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

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.


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