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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 the author of the book, The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.  Pelton is also 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

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.


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.


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