “In all waters where oysters are found at all, they are usually found in abundance. And in all of these places the residents supposed that their natural beds were inexhaustible until they suddenly found that they were exhausted.”

Trash Free Maryland

Styrofoam:  It’s in our coffee cups, fast-food containers, and even those annoying packaging peanuts that are so devilishly hard to sweep up after you open a box.

Unfortunately this foam – a petroleum product known as polystyrene – ends up littered all over roadsides in Baltimore and elsewhere—and is a persistent floating eyesore in the Chesapeake Bay.Legislation being debated this week in the Maryland General Assembly would ban foam food containers and packaging and instead push companies to use biodegradable alternatives, including paper products.

MPR News

Yesterday, Republicans in the U.S. House Science Committee held a hearing titled, “Making EPA Great Again!”  It was for a bill that would, ironically enough, cripple the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by limiting its ability to use scientific data to create new regulations.

Last week, U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida went further, introducing legislation that would literally “terminate” EPA – an agency that, over the last half century, has saved more than 13 million American lives by reducing air pollution that triggers heart attacks and lung disease.

Along the same lines, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a rollback in all kinds of regulations – from environmental to financial.


The New York Times

With the increasing political polarization of Congress these days, it is sometimes hard to imagine anything positive coming out of Washington – especially with regard to environmental programs.

But there is at least one area where not only many Republicans and Democrats agree, but also – surprisingly -- environmentalists and oil industry lobbyists. And that is the need reform or repeal the Energy Policy Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2005. The act and a follow-up law mandate that about 10 percent of vehicle fuel in the U.S. be composed of corn-based ethanol.  As a result, 40 percent of the corn grown in America today is used for fuel instead of food, up from just 9 percent in 2001.

According to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation, higher corn prices created by the mandate inspired farmers to plant more than 7 million acres of crops from 2008 to 2012 alone – an area larger than the state of Massachusetts. That meant the plowing under of many natural grasslands and wooded areas, causing the destruction of wildlife habitat. More acres of corn also led to more water pollution from increased spraying of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.