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

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.


Last week’s Presidential election had little or nothing to do with environmental issues. And yet, even though voters didn’t vote on it, the environment is now squarely in the crosshairs of the incoming Trump administration.

In the few instances when the environment did come up during the campaign, Trump made it clear that he thinks global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and that about 70 percent of regulations should be eliminated.

Here’s Trump talking about slashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during a Republican primary debate in March.  "Department of Environmental Protection: We are going to get rid of it in almost every form.  We’re going to have little tidbits left.  But we’re going to take a tremendous amount out."


Two and a half years ago, the Maryland General Assembly imposed a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

That temporary ban on fracking will expire next October. And unless state lawmakers take action to extend the restrictions in the General Assembly session that starts on January 11, the oil and gas industry, which has been fracking for a decade in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, will move into Western Maryland.

State Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said he plans to introduce a bill to permanently outlaw fracking statewide, because there are shale rock formations with natural gas across Maryland.


Diamondback terrapin are a proud symbol of Maryland: a handsome turtle with a white neck spotted with black that is uniquely adapted to swimming in the mix of salty and fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Almost a decade ago, news stories about the sale of thousands of captured ‘terps from an Eastern Shore turtle dealer to brokers to who sold them in China sparked outrage among Maryland legislators, who passed a 2007 law banning the commercial trapping -- and even possession -- of terrapin.


River otters, which are native to the Chesapeake Bay region, love to plunder the tanks of water that hold soft crabs for watermen.

So crabbers like James “Ooker” Eskridge on Tangier Island have fought back by importing cats to guard their tanks.

But these these cats have spawned new problems.

To meet federal pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and other bay region states and counties are planning to rely on a politically fashionable --but questionable – scheme to reduce pollution.

That system is pollution trading.  Pollution trading is a strategy conceived by Republicans in the 1980s, when Reagan Administration held up free markets and de-regulation as magic elixirs for all that ails America.


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.”


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.


The Spirits of Jamestown

Sep 28, 2016

To really know the Chesapeake Bay, you have to know its past and its southern root – and that means the James River in Virginia.

And so on a recent evening, when the sun was sinking low, I dragged my kayak through brambles and shoe-sucking mud to launch into the waters that flow through the dark heart of American history.

I paddled into the sleepy current flowing past Jamestown Island.  As I pulled the thorns from my shirt and slid over the glassy water, it struck me as downright bizarre that the first English colonists in North America (after the ominous disappearance of the Roanoke settlers) would choose this briar-ridden, brackish swamp as the home base for their dreams.


The more than three-decade history of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort has been a little like a football game, in which – after a few quarters – the teams get bogged down around the 50 yard line with no score. So the officials move the goalposts closer.

Here’s an example of these goalposts on wheels:  Back in 1987, the bay region states and EPA signed an agreement to reduce nitrogen pollution by 40 percent by the year 2000.  But as the author Tom Horton pointed out in his book, “Turning the Tide,” shortly after the goal was set, “40 percent” was redefined to mean “40 percent of controllable sources,” which arbitrarily excluded half of all nitrogen sources – including from air pollution (although this is controllable) and from New York, Delaware and West Virginia, which had not signed on to the agreement.

With this subtle tweaking of this language, the target for 2000 suddenly moved much closer – essentially requiring a 21 percent reduction in pollution instead of a 40 percent cut. 


I was paddling down the Monocacy River in central Maryland on a cool fall afternoon, watching leaves from sycamores trees drift down into the rocky shallows, when a bald eagle flew from a branch over the river. 

At first, I was startled by the eagle’s closeness to me as it launched, and by its sudden and powerful wing strokes and massive silvery head.

But then I thought to myself: “Oh, it’s just a bald eagle. They’re everywhere these days.”  My mental shrug – my ‘so what?’ -- made me reflect.  All too often, we take environmental progress for granted, because it is so common around us.


Almost a century ago, an unknown railway clerk on Maryland’s Eastern Shore revolutionized the world’s way of farming.

His name was Arthur Perdue and he’d never even been a farmer.  But he was brilliant in understanding the importance of transportation and organization in moving large numbers of chickens from rural areas up to big cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

The story of how Perdue’s business inspired a global revolution in how hogs, cows and other farm animals are raised in factory-like conditions is told in a new book by Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  It’s called “Chickening Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals and Consumers,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


Diamondback terrapin are a proud symbol of Maryland: a handsome turtle with a white neck spotted with black that is uniquely adapted to swimming in the mix of salty and fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay. 

Almost a decade ago, news stories about the sale of thousands of captured ‘terps from an Eastern Shore turtle dealer to brokers to who sold them in China sparked outrage among Maryland legislators, who passed a 2007 law banning the commercial trapping -- and even possession -- of terrapin.

Jack Cover, general curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, was among those who feared for the turtle’s declining populations.

 “Basically the bay’s ecosystems could not produce terrapin at a fast enough rate to satisfy that market demand,” Cover said. “And there was an insatiable demand coming from Asian markets in the years prior to the closing of the commercial fishery.”

But, oddly enough, nine years after the ban, the Eastern Shore turtle breeding and dealing business that triggered the state action is not only still in business, but has more than doubled in size, according to state records.


For 80 percent of Maryland residents, when we flush the toilet, the waste gets treated in a sewage plant to protect the Chesapeake Bay.  State taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the state’s largest sewage plants with state-of-the-art technology.

But 20 percent of state households – mostly those in rural areas – use a far more primitive waste disposal system:  A septic tank.  They are basically pits underground that are designed to slowly leak pollutants into the groundwater and nearby streams.

Septic tanks were not much of a problem when they served a few scattered farmhouses. But then developers began building whole cities of McMansions out in rural areas linked to these old fashioned, leaky waste pits. And that meant more pollution oozing into the bay.

Four years ago, Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration imposed regulations to help address this problem. The rules mandate that any new homes built in areas not served by sewage treatment plants need to install septic systems with the best available nitrogen removal technology, which can cost $10,000 per house.

When Republican Governor Larry Hogan took office last year, real estate developers and their allies in rural county governments complained that the additional costs were hurting profits and suppressing the sales of new homes in places like Carroll and Frederick counties. On so on Monday, the Hogan administration responded by revoking O’Malley’s rule. 


  Blue crabs are an important part of the Chesapeake region’s culture, diet, and economy. But crab remains are rare in archeological sites around the Bay. This has led some scientists to believe that Native Americans did not eat the beautiful swimmers that today we find so delicious.

"What we know about Native Americans ate is based on some historic records, but also on looking at the trash piles that Indians left, mostly on the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay," said Tuck Hines, Director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. "And the majority of those trash piles are made up of oyster shells. But not much in the way of blue crab remains are generally found in those trash piles or 'middens.'"


EPA Chesapeake Bay Program

It was just before sunrise, and in the shadow of the Domino's sugar plant in Baltimore Harbor three friends were fishing from a small boat. Nearby, even though it was on a Sunday, employees were hard at work outside the factory in hardhats and yellow vests, using a giant crane to unload a Panamanian freighter.   The sugar plant’s nearly century-old, eight-story brick building rose up over the ship next to three metal tanks labelled "blackstrap molasses."

The fishermen used an electric motor to purr slowly along beside a long wooden pier, casting their lines into the dark, smooth water.  A cool breeze stirred, the sun rose above the horizon, and light flashed off the glass office buildings of downtown Baltimore like they were on fire.

After a while, one of the fishermen caught something – and reeled in a striped bass.

  There is a growing movement to measure the worth of nature by quantifying its economic value.  Trees, for example, provide billions of dollars in "ecosystem services" by producing oxygen for humans and absorbing our carbon dioxide pollution.   What, then, is the value of fireflies? I thought about this as I sat on a bench on a summer night, watching a constellation of tiny golden lights wink and wander over the shaggy grasses and darkened trees in the park near my home.

I suppose you could argue that the aesthetic value of fireflies enhances the beauty of the park, and therefore increases the real estate values of the houses around it.

But that’s a stretch. And in fact, real estate development over the last several decades has been causing a decline in firefly populations.


  A growing number of scientific studies link hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Pennsylvania to health problems, including asthma attacks, sore throats, eye irritation, bloody noses and premature births.

The research is being cited by public health advocates in Maryland as evidence that the state should not allow fracking, which involves the blasting of water mixed with chemicals into shale rock formations to release gas.

A two year moratorium on fracking in Maryland expires in October of next year. A political fight is expected in this January’s General Assembly session over whether to open up the state to unconventional gas drilling.

The most recent study was led by researcher Sara Rasmussen at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She and colleagues examined data from the hospital records of more than 35,000 asthma patients across Pennsylvania and found that those who live near larger or more numerous fracking wells were 1.5 to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks as patients who lived farther away.


  It's a hot afternoon in Tuscarora, Maryland, and dairy farmer Chuck Fry is feeding 170 of his Holstein and Jersey cows in an open barn longer than a football field, as huge fans whirl to cool the animals off.  He then leads a visitor to a pair of tanks holding milk's byproduct.

"For every gallon of milk I get I am benefited by three gallons of manure," said Fry, President of the Maryland Farm Bureau. "Now, that’s a curse and a blessing.  We use that three gallons of manure to grow next year’s crops. So we store it and treasure it because it has tremendous value."

But manure also has a tremendous impact on the Chesapeake Bay, with farm runoff the single largest source of pollution in the estuary. And so Maryland, four years ago, imposed regulations to require farmers to mix and incorporate manure into the soil of their fields to reduce runoff, and prohibit spreading in the winter when the ground is frozen and crops can’t absorb it.

The pollution control rules were to take effect July 1. But because Fry and his allies complained to Governor Hogan’s administration about the cost to the state’s 430 dairy farmers, the administration has proposed to weaken the regulations.  "Those regulations would have driven those dairy farmers out of business," Fry argued, explaining the rules require the construction of manure storage tanks that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.


 I was on vacation in Michigan and I was amazed to see no bottles or cans littering the sides of roads, or in Lake Michigan or the Galien River where I went kayaking and sailing.

This struck me, because it was in sharp contrast to Maryland.  Everywhere I go in my home state, I see cans and bottles strewn at bus stops, floating in farm ditches on the Eastern Shore, even trashing the beaches and marshlands of the most remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay.

Why is Maryland so much trashier than Michigan?  The Great Lakes have much less garbage floating in them than the Chesapeake Bay we claim to love. The reason is simple: Michigan residents recycle 95 percent of the cans and bottles they use– almost four times the rate that we here in Maryland recycle.  We throw most of our beverage containers away -- into landfills or onto roadsides, where they end up in streams and the bay.


Often on this program, I talk about the news. Today, I’m going to talk about how to get away from the news.

I bought a kayak on Craigslist for $100.  On Saturday, I strapped it to the roof of my car and drove 20 minutes north from my home in Baltimore to the Big Gunpowder Falls river in Sparks.

I launched into the stream at a place where it’s only about six inches deep, and shaded by sycamores.  The sun pierced the leafy canopy in spots to light up the streambed, which looked like a sandy road cobbled with gold.

My kayak, being cheap, lacks a rudder. And so the current swirled me sideways.  At first, I corrected my course with my paddle. But then I stopped trying, leaned back, and just floated backwards, looking up above the wind-blown treetops into the clouds piled high in the brilliant blue sky. It was a great way to look at the world -- instead of always fighting the current, worrying about where I’m going.


Most consumers know the ‘buy local’ and 'organic' labels for produce. But not everyone knows that just because something is grown locally and organically does not mean it is good for the Chesapeake Bay.

After all, factory-farmed chicken from Maryland’s Eastern Shore is local, but organic manure from this industry and Pennsylvania dairy farms are major sources of water pollution.  People who want to pick food that is healthy for both the bay and their bodies should consider supporting visionary farmers who are also dedicated to clean water.  That would include farmers like Brett Grohsgal, 56, who has been running the Even’ Star Organic Farm in southern Maryland for almost 20 years.

Instead of growing vast fields of a monoculture – like corn or soybeans –  Grohsgal allows half of his 100 acres in St. Mary’s County to remain forested.  And he aggressively rotates 70 different crops -- including cucumber, sweet potatoes and flowers -- from plot to plot on much of his remaining land. To protect the health of the two streams that flow through his property, he planted rows of black locust trees and loblolly pines to act as natural water filters.

Grohsgal is part of the new "Fair Farms" movement in Maryland.  Fair Farms is an alliance of 90 farmers, environmental organizations and farmers that supports growers who are not only organic, but also using practices like forested buffers along streams, which many conventional farmers do not use.


  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.


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