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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

Life on the Wing

Dec 29, 2015

Children are so sensitive to the natural world, sometimes all it takes is a single moment to alter the course of their lives.

Lincoln Brower is now 83 years old.  But he still remembers with perfect clarity a time one day when he was six and growing up in Northwest New Jersey.  He was lying on his stomach in the grass, near where his parents were playing tennis.

“In those days, the lawns were full of an array of weeds and wild plants and caterpillars galore,” Brower recalls at his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  “And this little copper butterfly appeared on a clover blossom, sipping nectar.  And I got really interested in that butterfly, probably because I was lying down really close to it. And I could see this gorgeous pattern on the wings.”


Thirteen years ago, the federal government sued Baltimore because its leaky sewer system was releasing so much raw sewage into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay it was violating the federal Clean Water Act.

To settle that lawsuit, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a consent decree that required the city to fix the problem and eliminate all sewage overflows by January 1, 2016.

  Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton and other experts recently discussed a great paradox of the bay cleanup effort during a forum held by the nonprofit Abell Foundation in Baltimore.

The federal and state governments have been successful in imposing regulations that have worked reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants, cars and power plants. But for the largest source of pollution the bay – farms – government continues to rely on mostly voluntary programs that do not appear to be working.

  At Baltimore Polytechnic high school, water gurgles through a series of 500 gallon tanks filled with fish.   The fat, foot-long tilapia produce waste that fertilizes basil and cabbage sprouts growing in pots suspended in the water. The plants help to filter the water and make it clean enough to recycle back into the fish tanks.


Every fall, thousands of chimney swifts migrate through Baltimore, swirling at night into an old smokestack in Hampden and other locations to sleep in sheltered spaces.


Not long ago on this program, I offered an analysis of what would be required to really save the Bay.


 

James "Ooker" Eskridge is a waterman on Tangier Island, in the southern Chesapeake Bay.   He's also mayor of this remote crabbing village of 700 people. But as he motored through the harbor, he confessed that even he could not handle the lawlessness that had hit the town’s crab shacks. 

A new scientific study concludes that pregnant women who live near hydraulic fracturing sites face an increased risk of giving birth prematurely, which can cause permanent learning disabilities in children.

Dr. Brian Schwartz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues  examined the electronic hospital records of more than 9,000 women in Pennsylvania who gave birth to almost 11,000 babies between 2009 and 2013.

The researchers plotted the women’s addresses on a map and compared them to the locations of fracking sites, which have multiplied across Pennsylvania and much of the U.S. over the last decade. The scientists found that the women who lived closest to the natural gas wells had a 40 percent greater chance of giving birth prematurely.


On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced new efforts by the Obama Administration to cut down on overfishing and illegal fishing, which are severely depleting populations of marine species around the world.

“We need to double down on stopping illegal fishing, which has grown into at least a $10 billion-a-year industry,” Kerry said.  “We have to make illegal fishing harder and more expensive to get away with. And the way to do that is with more vigorous enforcement that puts as many thugs as possible behind bars.”

Kerry spoke at the international Our Oceans conference in Chile.  But the phenomena he described – including deception and fraud in the sale of seafood – is also common here in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization Oceana used DNA testing to examine the true origins of a food that is central to the identity of Maryland:  crab cakes.  Oceana bought 90 crab cakes that were described as “Chesapeake blue crab” from 86 different restaurants in Maryland – and found that 38 percent of them were mislabeled.

In Baltimore and Annapolis, almost half of the crab cakes were actually made from species of crabs from Asia – most often, the Indo-Pacific blue swimming crabs that were likely caught in places like Indonesia or the Philippines.


Last week, Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the White House. The Pope praised President Obama’s new regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from power plants as an important step toward combatting climate change.

His Holiness described the efforts to control greenhouse gas pollution as a moral imperative.

“Climate change is a problem we can no longer be left to future generations,” Pope Francis said. “When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of our history. We still have the time to make the change needed.”

The next day, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the White House to make a major announcement about his country’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas pollution.  Presidents Xi and Obama released a joint statement saying that China would impose a “cap and trade” program by 2017 that would impose fees on factories and utilities that burn fossil fuels, with the goal of encouraging more solar, wind and clean energy.


  One of my favorite photographs is of my grandmother when she was a young girl, sprawled on her side on a raft in a river on a summer afternoon. Her head is resting on her arm, like she’s floating on a bed. The look on her face is one of contentment – like she wanted to lie there forever, absorbing the sun, feeling the gentle touch of the waves.

As the Chesapeake Bay region states near a critical 2017 mid-point in a federal effort to reduce pollution in the nation’s largest estuary, the evidence is increasingly clear that pollution from Pennsylvania farms is the largest single roadblock to cleaning up the bay.

Jeff Corbin is the Chesapeake Bay “czar” (top advisor) at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA is trying to cut pollution into the bay by about 25 percent by the year 2025 through a set of pollution limits called the Total Maximum Daily Load.

 “We acknowledge in our own assessments that we are behind.  And a lot of that – about 80 percent of that gap – belongs to Pennsylvania,” Corbin said.  “And because they are relying so heavily on agriculture, about 80 percent of their own gap has to come from agriculture.  So it’s a significant shortfall.”   


The Ugly Apple

Sep 9, 2015

An apple tree grows in the last place you’d expect to find the Garden of Eden: beside a street in Baltimore City.  The fruit on this tree grows plump, but mottled with spidery black splotches.

I found the ugly apples while on a jog through a park near my neighborhood,  Evergreen.  And so I brought a few of the monsters home as kind of a freak-show curiosity to show my family. I lined them up them on the window sill in our dining room. And for a while, we were afraid to touch them – or even to go over to that side of the room, for fear that – I don’t know, the black plague might ooze out of a wormhole.

But then, I screwed up my courage and plunged a knife into one of the greenish black fruits.


In June, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration imposed new regulations on poultry manure meant to reduce a major source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The phosphorus management rules mean that as much as two thirds of all chicken litter once used as fertilizer on Eastern Shore farm fields will be homeless. Farmers will no longer be able to spread the waste in fields, just to get rid of it.

That creates mountains of headaches for farmers like Michelle Chesnick, who grows  a half million chickens a year, which produce about two million tons of manure.

“ You have to ask yourself?  Where does it all go?” Chesnick asked. “What do we do with it now? I don’t know where it is going to go.”

In an attempt to answer this question, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has been giving away millions of dollars in grants to experimental projects that will recycle the manure into a range of innovative and useful products.


Earlier this month, a fisherman in southern Maryland hooked into something toothy and alien in a creek off the Potomac River. It was a record-breaking, 17 pound snakehead fish, native to Asia.

Where did this invasive species end up?

At the Alewife restaurant, at 21 N. Eutaw Street in Baltimore.   Chef Chad Wells was the first person in Maryland to cook up a snakehead 13 years ago, when the predatory, fast-reproducing fish first appeared in the state.

Since then, Wells has championed the idea that the best way to fight invasive species is to eat them. 


On Friday in Ocean City, Maryland, an armada of 100 kayakers – the captain wearing a pirate hat – paddled up to the town’s waterfront convention center.  The kayaktivists waved signs proclaiming “Don’t Drill the Atlantic!”...”Kill the Drill!”…and “Don’t BP my OC!”

The self-proclaimed “Sea Party Coalition” called on local government officials attending the Maryland Association of Counties convention, inside the building, to oppose the Obama Administration’s proposal to open up the Atlantic Coast to offshore oil drilling.

“It wouldn’t take a BP-sized oil spill to be catastrophic,” said Matt Heim, outreach coordinator for the Assateague Coastal Trust. “If Ocean City’s beaches were closed even for a weekend in the summertime, the impact could have really big consequences for local people and businesses here.”


Last week, President Obama released regulations to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants. The reaction among many Republicans was that the plan to reduce greenhouse gases was heavy-handed and would trigger a spike in electricity bills -- and possibly blackouts.

“Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who is from the coal producing state of Kentucky has already been a very, very vocal opponent of this,” Fox News reported. “In fact he wrote all 50 governors urging them to reject these kinds of EPA regulations. He called them ‘extremely burdensome’ and ‘costly.’”

How burdensome would Obama’s Clean Power Plan be, exactly?  Well, the regulations require a 32 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions nationally by 2030.  But that number is based on a starting point of 2005.  Emissions from power plants have already fallen by 16 percent in the 10 years since. That means the electric utility sector would only have to trim its carbon pollution by another 16 percent over the next 15 years – or, by about one percent a year. That’s less than the rate of decline that has already been underway for a decade.


In the year 2000, Maryland and the other Chesapeake Bay region states set a goal of increasing the number of oysters in the bay by 10 fold by 2010.   But despite taxpayer-funded projects to plant millions of young oysters, the number of oysters in the bay actually fell by half over that decade, plummeting to just a third of one percent of historic levels in the northern bay.  The continued decline of the bay’s keystone species was in part because of disease, and in part because watermen continued to harvest oysters at rates far beyond what was sustainable.

Since 2010, oyster populations in the bay have begun to creep upward again. Good weather conditions have helped reproduction. And in 2010 Governor Martin O’Malley’s administration created sanctuaries to protect 24 percent of the bay’s remaining oyster reefs.

This fragile progress may be threatened, however, by a new push by watermen under Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration to open up these no-harvesting sanctuaries and expand power dredging for oysters in the bay.

  “These oyster sanctuaries as we got them now, I don’t see how they are benefitting anyone,” said Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association. 

 


This spring, an outbreak of avian flu among chickens in the Midwest killed about 47 million birds and drove up the price of eggs across the country, causing them to nearly double.

The germs responsible, called the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A viruses (H5N2, H5N8, and H5N1), are believed to have come from Asia and are spread by migrating ducks and geese. Wildfowl carry the viruses but don't get sick from them, and neither do people – so far.  But chickens and turkeys confined in commercial poultry houses are rapidly wiped out by the disease.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is predicting that the avian flu will likely hit the state’s Eastern Shore this fall as ducks migrate from the upper Midwest and Canada. The disease could threaten Maryland’s billion-dollar-a-year poultry industry.


This is the sound of the giant armadillo that is trying to reproduce in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It’s a clattering, splashing machine covered with a shell of stretched fabric and metal.  The futuristic-looking device uses a water wheel and the power of the largest river flowing into the harbor --as well as a glimmering solar panel on its back -- to drive mechanical rakes and a conveyor belt that pull trash from the river before it can pollute  the Inner Harbor.

Daniel Chase, is a partner in Clearwater Mills, the company that built the water wheel trash interceptor, better known as the Trash Wheel, which is located next to Baltimore’s Pier 6 Concert Pavillion.

 “It picks up all the trash that comes down the Jones Falls, because every time it rains, all the trash in the streets gets swept into the storm drains and comes down the river,” Chase said. “And we are here to catch it before it spreads out into the harbor. We have deployment booms that guide it to our conveyor, and then our conveyor loads it directly into a dumpster, and then the dumpster goes to shore, and gets taken to RESCO for the incinerator, where it gets burned and turned into energy.”


Some aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere may actually be helped by the rising carbon dioxide levels that are causing global warming, researchers suggest.

Underwater grass beds are critically important to the Bay and other waterways, because they produce oxygen, filter out sediment, feed ducks, and provide shelter for young crabs and fish.


Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are studying Native American trash heaps full of oyster shells around the Chesapeake Bay that date to thousands of years ago.

Susan Cook-Patton and colleagues published an article in the journal Landscape Ecology that describes how these old oyster shells enrich the soil, spurring the growth of unusual communities of wildflowers and grasses.


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.


Last week, Pope Francis released a landmark document that outlined the Catholic Church’s official position on climate change.

The papal encyclical, titled “On Care for Our Common Home,” made it clear to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics – including at least three Republican climate change deniers running for President  – that reducing greenhouse gas pollution is a moral necessity, not just a political or economic issue. 

The poor, especially in Africa, suffer disproportionately from droughts, heat waves, flooding and famine caused by global warming.  And the Pope wrote that the scientific evidence is clear:  This warming is being driven by a culture of consumption in rich nations, including the United States.

 “We have come to see ourselves as (the Earth’s) lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will,” Pope Francis wrote. “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

The implication is that denying the science – or doing nothing – is not just wrong. It’s a deadly sin.  And the pope went beyond just the issue of climate change. He pointed to a wave of environmental problems being caused by over consumption, including deforestation, water shortages, and mass extinctions of animals and plants.


Once nearly extinct in the East, beaver populations are booming.  Their comeback, however, is creating complications for storm water pollution control systems, which beavers love to dam up.

Stephanie Boyles-Griffin, director of wildlife response for the Humane Society of the U.S., is convincing governments to use devices called "beaver deceivers." They foil beaver dams in a way that does not kill the animals.


As the gray clouds parted and a brilliant blue sky opened up, I saw that the kayakers had picked perhaps the most beautiful place on the Chesapeake Bay to set up camp.  A row of pine trees towered over a sandy bluff and a stretch of beach that looked like it must have 500 years ago.  

A three-day paddling and camping expedition down the lower eastern shore  of Virginia to the mouth of the bay had been organized by Chesapeake Bay educator and naturalist Don Baugh, with help from his friend, the renowned bay author, Tom Horton.

“You know, for me, as an environmental writer – and for Don, as an environmental educator – we deal way too much with all the parts of the bay that are in trouble, or are non-existent,” said Horton, gazing out at the water as their team of 20 paddlers ate breakfast and readied their gear. “And it’s very important for us, and for a lot of the people who come with us, to get out in the parts of the bay – the considerable parts, that are still pretty nice, like this one.”

As he spoke, light glistened off the waves, and a cow-nosed ray lifted a tip of its wing from the water.

 “We spend a lot of time lamenting and talking about what we’ve lost,” Horton said.  “But you have to celebrate the considerable amount that’s still here, or frankly you’d burn out in these ‘save the world’ professions, like being an environmentalist.”


Ten years ago, frustrated by the slow pace of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort and facing re-election, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich launched what he touted as a grand experiment in bay restoration.

He promised to concentrate $20 million in water pollution control projects into one small Eastern Shore river, the Corsica.  The goal was to find out if Maryland could quickly improve water quality in one troubled waterway within its own boundaries.

“What really appealed to be about this project, and what I loved – maybe as a lawyer – was that we could isolate one river and bring the best practices, and every level of government and nonprofit organizations, to focus on what works and what doesn’t work,”  Ehrlich said.  “What really appealed to me, most of all, was that could measure it.”

Well, 10 years later, let’s measure the success of the Corsica River project.   A review of the data shows that the effort achieved about two thirds of its concrete project goals. But it fell short of its ultimate target of improving water quality in the main section of the Corsica River.  The reasons for this murky result provide lessons that can be applied to the larger bay cleanup.


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