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

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.


Pages