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

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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.


One of the most mysterious creatures of Chesapeake Bay is a microscopic parasite that infects oysters, called Perkinsus marinus.

Perkinsus is a tiny, single-celled animal – a protozoan -- that swims about the bay, propelled by a pair-of whip-like flagella.  

When oysters suck in water and accidentally ingest one of these critters, the parasite burrows in and hijacks its host.  Perkinsus uses the oyster’s body to multiply its own offspring, leaving the oyster pale, emaciated, and shriveled. 

Many of the Chesapeake region’s dairy farms have gone out of business over the last two decades.  In Maryland, for example, 50 percent of the dairies have failed over the last decade, and 90 percent since 1970. Competition from industrial-sized dairies in the West and Midwest have made it hard for small family farms to survive.

The trend has been: get big, or get out.

In the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, a huge cutting machine sheared coal from the long wall of a shaft more than 1,000 feet underground. The coal tumbled onto a conveyor belt, kicking up large amounts of dust.

This coal dust was a well-known hazard, not only to the lungs of the 31 miners who worked there.  The dust was also an explosion risk because the powder – if it accumulated -- could be ignited by a spark from the cutting machine, and accelerated by methane gas that seeped from cracks in the walls.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill called the Regulatory Accountability Act.  The legislation, which is now before the Republican-controlled Senate, would make it much harder for EPA or any other federal agencies to create new regulations to protect the environment or public safety.

The bill would add bureaucratic obstacles to the rule-making process, including 29 new documentation requirements. President Obama has threatened a veto. 

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania was among the House Republicans who argued the law is necessary because the Environmental Protection Agency -- and government regulations in general –have gone too far.

“I live in the middle of five farms. I’ve been there for almost two decades,” said Marino, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform. “Recently, the EPA has attempted to get more control over farmland by saying if there’s a rainstorm and there’s a puddle where a farmer – …or a farmer even spills milk – then EPA has control over that land.”


When Bob Ehrlich became governor in 2003, one of his first acts -- as Maryland’s first Republican chief executive in more than three decades -- was to abandon new state regulations that would have held the state’s large poultry industry responsible for reducing its manure runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

Ehrlich’s former appointments secretary, Larry Hogan, a Republican real estate developer, was sworn in as Maryland's new governor last week.  On his first day in office, Hogan beat his former boss in anti-environmental showmanship by killing not only new poultry waste regulations important for the health of the Bay, but also clean air rules designed to reduce smog in the Baltimore area.


Blue crabs are an important part of the Chesapeake region’s culture, diet, and economy. But crab remains are rare in archeological sites around the Bay. This has led some scientists to believe that Native Americans did not eat the beautiful swimmers that today we find so delicious.

 “What we know about Native Americans ate is based on some historic records, but also on looking at the trash piles that Indians left, mostly on the shoreline of Chesapeake Bay,” said Tuck Hines, Director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “And the majority of those trash piles are made up of oyster shells. But not much in the way of blue crab remains are generally found in those trash piles or ‘middens.’”

 


As the Maryland General Assembly session opens today in Annapolis, one of the hot topics will be whether Governor-Elect Larry Hogan will try to loosen up restrictions on hydraulic fracturing to allow drilling companies to frack in Western Maryland for the first time.

But the state forests may be protected from drilling, at least in the short term not by politics, but by economics.   Industry analysts say that plunging natural gas and oil prices – caused by a glut of fuel produced by fracking -- are causing oil and gas companies across the country to shut down rigs, lay off workers, and avoid new development in places like Maryland.


Life on the Wing

Jan 6, 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.”


The women of the island town of Tylerton in the Chesapeake Bay sing gospel hymns as they pick the crabs caught by their husbands and sons.  Their music sounds timeless, and visitors might imagine pickers in the fishing community singing work songs like this since the English landed here in 1638.


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