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 pelton.tom@gmail.com

Full Archive of Environment in Focus

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.


The Denver Post

Last week, the U.S. Senate held a confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt.

Maryland Senator Ben Cardin questioned Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General and anti-regulatory activist who, seven years ago, filed a legal action against EPA to challenge the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan. Cardin, a Democrat, wanted to know whether Pruitt, a Republican, would actually enforce the bay cleanup agreement as EPA Administrator.

The 2010 agreement between EPA and six Chesapeake region states is called the Bay “Total Maximum Daily Load” or TMDL, and it threatens federal penalties against states that do not meet goals of reducing their nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by about a quarter.


Artie Raslich/The New York Times

This week, my program is a musical one.   Here is a song by singer, songwriter, and environmentalist Sean Madden about the amazing and unexpected resilience of nature in the face of political turmoil and trouble.

The Maryland General Assembly’s annual session opens today in Annapolis.  By far the most important environmental issue that lawmakers will be debating over the next three months is a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Fracking and horizontal drilling techniques have transformed rural parts of neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia into oil and gas industrial zones over the last decade.  But Western Maryland, which has the same gas-rich shale rock formations, has not yet experienced any fracking.

Lawmakers in 2015 passed a two-year moratorium on the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into shale formations to release natural gas. But that moratorium on fracking will run out in October, and then the drilling could start here in Maryland if state legislators fail to act this winter.


Last month, Michigan’s lieutenant governor signed into law a bill that will prohibit cities or towns from banning plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam cups or other non-biodegradable fast-food containers that all too often end up as litter.

It’s not a ban on this trash. As The Washington Post reported, it’s ban on banning the trash.

The backstory on this bizarre anti-environmental law is that the Democratic-led county that includes Ann Arbor wanted to reduce the amount of plastic debris cluttering up its streams, streets and parks.  And so Washtenaw County, Michigan, followed the lead of San Francisco, Washington D.C., Montgomery County, Maryland, and other progressive communities and voted to impose a fee on plastic bags in an effort to discourage their use. 

This episode originally aired on October 17, 2016  

At the far southern end of the Chesapeake Bay, Jonathan White, a former rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was helping to lead a tour of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

While some dismiss climate change as a hoax, Admiral White described the very real threat that sea-level rise caused by global warming poses even to the military.

“If we just did nothing with this base, it’s easy to see that in a worst-case scenario of a couple of meters of sea level rise by the end of the century, much of this base would not be usable,” said White, an oceanographer and former director of the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. “You wouldn’t even be able to get to the ships to even pull the ships in to the piers here. So you are going to have to do something to respond to that level of sea level rise.”


The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s selection to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General, has made a career out of arguing that environmental regulation should be the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

Here’s Pruitt testifying before a Congressional committee on why he sued President Obama’s EPA to block federal greenhouse gas regulations – one of at least seven active lawsuits Pruitt has pending against the agency he may soon be leading.

Pruitt:  “The EPA was never intended to be our nation’s foremost environmental regulator.  The states were to have regulatory primacy.  That construct –a construct put in place by this body – has been turned upside down by this administration.  That’s why I’m here today. I’d like to explain to you why I so jealously guard Oklahoma’s sovereign prerogative to regulate in both a sensible and sensitive way.”


President elect Donald Trump recently announced that his selection for the U.S. Secretary of State is the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson.  His pick for EPA Administrator is the Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, a litigious foe of the EPA and lobbyist for his state’s large oil and gas industry.

Trump argues that unleashing American drilling and coal mining companies will create jobs. “Energy is under siege by the Obama Administration. Under absolute siege,” Trump said on the campaign trail. “The EPA, environmental protection agency, is killing these energy companies.”

That’s not factually accurate. A recent glut of natural gas, produced by technological innovation and hydraulic fracturing, is allowing gas to outcompete coal because gas is now much cheaper; and those same low prices are hurting the profits of oil and gas companies. 


Last month, the Maryland Department of the Environment petitioned EPA to try to get the federal agency to force coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to stop releasing so much air pollution, which drifts downwind and contributes to smog in Baltimore and elsewhere in Maryland.

The action was not unprecedented, because about 70 percent of the air pollution in Maryland comes from out of state. 

But here’s what was amazing:   Many of these power plants invested hundreds of millions of dollars to install air pollution control systems to filter out the pollutant of concern, nitrogen oxides.  And these plants, for years, successfully ran these filtration systems (which use a technology called Selective Catalytic Reduction).  But then a few years ago, they stopped. The plants just turned off the filters and let the pollutant, also called NOx, flow out freely.


In a laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, zoologist Rob Aguilar examines bottles containing preserved specimens of an astonishing array of different varieties of aquatic life.

“We have speckled swimming crabs, long finned squid, jackknife clam, ponderous arc,” said Aguilar, scrutinizing a thick mussel with a serrated shell.  “This is a fish-gill isopod.  And this is a big marine leach that prefers to be on skates and rays.”

Aguilar is engaged in a project to study the genetic codes of numerous species in the Chesapeake Bay. He and colleagues record them in public databases called GenBank and the Barcode of Life Database, so that researchers around the world can use the information to identify fish and other critters.


With the election of President Donald Trump – who has called climate change a “hoax” created by the Chinese – and Republicans in both the U.S. Senate and House, federal policy on controlling greenhouse gases is likely to be rolled backwards.

Trump’s Electoral College victory sent stock prices for coal companies, like bankrupt Peabody Energy, skyrocketing, while recently-thriving solar and wind power companies were punished by Wall Street.

But efforts to address climate change are not dead in the U.S.  Action for pollution control regulations is now shifting to the state level, with legislators in California, Maryland, Washington, Vermont, and other blue-leaning states vowing to press forward.


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