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

  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.


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.

Marilaine Savard is a 41-year massage therapist and mother from Quebec who travelled to Baltimore last week to speak about an issue now before the Maryland General Assembly.

The subject she discussed with community and environmental activists at St.  John's of Baltimore United Methodist Church is the exponential growth in the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail car across the United States. 

Hydraulic fracturing has created a boom in oil and gas production in places like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. And so thousands of trains are carrying Bakken crude oil – which is unusually volatile and explosive–through cities including Baltimore and Savard's town of Lac Megantic, which is near Quebec’s border with Maine.

Savard told the harrowing story of what happened on the night of July 5, 2013 to Lac Megantic, a town of about 6,000 people and tourist destination beside a picturesque blue lake of about 10 square miles.


Natural gas is often touted as a “green” fuel that produces about half as much carbon dioxide pollution as coal when burned to generate electricity.

But new research suggests that so much gas escapes from thousands of leaks in pipes under city streets, as well as from industrial and drilling sites across the country, that the benefit of natural gas to the climate may be much less than people think.


In some ways, the recent scandal over lead in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, was unique. 

An appointee of Republican Governor Rick Snyder wanted to cut costs. So he switched from a clean and reliable source of drinking water – Lake Huron – to the more corrosive waters of the Flint River. This damaged the pipes, releasing toxic metal particles from old lead water lines and plumbing in homes.

Both the state and city then failed to add a required corrosion inhibiting chemical that could have easily and cheaply prevented what has become a national tragedy: the potential brain damage to thousands of children.

But in another way, the Flint story hints at a much broader problem with drinking water testing across the U.S., clean drinking water advocates and experts suggest.


Tundra Swan

Jan 28, 2016
chesapeakebay.net

The epic journey of tundra swans from Canada and the northern U.S. states to Maryland and Virginia is one of the most beautiful things you can see and hear in the Chesapeake region's winters. But the arctic angels are visiting less and less often, because water pollution and disease are destroying their food supply of underwater grasses and shellfish.

On Saturday, President Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Michigan, freeing up $5 million to help the city deal with a water contamination crisis.

The city’s drinking water supply was contaminated with lead – risking permanent brain damage to potentially thousands of city residents.  Why?  The state-appointed manager of the city tried to save money by switching water sources, from Lake Huron to the more corrosive waters of the Flint River, which damaged city pipes.

Marc Edwards is an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech and an international expert in drinking water who has been investigating the case. He said the tragedy in Flint has lessons for Baltimore and other aging cities with neglected pipes and infrastructure.


The Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opens today in Annapolis.  The most important environmental bill being proposed would provide money to help solve a problem that has been choking the life out of the Chesapeake Bay. 

Big poultry companies, like Maryland’s Perdue, own the nearly 300 million chickens raised every year on the Eastern Shore, but not the more than billion pounds of manure they produce. 

The companies dump the responsibility and cost of managing this waste on taxpayers and family farmers. And that financial burden is expected to grow because of new manure application limits issued by the Hogan Administration last year to reduce runoff pollution into the bay.


On January 1, Baltimore missed a deadline that had been imposed by a federal consent decree to fix its leaky sewer system and stop intentionally dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of the Environment are now discussing how much of an extension to give to Baltimore, and whether to penalize the city or loosen up the requirements of the cleanup agreement.

This is a subject I discussed last month on this program. Today, I am going to go into more depth about why, exactly, Baltimore missed the deadline – despite being given nearly 14 years and more than a billion dollars to fix the leaky pipes and stop its illegal sewage dumping.


Someday, when a history is written about the long and not always successful war to restore the Chesapeake Bay, a chapter will be devoted to one of the bay’s greatest heroes:  John Griffin.

Over more than three decades, Griffin labored – often behind the scenes, working 70 hour weeks-- for four Maryland governors as the state’s deputy secretary or secretary of Natural Resources.  With the change in administrations in January, Griffin – now 68 years old -- finally resigned from his final job with the state, as Governor Martin O’Malley’s chief of staff.


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