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

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.


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.


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