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

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.


When she was just 17 years old, Destiny Watford decided to take on the entire political establishment in Maryland over a development project proposed near her neighborhood in Baltimore’s Curtis Bay.

A New York-based company called Energy Answers was proposing to build what would be America’s biggest trash-burning incinerator in Fairfield, near the southern tip of the city.  The project would generate electricity by burning pulverized garbage. But it would also add air pollution to a frequently dumped-upon working-class neighborhood already burdened with some of the worst air quality and asthma in the state, not to mention a sewage plant, chemical factories, and coal-piers.


The Maryland General Assembly session ended at Midnight on Monday with the reading of the traditional Latin words “Sine Die,” meaning literally “without day.”  There is no tomorrow for bills that have not yet passed.

It was, in general, a mixed session for environmental legislation.  If it was a weather report, I’d call it stormy and overcast, with a few dazzling bursts of sun.  

On the positive side, lawmakers passed a bill that makes Maryland the first state to prohibit homeowners from using pesticides linked to the die-off of bees.  And legislators approved a study of oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay to determine if they are being overharvested.


Three decades ago, the great Chesapeake Bay writer Tom Horton wrote in the conclusion to his book, Bay Country: “Any meaningful cleanup of the bay will be literally impossible without a huge effort from the third of the watershed that lies in Pennsylvania.”

That effort from Pennsylvania – by far the bay’s biggest source of pollution -- never came. And so the restoration of the nation's largest estuary has hit a brick wall.

The Bay region states are approaching a critical 2017 mid-point assessment in the most recent Bay cleanup agreement: EPA's “pollution diet” for the bay.

These federal pollution limits, imposed in 2010, were hailed as “last, best chance” for the Chesapeake Bay because EPA was finally threatening penalties to states that failed to meet critical milestones while reducing their pollution by 25 percent by the year 2025.

But while Maryland and other neighboring states are on track to meet pollution reduction goals, Pennsylvania recently admitted that it is way off track.  


Populations of bees and other pollinators around the world have been in decline over the last decade. Research has suggested that one of the likely culprits is an increasingly popular class of insecticides call neonicitinoids.

“Neonics,” as they are called, are chemically similar to nicotine. The poison appears to work on the nerve cells of bees, making them intoxicated so they stop eating or wander away from their hives and die.   The seeds of nearly all corn and many other crops are soaked in neonics, so the toxin spreads throughout the plants and their pollen.

The European Union restricted the use of neonics in 2013.  And on March 19, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 97-38 in favor of a bill that would make Maryland the first state in the U.S. to limit the use of neonics. This followed a 32-14 vote by the state senate on March 9.


Ecologist John Parker walks through a corn field beside a stream. The water flows into the Chesapeake Bay six miles south of Annapolis.

This spring, instead of corn, Parker and his fellow scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have planted an alternative crop: eighteen thousand bamboo poles. Each is marked with colorful  flags -- orange, blue, red, and yellow.

These colors signify different species of tree saplings that Parker is planting --- red maple, tulip poplar, American elm, hickory, and a dozen others.  He is creating a diverse, native forest to replace a monoculture of corn, which requires lots of chemical fertilizers that seep into the stream and pollute the Bay.


The Environmental Film Festival is opening this week in Washington, D.C., and there is at least one movie playing that I strongly recommend.  It is filmmaker Josh Fox’s new documentary, which has the comically unwieldy title: “How to Let Go of the World and Learn to Love all the Things Climate Can’t Change.”

Fox was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 for his first documentary, “Gasland.” It was an edgy work of investigative journalism into the hydraulic fracturing industry that featured infamous footage of people lighting their tap water on fire.

Fox’s new movie is radically different in both its tone and scope...


  Bonnie Bick is an unassuming person.  She’s a 72-year-old former flower child and pre-school teacher with a soft voice, who has little money and few possessions, but loves walking in the woods near her small brick house in southern Maryland.

The Maryland General Assembly held a hearing last week on a bill that would force poultry companies to take responsibility – and pay for – the management of their chickens’ waste to prevent it from polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

 “It’s the bill of the hour,” said Senator Joan Carter Conway, a Democrat from Baltimore and chair of the senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.  “Senate bill 497, the Poultry Littler Management Act.”

Here’s the background:  The 300 million chickens produced every year on Maryland’s Eastern Shore produce about a billion pounds of manure, which runs off of farm fields to pollute the bay.


  Legislation is once again being debated in Annapolis that would change the state’s controversial official song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” a confederate battle hymn that calls President Lincoln a “despot” and northerners “scum.”

But what should replace it? That’s the question that has tripped up similar legislation in past years. To solve that problem, I had a conversation with Bay Journal writer Rona Kobell, who published a blog article about the debate.  We listened to – and ruled out -- several alternative tunes that might better represent what people love about Maryland.

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