The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

Tom Pelton

Dean Naujoks fires up the engine of his boat at the Bell Haven Marina in Alexandria, Virginia, and heads out to his version of an office cubicle: the wide, windy, greenish-gray currents of the Potomac River.

“This is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge,” Naujoks says as he guides the boat on a sunny morning. “And then right over here is Jones Point Lighthouse. This is the oldest riverine lighthouse in the country.”

For the last three and a half years, Naujoks – a 49-year-old veteran environmental activist and son of a tool-and-die maker from Eastern Pennsylvania – has worked as the Potomac Riverkeeper, leading a nonprofit organization that advocates for cleaner water.

Union of Concerned Scientists

When he was on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to impose new rules to keep lobbyists out of government.  “If I’m elected president, we are going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.,” Trump proclaimed.

But he didn’t ban the hiring of lobbyists to his administration – far from it.  On January 28, 2017, he signed an executive order that simply requires any lobbyists hired by his administration to refrain -- for two years -- from participating in discussion of any issue areas on which they lobbied for industry.

This question became relevant last week when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid multiple investigations of his mismanagement and misspending. His replacement as acting EPA Administrator is Andrew Wheeler, a longtime former lobbyist for the coal and energy industries.

Wikimedia Commons

It’s almost impossible to walk into a convenience store, pass a bus stop, or even to watch You Tube videos these days without being assaulted with ads for vaping or electronic cigarettes.

This online ad features a cool-looking young actor on the beach, with the surf crashing behind him.

 “Blue e-cigs,” the narrator says. “Blue lets me enjoy smoking without it affecting the people around me because it’s vapor, not tobacco smoke. That means there’s no ash. And best of all, no offensive odor.”

But is that really true – that vaping does not affect the people around you?  That it’s harmless, creating no indoor air pollution?

“No,” said Ana Maria Rule, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is definitely not smoking, that’s a good distinction to make.  However, I don’t know where people get this idea that (vaping) is harmless because the chemicals that are being heated up from the liquid are not harmless chemicals.”

Peter Cihelka/Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

On Sunday evening, another rainstorm drenched the Baltimore area, turning gutters into rivers and streams into muddy torrents.

A day earlier, heavy rainfall caused the worst flooding in two decades along the Rappahanock River in Virginia, inundating several homes.

And on May 27, flash floods devastated historic Ellicott City, Maryland, for the second time in as many years, flipping cars and killing a National Guard sergeant.

May turned out to be the third rainiest in Maryland history, with eight inches falling, more than twice the average for that month, according to National Weather Service monitoring at BWI airport. So far in June, almost 5 more inches of rain have fallen – about a third more than is normal for a June.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

I was paddling down the Big Gunpowder Falls near Sparks, Maryland, when I saw a great blue heron standing on a log in the river, tall and elegant.   As I drifted closer, it launched into the air and flew over my head, its six-foot wingspan and knife-like beak all the more impressive at close range.

Nearby, atop the riverbank, was a house.  I thought:  what is the economic value of this heron to that homeowner? 

Would he be able to sell his house for $505,000 instead of $500,000 if a buyer saw the heron before agreeing to the price? Or maybe the location and the view of the river are all that matter in the fast-moving world of real estate transactions.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources

In a laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, zoologist Rob Aguilar examines bottles containing preserved specimens of an astonishing array of different varieties of aquatic life.

“We have speckled swimming crabs, long finned squid, jackknife clam, ponderous arc,” said Aguilar, scrutinizing a thick mussel with a serrated shell. “This is a fish-gill isopod. And this is a big marine leach that prefers to be on skates and rays.”

Aguilar is engaged in a project to study the genetic codes of numerous species in the Chesapeake Bay. He and colleagues record them in public databases called GenBank and the Barcode of Life Database, so that researchers around the world can use the information to identify fish and other critters.

After a spring of wretched downpours and cold, cloudy weather, summer has finally begun -- at least unofficially -- and the bullfrogs are singing its praise.

I slide my kayak into the lake at Tuckahoe State Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  It’s a sunny, breezy afternoon, and the lake is fringed by swaying reeds and the arrow-shaped leaves of water plants -- called Tuckahoe – whose roots were an important source of food for Native Americans.

As I paddle along the edge of the lake, three painted turtles sunning themselves on a log plunk down into the water. Dragonflies flit over the surface. A leaf drifts down into the lake, and as it lands, its curled backside stretches up from the water like the sail of a boat.

My trip is a prelude to the joys of summer.  And what brought me here was a new book called Paddle Maryland by University of Maryland, Baltimore County biologist Bryan McKay.

Marinas.com

As sea levels have risen because of climate change, and the geology beneath the Chesapeake region has settled naturally over the last two centuries, more than 500 islands – large and small – have vanished beneath the waves.

Some of these bay islands held hideaways for pirates, hunting lodges for the rich, brothels for watermen, the sites of illegal boxing matches and gambling dens, even an unusual enterprise to breed and skin black cats to sell their fur to China. This last scheme failed when the bay froze and the cats, wisely, ran off across the ice, according to William Cronin’s book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.  Others – such as Sharp’s Island and Holland Island -- were simply the homes of farmers and fishermen, or mosquito-infested scabs of marsh grass.

On a recent afternoon, I set off in a kayak to find a tiny island that – strangely enough – has been heading in the opposite direction: rising from the bay, and  growing over the years.


Photo of the Enviva Ahoskie wood pellet mill in North Carolina, courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance

 

Last month, during an Earth Day event staged with timber industry executives at a school in Georgia, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Trump Administration would officially consider the clearcutting and burning of forests to be good for the climate.

The administration declared that burning wood – or “biomass,” as it’s called in industry jargon – to generate electricity is “carbon neutral.” Why? Because the carbon dioxide pollution that wood-fueled power plants release will allegedly be balanced out by the industry’s replanting of trees. This “carbon neutral” designation means EPA will grant the rapidly-growing biomass industry exemptions from any future carbon dioxide pollution control rules.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the policy shift is a Bethesda, Maryland-based company called Enviva Biomass. Enviva is the world’s largest producer of industrial wood pellets, and it owns manufacturing plants in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

 

Kevin Omland, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, stands below a highway overpass towering above a wooded stream valley in the Patapsco Valley State Park, just southwest of Baltimore.

He aims his binoculars up at a scraggly nest of sticks that ravens built in the steel beams beneath Interstate 195.

 “Give yourself a second and you can see three young,” Omland said. “They are hanging out there quite peacefully. Not flapping, maybe stretching a little bit.”

 “Wow!"  I replied. "Three large, black, sinister looking dudes sitting up on their nest under the bridge -- kind of ominous."

“Tom, you’re squinting incorrectly. Those are beautiful creatures,” Omland said. “They are going to have marvelous iridescent plumage in just a few days.”

Inside Climate News

Last week, this program discussed the spending and mismanagement scandals plaguing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and how they are increasing pressure on President Trump to fire EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

But if Pruitt goes, who is next in line to run EPA? 

The U.S. Senate recently held hearings to confirm EPA’s new deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who will automatically step up should his boss step down.

Wheeler, an environmental lawyer from Ohio, emphasized his work as EPA attorney, from 1991 to 1995.  “The environment today is cleaner than it has ever been in modern times,” Wheeler said. “As a nation, we have made tremendous progress since the 1970’s, and we have to build upon that progress.”

The New York Times

Last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before a U.S. House committee to answer questions about several scandals that have marked his administration.

“Good morning, Administrator Pruitt, and welcome back to the environment subcommittee,” said Congressman John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, a Democrat, was among those who grilled the EPA Administrator. Pruitt is a former Oklahoma attorney general who works in close concert with his state’s oil and gas industry to roll back environmental regulations that impact that industry.

“We’ve trying to keep up with the ethical lapses of the Trump Administration, and which I will tell you is kind of a full-time job,” Sarbanes said.  “And you certainly have been at the center of some of that focus. To date, five independent federal investigations have been initiated at this committee’s request, and more than eight independent federal reviews.” 

The Maryland Department of the Environment recently released its annual report on the agency’s efforts to enforce environmental laws in the state.

Tim Wheeler, associate editor and editor for the Bay Journal, examined the state’s water pollution enforcement numbers as part of his ongoing scrutiny of the bay cleanup.

He noticed a significant dropoff in actions by the agency under the most recent year of Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration.  “For water enforcement last year, the year that ended the end of June 2017, MDE (the Maryland Department of the Environment) took 771 enforcement actions. That’s 46 percent fewer than the year before, and the fewest number in the last decade,” Wheeler said.

But it’s not just water pollution enforcement actions that are down. According to the state report, the number of state water pollution inspectors has declined over time from 62 in the year 2000 to 47 last year.

 

Tom Pelton

In a park in West Baltimore, a spectacular arched stone bridge rises over a stream called the Gwynns Falls, which flows into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.

Although the bridge is beautiful and trees beside the stream are blossoming, when you look at the stream, you see that the Gwynns Falls is troubled. A whirpool of sludge twists under the bridge, with a gyre of Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles.

Alice Volpitta is the lead water quality scientist for Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that is fighting to clean up this and other city waterways.  She points to a sign and a sewer on the banks of the river.

“Baltimore City Department of Works has posted a temporary health warning sign next to this manhole to indicate there has recently been some sort of sewage overflow coming out of this manhole,” Volpitta said. “And if you get closer, you can smell the sewage.”

The Washington Post

At Midnight on Monday, the Maryland General Assembly’s annual session ended with applause and a traditional Latin phrase for adjournment.

“Sine die!” a state lawmaker called out, receiving loud and sustained applause in the senate chambers.

The most significant environmental bill to pass this year came in reaction to President Trump’s announcement in January that his administration would open up the East Coast to offshore drilling, including off Ocean City Maryland and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

State Delegate Kumar Barve, the Democratic chair of the House Environment and Transportation committee, co-sponsored a bill that will hold any drilling companies strictly liable for paying for the full cost of any damages and cleanups from oil spills.

Union of Concerned Scientists

On Monday, the Trump Administration announced that it will be eliminating air pollution control standards for cars and trucks imposed six years ago that would have required a doubling in the fuel efficiency of vehicles by 2025.

This could mean larger gas-guzzlers on our roads. The President’s rationale for this and other recent regulatory rollbacks is his claim that environmental rules hurt the economy.

“Let’s cut the red tape,” President Trump said.  “Let’s set free our dreams, and yes, let’s make America great again. And one of the ways we’re going to do that is by getting rid of a lot of unnecessary regulation.”

This argument clashes with the historical record, which shows that auto makers enjoyed record-setting sales in 2016 and 2015 even under tighter fuel-efficiency standards imposed by the Obama Administration in 2012.

Baltimore Waterfront Partnership

Mr. Trash Wheel is a water-driven trash-interceptor and collection machine that was installed four years ago at the mouth of the Jones Falls, where it empties into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It was invented by Baltimore entrepreneur John Kellett and has succeeded in collecting more than 1.5 million pounds of garbage over the years. It has also collected a large social media following, with 30,000 followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Tom Pelton

It was April 26, 1607. Three English ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, were sailing across the wind-swept Atlantic Ocean when their captain, Christopher Newport, saw the low-slung coast of the new world and entered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Newport, Captain John Smith and the other founders of the Jamestown colony, had not come for freedom.

In that way, they were different than other English colonizers of North America: the Pilgrims, who landed farther north 13 years earlier and established the Plymouth colony. The Pilgrims were religious separatists who endured the alien landscape because they hungered for religious liberty.

By contrast, Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London strictly as a for-profit business. The corporate mission was to find gold, as the Spanish did when they plundered the Aztecs almost a century earlier.

Tom Pelton

The Baltimore City Council on Monday approved two bills that environmental activists in the city had been fighting to advance for years.

The first bans the construction or expansion of any crude oil terminals in the city. The goal of this legislation, which passed by a vote of 14-1 and now must be signed by the mayor, is to reduce the risk that trains carrying volatile crude oil could derail and explode in the city.

The second bill outlaws a petroleum product: Styrofoam cups and fast-food containers, which do not break down in the environment like paper products, and so create a persistent source of litter, and a blight in streams and along roadsides.

Media Matters

For more than a quarter century, the Bay Journal has been a respected voice on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, funded in part through grants from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Then last spring, the journal published stories about the Trump Administration’s proposed deep cuts to EPA and how they would damage the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. In response, a political appointee in the Trump Administration decided that EPA’s $325,000 annual payments to the Bay Journal would be abruptly terminated in the second year of a six-year contract.

The Trump appointee, John Konkus, said: “the American people have major concerns with newspapers and the media,” according to a report by Greenwire. And so Konkus, an EPA communications official who also works as a media consultant for Republican political campaigns, saw no reason for EPA to keep funding the Bay Journal.

In a Senate committee hearing, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, grilled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about what appeared to be a politically motivated attack on the freedom of the press.

 

Natural Gas Now

Next month, the Maryland Public Service Commission will vote on whether to allow a Canadian energy company to buy Washington Gas and Light, a public utility that has provided electricity and natural gas to customers in the District of Columbia and Maryland suburbs for more than a century.

The proposed merger of AltaGas and Washington Gas is part of a trend across the country. Increasing numbers of locally-owned and controlled public utilities are being bought up by large corporate conglomerates based in distant headquarters, according to Paul Patterson, a utility industry analyst at Glenrock Associates in New York.

 “What you are seeing generally speaking in the utility sector is a considerable amount of consolidation for several years now,” Patterson said. “So, in the Washington DC area, for instance, you saw PEPCO – which is a familiar name on the electric side – that was bought recently by Exelon, which owns Baltimore Gas and Electric and some other utilities in Philadelphia and Chicago.”

As part of the discussions over Maryland’s approval of the proposed $4.5 billion AltaGas/Washington Gas merger deal, Governor Larry Hogan’s administration negotiated for the Canadian company to pay $103 million to kick start a natural gas pipeline expansion project in rural areas throughout Maryland, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.

University of Maryland Extension Service

Chlorpyrifos is a common insecticide sprayed on fruits, vegetables and golf courses around the world since the 1960s, but increasingly linked by scientists to brain damage and developmental problems in children.

After being petitioned by public health organizations, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November 2016  -- at the end of the Obama Administration – recommended a ban for chlorpyrifos because of these health concerns.

But as one of his first acts as the Trump Administration’s Administrator of EPA, Scott Pruitt in March 2017 overruled his scientists and allowed manufacturer Dow Agro Sciences to continue to sell the pesticide.

In Maryland, state Delegate Dana Stein, Vice-Chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, recently worked with colleagues to introduce legislation that would counteract the decision of the Trump Administration and ban chlorpyrifos in Maryland.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

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.'"

The Billings Gazette

Last week, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Trump Administration’s management of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Chairman John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, made a case frequently repeated by the administration: that by eliminating environmental regulations and slashing the budget and power of EPA, President Trump had unleashed job growth and a booming economy.

“The administration’s deregulatory approach is working,” Barrasso said. “According to the last Energy Information Administration quarterly report, coal production in the West is 19.7 percent higher than in the second quarter of 2016.  In addition, the stock market is reaching record, all-time highs.”

That cheerleading faded a bit over the next few days when the stock market plummeted.

Economist Roger Bezdek said it would be wrong to credit President Trump for either the rise in the market – which actually began under President Obama – or blame him for its sudden fall.

Tom Pelton

Twelve years ago, Baltimore spent $2.2 million on an erosion control project in a stream called the Stony Run that flows through a beautiful wooded park in North Baltimore. The city brought in bulldozers, cut down about 150 trees, and built rock walls and dams in an effort to slow the water’s flow.

The project succeeded in creating a series of pools in which minnows now live. But there is no evidence that it achieved its main objective: catching and reducing sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus pollution being washed downstream into the Chesapeake Bay.

Then, about two years after it was built, rain storms overwhelmed the system. The storms knocked the streamside boulders down into the waterway and required the construction crews and backhoes to return to the park again to fix it, temporarily.

A few years later, this fix was undone by another set of rain storms that again bashed the rocks out of place -- requiring a new round of repairs, this time costing $500,000. 

The New York Times

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced that it would open up the entire Eastern Seaboard to offshore drilling – including at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” Trump said.

Immediately after the announcement, the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott – leader of a politically important swing state where Trump maintains a waterfront mansion -- met with Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke. The governor voiced his strong objection to the offshore drilling near his state, because oil spills and unsightly oil platforms might put Florida’s tourism industry at risk.

Zinke quickly switched positions, and announced that Florida – but only Florida – was exempt and would not have offshore drilling.

 

Tom Pelton

The sun was setting behind a sea of pink and steel gray clouds at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern shore when a few dozen, then hundreds, then thousands of migrating geese rose into the sky with an explosion of wings.

Next to these wetlands is a futuristic-looking building with an array of solar panels and green roof.

This is the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center, which the Maryland Department of Natural Resources opened last year. It honors Tubman, the antislavery freedom fighter, who lived and hid runaway slaves here among the trackless marshes and loblolly pine forests surrounding the Blackwater River.

Angela Crenshaw, assistant manager of the facility, said the center focuses in part on nature because Tubman was a master of surviving alone in the wilderness.  She was a slave who escaped through the woods to freedom in the North and then returned a dozen times to personally rescue about 80 more people.

“Harriet Tubman was the ultimate outdoorswoman, which is the aspect of her life that I like to talk about the most,” Crenshaw said.

  

Rachel Baye

The Maryland General Assembly session opens today in Annapolis.  Last year, state lawmakers – in the face of a tidal wave of anti-environmental actions by the Trump Administration – stood against the tide and passed one of the strongest state environmental laws in America: a ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Although “states' rights” is not usually a war cry of Democratic lawmakers, the times are changing. A growing number of blue states, including Maryland and California, are taking action on problems like climate change that are being ignored or denied at the federal level.

State Delegate Kumar Barve is chairman of the house Environmental Matters Committee. He said his top priority this spring will be rallying state lawmakers to counter the Trump Administration’s recent decision to allow offshore oil drilling along the Maryland coast and at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Do you remember the Exxon Valdez?  Do you remember the BP offshore spill?” asked Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County.   “I mean, these are issues that – when a mistake happens – it’s a catastrophic mistake and an expensive mistake. And I don’t want to undo decades of work to clean up the Chesapeake Bay because one guy didn’t throw a switch in the right direction.”

This might turn out to be a bipartisan effort against offshore drilling. Republican Governor Larry Hogan has also come out against Trump’s proposal – as have the Republican governors of New Jersey, South Carolina and Florida.

 

colubroid.org

A biologist at George Washington University, Alexander Pyron, recently published an Op Ed in The Washington Post that made the argument that people shouldn’t worry about protecting endangered species because mass die-offs historically have been a natural part of life on Earth.

“Extinction is the engine of evolution,” Professor Pyron wrote. “It’s the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. Species constantly go extinct, and every species that is alive today will one day follow suit. There is no such thing as an ‘endangered species,’ except for all species. The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human being.”

EPA

The Trump Administration has announced that it will eliminate an Obama-era regulation called the Clean Water Rule, which was imposed in 2015 to limit development in wetlands and streams.

During President Trump’s announcement, he explained why he thinks the regulation is burdensome on economic growth and job creation.

“If you want to build a new home, for example, you have to worry about getting hit with a huge fine if you fill in as much as a puddle – just a puddle – on your lot,” Trump said at a press conference. “I’ve seen it. In fact, when it was first shown to me, I said, ‘You’re kidding, aren’t you?’  But they weren’t kidding.”

Many Congressional Republicans have made the same claim – that the Clean Water Rule is an oppressive over-reach by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, because it means EPA is imposing federal control over even puddles on farms.

But let’s examine the actual text of the regulation, as it is published in the Federal Register, volume 80, No. 124, in June 2015.

“No, it’s not true, as a category,” said Curt Spalding, a professor at Brown University and a former regional administrator for the EPA.

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