The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing Maryland's natural world.  There's a story behind every bend of the Chesapeake Bay's 11,684 miles of shoreline, in every abandoned coal mine in the Appalachian Mountains, in every exotic beetle menacing our forests and in every loophole snuck into pollution control laws in Annapolis.  Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday at 7:46 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Tom Pelton is a national award-winning environmental journalist, formerly with The Baltimore Sun.  He is now director of communications at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.   The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation, which is working to enhance the quality of life in Baltimore and in Maryland.  The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com

Full Archive of Environment in Focus

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.


Orchids are sometimes called "the smartest plants in the world" because of their ingenious ability to trick insects and people into helping with their pollination and transport. But many of the 25,000 known species of orchids are threatened or endangered, and Dennis Whigham and colleagues at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are investigating why. The scientists are also trying to bring these dinosaur-era plants back. 


The Bedbug Boom and Unnatural Selection

Dec 16, 2014

After disappearing from the U.S., bedbugs have made a dramatic comeback in the last decade.  Some conservatives have blamed environmentalists for the return of the bloodsucking pests – and in particular, Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring.”

A website called “Rachel Was Wrong,” for example, argues that the pesticide DDT was effective in eliminating bedbugs from the United States in the 1950's.  But then the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972, inspired in part by Carson's book and the environmental movement she sparked.  Bedbugs came roaring back, the argument goes, because we had chemically disarmed ourselves.


On Monday, Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan announced that his first fight when he takes office next month will be to overturn new poultry manure regulations meant to reduce phosphorus runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

“The first fight [when I take office] will be against these politically motivated, midnight-hour phosphorus management tool regulations that the outgoing administration is trying to force upon you in these closing days,” Mr. Hogan, a Republican, said in a speech to the Maryland Farm Bureau Convention in Ocean City, according to The Washington Times. “We won’t allow them to put you out of business, destroy your way of life or decimate your entire industry.”

His statement – combined with support for the pollution control rules among some Democratic lawmakers – suggests that a battle over the future of the Chesapeake Bay is brewing in the upcoming Maryland General Assembly session. Agriculture is the single largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, with 53 percent of the phosphorus pollution from Maryland coming from farms.


A growing number of businesses are renting herds of goats to gobble up invasive species and other weeds as an environmentally-friendly alternative to spraying herbicides. 

Shown in this picture is Veronica Cassilly, owner of the Harmony Herd in Harford County.  Towson University recently hired her and 17 of her goats as a weed whacking crew.  Their mission: to devour an invasive species of plant -- English Ivy – that was smothering a forested stream valley beside a dorm on their campus just north of Baltimore.


President Obama announced a major climate change agreement with China during a meeting in Beijing earlier this month.

“As the world’s two largest economies, energy consumers and emitters of greenhouse gases, we have a special responsibility to lead the global effort against climate change," Obama said on November 12, standing side by side with the  Chinese President.

"That is why today I am proud we can announce an historic agreement.  I commend President Xi, his team and the Chinese government for the commitment they are making to slow, peak, and then reverse the course of China’s carbon emissions." Obama said. "Today I can also say the United States has set a new goal of reducing our net greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels  by the year 2025.”

But how historic was the Bejing climate agreement, really, when you look at the fine print? 


As one of his last acts as governor, Martin O’Malley kept a promise to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.  On Friday, he proposed regulations that would prohibit the spreading of any more poultry manure as fertilizer on many Eastern Shore farm fields.

Decades of over-application of manure from the poultry industry has meant the soil is over-saturated with phosphorus on some farms. The crops can't absorb all the nutrients. So the phosphorus runs off to pollute streams and cause and fish-killing “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay.


In the Big Savage River in Western Maryland, two men stand in the stream beneath a forested cliff.   As a light snow falls, they cast their fly rods in a whip-like motion, their long lines tracing the shapes of S’s that hover and grow in mid- air before lashing forward to float on the clear water.

This is a special place in Maryland, and one that we cannot afford to lose," said Nick Weber, an avid fly fisherman who volunteers with a clean water advocacy group called Trout Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited recently issued a report warning that allowing drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Western Maryland's Savage River watershed -- or in Maryland's state forests -- could rip up the state’s largest wooded area, industrialize a landscape that is valued for nature tourism, and pollute the region’s best trout fishery.

The likelihood of fracking in Western Maryland rose last week when voters elected Larry Hogan, a Republican who said on the campaign trail that he wants to open the state to drilling.


Every minute, more solar energy falls on Earth than the seven billion residents of this planet can consume in an entire year.

 The attractions of solar power have long been obvious.  But the solar industry has had its fits and starts since the 1970s. And if you listened to the Fox News coverage of the Solyndra bankruptcy a few years back, you would think that  solar energy is a failed government boondoggle.

 Well, don't listen to Fox.  Listen to Vadim Polikov, a Baltimore entrepreneur and co-founder of Astrum Solar.

 “Solar as an industry has grown faster than almost any other industry in the country," said Polikov, CEO of the Howard County-based firm. "There are more people working for solar than working within the coal industry. And it is a huge job creator.” 


The Escalating Chemical War on Weeds

Oct 28, 2014

Last month, listeners to this program heard about a weed-killer called RoundUp that is sprayed on genetically modified corn and soybean crops across the U.S. 

Over the last 15 years, scientists say, this herbicide has contributed to a  90 percent decline in the monarch butterfly population by poisoning the milkweed plants that are the only food for monarch caterpillars.

After that radio program aired, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on October 15 approved a new herbicide to replace Roundup in farm fields.  The new chemical, Enlist Duo, is an even more powerful weed-killer, because it combines RoundUp’s main ingredient--  glyphosate --with a second herbicide, called 2, 4 D.


This is the sound of walruses in the Arctic.

What are they talking about?  I have no idea.  But I doubt they are debating the existence of climate change.  Rapidly melting sea ice in the Arctic left a pod of 35,000 walruses stranded on a rocky beach in Alaska earlier this month.

The mass stranding -- photographed by scientists (in the picture above) and distributed by the media around the world -- was highly unusual, and a stressful development for walruses, which need sea ice to rest on.

In 1970, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that requires government agencies to open most of their records to journalists or anyone from the public who wants to know what their government is up to.

The point of the Maryland Public Information Act is to make information freely available to all voters  and taxpayers – not only those with money or connections.

But increasingly, advocates of open government complain that state agencies have adopted a “pay to play” policy that has turned public information into a private commodity – or a political weapon. 


Seahorses Threatened by Trawling and Pollution

Oct 7, 2014

Seahorse populations in several parts of the world, including in the Chesapeake Bay, are threatened in part because of the destruction of underwater grasses that seahorses need as shelter.

Amanda Vincent, a zoologist and seahorse expert at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, argues that governments around the world can help save seahorses by ending bottom trawling for shrimp (which rips up seagrasses) and reducing water pollution (which blocks light that grasses need to grow).

(Photo from National Aquarium in Baltimore.)

Sewage Overflows Feed a Garden of Troubles

Sep 30, 2014

On a road in Baltimore, from a gap in the pavement near a manhole cover, grows a tomato plant. Green roma tomatoes dangle like Christmas tree bulbs strangely out of place beside a steel guard rail.  Nearby, just west of Falls Road near the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, several more unruly tomatoes and a squash plant rise and twist amid sewage smells beside an eroded section of the Jones Falls bike trail.  David Flores, the Baltimore Harborkeeper, has a theory about the origin of this well-fertilized garden flourishing on the banks of the Jones Falls.  It grows out of sewage.


The Canary in the Corn Field

Sep 23, 2014

In the late 1990s, farmers across the U.S. began planting a different kind of crop.  About 90 percent of farmers started raising corn and soybeans that were genetically modified to tolerate an herbicide called glyphosate or Roundup. That was bad news for monarch butterflies, the iconic symbols of summer, whose populations have plummeted by 90 percent since then.


Over the last year, the news has been full of stories about U.S. government surveillance of its own civilians.  Among those worried about the government’s increased power to track and record the communications of people in the iPhone age are some environmental activists who in the past have been wrongly labeled "ecoterrorists" in government databases.


Political Polarization and the "Green Scare"

Sep 9, 2014

From all the negative rhetoric you hear these days from Republican elected officials about environmental regulations, one might think that opposition to environmental policies has always been a litmus test for belonging to the G.O.P.

It is important to remember, however, that the conservation movement was founded in part by a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt.  And another  Republican President, Richard Nixon, created the Environmental Protection Agency.   Nixon is shown in this photo signing the landmark Clean Air Act in 1970.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic politicians and voters alike overwhelmingly supported environmental spending and regulations.


The Lorax of Baltimore Plants His Last Tree

Sep 2, 2014

Dr. Michael Beer of Baltimore, a retired biophysics pioneer at Johns Hopkins University who founded an environmental organization dedicated to planting trees and cleaning up urban streams, died of a heart attack on August 22 at the age of 88.  To many, he was an inspiring example of how to live with nature, love your neighbors, and age with grace and purpose.


A new twist has surfaced in a long-running saga over what would be the first wind farm built on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

U.S.  Senator Barbara Mikulski, the powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently added language to a defense appropriation bill that would prevent the Navy from finalizing an agreement to allow two dozen 600-foot-tall wind turbines at the proposed Great Bay Wind Energy Center in Somerset County. 

Allowing hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Western Maryland would result in a high likelihood that public health would suffer, according to a report released on Monday by the  University of Maryland. 

Air pollution from the diesel engines and trucks used in fracking would likely cause coughs, severe headaches, burning eyes and other health problems in Garrett and Allegany counties where drilling is contemplated, according to researchers with the University’s School of Public Health.

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.


Cold Weather Deals Blow to Blue Crabs in Bay

Aug 5, 2014

Blue crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay have fallen for two years in a row, prompting Maryland officials to impose more restrictions on catching female crabs in an attempt to boost the population.

Natural resource police have also tightened minimum size requirements for catching crabs and recently launched a "Don't Get Pinched!" enforcement campaign.

“Crab populations are low, so Marylanders would like us to step up our enforcement efforts when it comes to crabbing violations,' said  Major Jerry Kirkwood of the Maryland Natural Resource Police

A scientific survey of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population earlier this year found that the numbers had fallen to the lowest levels since 2008.  That was when the federal government declared the Bay an economic disaster area and allowed watermen to collect emergency relief funds.

“What we’re seeing this year is the number of adult female crabs – those female crabs that are creating the next generation – is very, very low," said Lynn Fegley, deputy director of fisheries at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.  "It actually fell slightly below what we consider our safe threshold, which is why we are calling the stock depleted.” 

Fegley said unusually cold temperatures this winter killed about 28 percent of the Bay’s crabs. This compounded a problem from the previous year, when unfavorable winds and ocean currents meant record low numbers of crab larvae survived.  

Bad weather’s blow to the blue crabs is a reversal in what had been a great comeback story.  Crab populations in the Bay more than doubled between 2008 and 2010 after Maryland and Virginia imposed some restrictions on catching female crabs and banned dredging for hibernating females in the winter.

But after a brief spike, crab populations have plunged back into the danger zone.

Populations of frogs and other amphibians have been declining around the world and biologist Lisa Schloegel believes that she may have discovered why.


After more than a century of decline, the  harvest of oysters from the Chesapeake Bay has quadrupled over the last four years.  This increase has inspired a debate over whether more -- or fewer -- restrictions are needed on the harvest of the Bay's keystone species. 


In a shallow bay of the Potomac River about an hour south of Washington, D.C., lie the remains of 214 wooden cargo ships from World War I, some of which have sprouted trees and become islands.


For years, people thought that evolution was something that happened slowly, over thousands or millions of years. Not true, as it turns out.


Governor O'Malley's Visit to Iowa Sparks Protest

Jul 1, 2014

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's political campaigning in Iowa, a farming capital of the U.S., has sparked complaints from some environmentalists, who claim that he is pandering to the powerful farm lobby.

  Michele Merkel, co-director of the justice program at Food & Water Watch, accused O'Malley of avoiding action in his own state to regulate manure from Maryland’s huge poultry industry, which is polluting the Chesapeake BayFor example, she said, the governor in 2013 signed a law – sought by farmers and their allies -- called the “Agricultural Certainty Act.”  It provides exemptions from any new pollution control regulations for farms that meet minimum requirements.

The O’Malley administration also twice delayed poultry manure regulations that would prohibit the spreading of more poultry waste on Eastern Shore fields that are already overloaded with phosphorus from chicken litter. 

O'Malley's Secretary of Agriculture, Buddy Hance, however argues that the O'Malley Administration has made real strides toward preventing runoff pollution from farms.

For example, Hance said, the state issued regulations prohibiting the spreading of manure in the winter, and required water pollution control permits for 80 percent of the large poultry farms in Maryland.  

Hance said the administration may still issue the long-delayed manure management regulations to control phosphorus -- after conducting an economic impact study to determine the cost for farmers.

Singing to Stop an Incinerator in their Back Yard

Jun 24, 2014

Sisters Leah and Audrey Rozier wrote a song to protest the proposed construction of what would be the largest incinerator in the United States near  their homes in far south Baltimore.

The sisters, aged 16 and 19, want Maryland  officials to stop the construction in the Fairfield neighborhood of the Energy Answers waste-to-energy plant, which would burn pulverized garbage to generate electricity.

After 23 years of raising chickens for Perdue, Carole Morison found she could earn more money by becoming an independent farmer and selling her own pasture-raised eggs.

President Obama's proposed regulations to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from coal-fired power plants have been attacked as a neo-socialist, federal power grab. Ironically, however, his "cap and trade" strategy for reducing carbon dioxide is actually a conservative and modest approach that uses a Wall Street-friendly method of reducing pollution championed by President George H.W. Bush.

The centerpiece of the Obama Administration's climate change policy -- which calls for reductions in emissions of about one percent a year over the next 16 years -- is far from radical. 

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