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

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.


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.


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