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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

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  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.


Richard Moncure Jr. is the son of a Chesapeake Bay waterman. But as fish and oyster populations in the bay fell, the prospects of his family’s line became as murky as the estuary itself.  So first he first studied religion.  Then he joined the Peace Corps.

  “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my future,” the 35-year-old confessed while sitting on a chunk of cement beside the wind-swept, brown waters where he used to fish with his father. “I knew Jesus was a fisherman. But I had a lot of questions.”

During a two-and-a-half-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps in Zambia, met African watermen who had so badly overfished their lake they had nothing left.  Moncure’s job was to teach them sustainable fishing. He instructed them in the business of fish farming: how to grow their own tilapia in ponds, instead of netting the few remaining fish from the lake.

Although the effort was successful, the whole time he was in Africa, Moncure couldn’t help thinking about home.  And when his mission ended, Moncure decided to return to the Chesapeake and his family’s traditional businesses. 


Eighteen years ago, Maryland was gripped by the Pfiesteria crisis. Governor Parris Glendening closed off parts of three Eastern Shore rivers because of reports that a toxic micro-organism – Pfiesteria piscicida  -- was causing fish kills and memory loss in watermen.

Headlines in The Washington Post headlines warned of “the cell from hell.”  Panic drove down sales of Chesapeake Bay seafood.  The source of the outbreak: manure from Eastern shore poultry farms that fed toxic algal blooms.

In the nearly two decades since then, the manure runoff problem has continued and even worsened. But no more fish kills or illnesses have been attributed to Pfiesteria, which seemed to vanish as inexplicably as it appeared.

So what happened?   Was Pfiesteria just a bad dream? There is growing evidence that the Pfiesteria frenzy was a case of scientific error that triggered an over-reaction by government, journalists, and consumers.


Call of the Coywolves

May 12, 2015

Coyotes, which are native to the West, over the last three decades have been moving into Maryland and multiplying in suburban and even urban environments like Baltimore.   


It’s early morning and sun blazes down, flashing off the rapids of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. 

Woodie Walker stands in waders, flicking a fly fishing line into the rain- swollen waters an hour south of Washington, D.C.   All around him, the silvery blue backs of scores of fish flash like blades from the gray-green current and then disappear.

It is the running of the shad, an annual springtime ritual in which the migratory fish surge up Chesapeake Bay tributaries to spawn.   Cormorants stand on the rocks, feasting on the profusion of fish, as vultures circle overhead.

Walker, a conservationist with an environmental group called the Friends of the Rappahannock, said he has seen an increase in several species of fish in recent years – a trend confirmed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

 “The hickory shad is doing very well, and the American shad is doing better," Walker said.  "A lot of the reason is that 11 years ago, Friends of the Rappahannock and other partners, including the Army Corps of Engineers, removed a dam about 5 miles upstream from here. And that dam was obviously an impediment to the migratory fish -- the shad and the striped bass. Removing the dam has really improved access for fish, and as a result our fishery is getting better.”


The Obama Administration this summer is scheduled to release final rules meant to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants by nearly a third within 15 years.

The so-called Clean Power Rule would be a significant step forward in addressing climate change, because power plants are the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the U.S.   The EPA regulations would eliminate as much greenhouse gas pollution as taking 150 million cars off the road – almost two thirds of America’s vehicles.

Before the rule can take effect, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been meeting with governors and offering states a legal blueprint to challenge the Constitutionality of the regulations. His goal is to stop the rules by tying them up in court. 


For decades, scientists have known that air pollution harms people's bodies. Microscopic particles released by the burning of coal, oil and gasoline slip into people’s lungs and bloodstreams and trigger asthma and heart attacks.

The Maryland General Assembly’s annual session ended at Midnight  on Monday with both good and bad news on environmental issues.

On the negative side, stormwater pollution control fees mandated by a 2012 state law to clean up the Chesapeake Bay were attacked as an unfair “tax on rain.”

In the end, lawmakers voted 47-0 in the state senate, and 138-1 in the house, to approve a bill by Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller that would eliminate the requirement that the state’s most heavily populated counties and Baltimore impose stormwater pollution control fees.   


On Monday night, the Maryland Senate voted 45 to 2 in favor of imposing a two year moratorium on allowing any hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

Two weeks earlier, the House had voted in favor of a three year ban on fracking, which is the injection of water and chemicals into shale rock formations to extract oil and gas.  It is now likely the two chambers of the legislature will reach a compromise and impose some sort of a fracking moratorium by the time the General Assembly session ends on Monday.

The big questions now are whether Republican Governor Larry Hogan will veto the restrictions by the Democratic controlled legislature.  And whether lawmakers will approve insurance requirements for drillers that some Republicans predict could scare away the industry.   


Populations of honey bees have been falling over the last decade, eliminating pollinators necessary for the farming of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts. 

Scientists have concluded that one of the likely contributing causes of the bee deaths is the growing use of insecticides on farms and gardens.  Chemicals called neonicotinoids – or neonics, for short -- contain a form of nicotine that is intended to kills pests.  But neonics also cause subtle damage to the nerve systems of bees, intoxicating them so that they can’t find their way back home to their hives. The bees wander off and die.

Researchers say other factors may be involved in the bee declines, too – including a virus, parasites, the destruction of flowering trees and meadows, and stresses from modern industrial farming practices, which require truckloads of bees to be hauled thousands of miles to pollinate fruit and nut farms.

But the disease  and parasite problems may be worsened by the application of insecticides, which weaken bees.   So in 2013, the European Union imposed a two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids.

In Maryland, a bill in the General Assembly would take steps toward restricting the use of neonics. Senate Bill 163 would ban the sale of the insecticides to homeowners who spray the chemicals on their gardens. 


A political game of chicken ended peacefully in the Maryland General Assembly last week.

Republican Governor Larry Hogan -- who once pledged to make it is his “first fight” to stop poultry manure pollution regulations --  had been facing off against Democratic state lawmakers who wanted a law to protect the Chesapeake Bay from manure runoff.  Last week, they reached a compromise that was praised by both environmentalists and farmers.

In the compromise, the Hogan administration issued revised poultry manure management regulations that will phase in restrictions on the over-application of poultry manure to Eastern Shore farm fields already saturated with phosphorus from manure.  The new rules will offer farmers flexibility, but have a firm deadline of 2024.  Runoff of manure from the state’s 300 million chickens contributes to fish-killing dead zones in the Bay.


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.

As chairman of the Governor's Chesapeake Bay Cabinet from 2007 to 2013, Griffin led Maryland’s efforts to meet new pollution limits for the nation’s largest estuary, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.

But, oddly enough, his lifelong devotion to conservation did not grow out of the bay – but instead, out of his childhood, growing up in part in New Mexico.  There, in the stark but stunning western landscapes outside Albuqurque, he hunted, fished and camped with his father, an air force bomber pilot. Father and son visited Native American reservations, which inspired reverence in John.


Congressional Republicans who have long denied the reality of global warming recently made a subtle shift in their language.

On January 21, the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 in favor of a Democratic resolution that said “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

Among the Senators who scrambled to co-sponsor the resolution was – surprisingly – Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.  The same James Inhofe, just two years ago, published a book titled, “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”


As one of his first acts as Maryland’s Governor, Larry Hogan on January 21 kept a campaign promise to the farm lobby by killing new state regulations meant to reduce poultry manure pollution that is causing “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay.

But then, on February 13th, the Hogan administration received a warning letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA advised state officials that if Maryland dropped its manure limits, it would have to take some kind of alternative action to reduce pollution and meet EPA pollution limits for the Bay. 

Worried about backsliding in the state’s EPA-mandated Bay cleanup effort, Democrats in the General Assembly decided to move ahead with their own pollution control legislation, without the governor.   Democratic lawmakers sponsored bills (Senate Bill 257 and House Bill 381) that would put into law limits on the dumping of more manure as fertilizer on Eastern Shore farm fields that are already saturated with phosphorus from manure.


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