The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

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.

Trash Free Maryland

Our world is awash in litter, with a monstrous gyre of floating plastic swelling in the Pacific Ocean, bottles and cans cluttering our roadsides, and blighting even the most remote and beautiful Chesapeake Bay islands and wetlands.

One response to this: more than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have banned Styrofoam cups and food containers. These included the District of Columbia last year, along with suburban Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The Styrofoam industry and take-out food retailers, however, have been fighting back – launching a PR campaign and “Go Foam!” website.  The anti anti-foam forces prevailed in the Maryland General Assembly last winter, halting a bill that would have banned Styrofoam statewide.

In Baltimore, the crusade against what is more formally known as expanded polystyrene – a petroleum product-- is being led by a pair of students, Claire Wayner and Mercedes Thompson, both seniors at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

“A lot of the students that we’ve talked to especially see Styrofoam as this particularly malicious form of trash,” Wayner said. “Because whenever we do litter cleanups, you try to pick it up, and it just breaks apart, and you can’t get it out, physically.  So it’s ruining our ecosystem and it’s an eyesore for the Inner Harbor. So we need to get rid of it.”

www.doi.gov

The Department of the Interior is a sprawling federal agency that manages lands, wildlife and scientific research across the U.S. including through the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey.

Although much of the agency’s real-estate is in the West, here in Maryland it also has an important presence, managing – for example – the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the Assateague Island National Seashore, the Baltimore Washington Parkway, and the C & O Canal trail along the Potomac River.

For years, the agency’s motto read: “The Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; and provides scientific and other information about those resources.”

When President Trump took office and appointed former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to run the agency, they updated the motto to: “Our Mission: Protecting America's Great Outdoors and Powering Our Future.”

Zinke set about almost immediately to help the energy industry obtain more power over public lands by lifting an Obama-era ban on new coal mines on federal property, and lifting regulations for oil and gas companies that want to drill there.

Business in Frederick

I’m standing on the banks of the scenic Monocacy River in central Maryland, near Frederick.  As the sun sets, a full moon rises illuminating ragged rows of bone-white sycamores that flank the waterway as it winds through an historic landscape of Civil War battlefields.

Leaves drift by in the moonlight, like tiny brown kayaks.  And in fact, both the city of Frederick and the state of Maryland aggressively promote the Monocacy River for its kayaking and fishing.

But here on the river, you can hear a loud sound. It’s the sound of a waterfall that cascades into the river, down a tumble of granite boulders. You can tell it’s not a natural waterfall because the rocks are stained black and because of a powerful smell of ammonia: the gut-wrenching reek of raw human waste.

The waterfall pours into the river from the Frederick City Wastewater Treatment Plant.  The Environmental Integrity Project examined EPA and state records for the Frederick sewage plant and found that the plant dumped twice as much nitrogen pollution into the river – nearly 200,000 pounds --as its permit allowed last year. The problems continued into 2017, with the plant discharging – just from January through September – 30 percent more nitrogen pollution than it is legally permitted to release for an entire year.

Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Next Friday, on December 8, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration is scheduled to release new regulations to promote a new water pollution control system called pollution trading.

It’s a scheme, originally invented by Republican policy makers, that allows sewage treatment plants, power plants and other polluters to pay for the right to pollute more if they send cash – through the purchase of pollution credits – to other facilities that pollute less.

The idea is provide a market-friendly alternative to strict government limits on pollution from individual plants and to avoid government mandates to install better pollution control systems.

“It really seems to be a policy more geared toward cutting costs than really reducing water pollution,” said Evan Isaacson, Chesapeake Bay policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform.

With Maryland lawmakers set to evaluate this new system, a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project documents how water pollution trading schemes already underway in neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania create local pollution “hot spots” and undermine transparency and accountability for polluters.

Huffington Post

Last month, the Trump Administration banned from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board any and all scientists who receive EPA grants.

Instead, the administration invited onto the board – which is supposed to be an impartial panel of distinguished researchers -- a vice president of the Phillips 66 oil company, Merlin Lindstrom; and an manager for a coal-fired power utility, Larry Monroe of the Southern Company.

Also picked for the EPA Science Advisory Board was a California professor, Robert Phelan, who takes the minority position that clean air is not good for children, because their lungs need irritants to learn how to ward off pollution.

John Walke, director of clean air programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sees a pattern.

“The Trump Administration’s views on climate change and other dangerous pollution are well outside of main stream science,” Walke said. “So the Trump Administration is purging those expert mainstream scientists and replacing them with outliers and deniers of basic science concerning climate change, smog and soot.”

Kimberly Holzer

Around the world, ships moving from port to port and dumping their ballast water have often spread invasive species, including zebra mussels, toxic algae, parasites, and even cholera.

In an effort to crack down on the growing nuisance of exotic species in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay, the U.S. Coast guard in 2004 imposed a new rule for most ships entering American ports. The ships were required to dump their ballast water hundreds of miles away from shore and instead fill up their tanks with water from the open ocean. This deep water typically contains fewer coastal life forms and more salt, which can kill fresh-water creatures like invasive zebra mussels.

But when scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland, studied the impact of the new regulations, they discovered something unexpected: The number of marine hitchhikers multiplied instead of decreasing.

Tom Pelton

To meet federal pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland and other bay region states and counties are planning to rely on a politically fashionable --but questionable – scheme to reduce pollution.

That system is pollution trading.  Pollution trading is a strategy conceived by Republicans in the 1980s, when Reagan Administration held up free markets and de-regulation as magic elixirs for all that ails America.

San Antonio Express News

Biologists have long known that Monarch butterflies have been in sharp decline since the late 1990s. A  likely culprit is the increased spraying on farms fields of a weed killer, called RoundUp, which kills the milkweed plants that monarch caterpillars depend on as their sole food source.

At the same time, scientists have documented a decline in bees and other pollinators.  The causes of the bee collapse are likely complex. But again, one factor frequently discussed is modern industrial-style agriculture, which relies on large volumes of pesticides.

These conclusions, however, raiseda logical question:  Of course we take note of what’s happening with large, colorful butterflies and bees. Everyone, even children, notices them – and lots of scientists monitor their populations as their full time jobs.

But what about all the millions of species that are so obscure that nobody studies them or even thinks about them?  An answer to that question was recently published in a scientific journal called the Public Library of Science (PLOS Online).  Ecologist Caspar Hallman and colleagues documented a 75 percent decline in all flying insects over three decades across Germany. They counted bugs trapped in wildlife preserves surrounded by farm fields – and concluded that the pesticides sprayed on the farms is a possible cause.

 

Bay Journal

On Monday, the administration of President Trump – who falsely asserts that climate change is a ‘hoax’ – cancelled the appearances of three EPA scientists who were scheduled to talk about global warming at a conference in Rhode Island.

Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the oil and gas industry, has terminated EPA grants related to the study of greenhouse gas pollution. He’s also removed EPA web pages related to climate change, according to The Washington Post.

On August 23, the Trump Administration abruptly cancelled a $325,000 annual EPA grant to the Chesapeake Bay Journal in the second year of what was supposed to be a six-year agreement.  This put the 27 year old journalistic institution, which reports on climate change and many other issues critical to the Chesapeake, in immediate risk of severe cuts or closure.

Ecowatch

Earlier this year, I was in southeast Texas, taking pictures of an oil refinery for a report about air pollution and the harm it causes to lower-income communities like Port Arthur, Texas.

As I stood on a public roadway, a private security guard pulled up behind my car and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing.  I showed him my driver’s license and patiently explained the environmental journalism project I was researching. He reported me to the FBI as a potential terrorist.

My wife was startled when an FBI agent showed up at our house in Baltimore to investigate. I provided the agent with a detailed, written description of the report about air pollution I was working on. That seemed to satisfy the FBI, although it sent a chill down my spine.

I told my story to Alleen Brown, a reporter with The Intercept who has been investigating the increasing coordination between oil and gas companies, their private security firms, law enforcement – and efforts to smear and intimidate environmentalists.

“Yeah, actually that story doesn’t surprise me at all,” Brown said.

Tom Pelton

Most consumers know the ‘buy local’ and 'organic' labels for produce. But not everyone knows that just because something is grown locally and organically does not mean it is good for the Chesapeake Bay.

After all, factory-farmed chicken from Maryland’s Eastern Shore is local, but organic manure from this industry and Pennsylvania dairy farms are major sources of water pollution.  People who want to pick food that is healthy for both the bay and their bodies should consider supporting visionary farmers who are also dedicated to clean water.  That would include farmers like Brett Grohsgal, 56, who has been running the Even’ Star Organic Farm in southern Maryland for almost 20 years.

Instead of growing vast fields of a monoculture – like corn or soybeans –  Grohsgal allows half of his 100 acres in St. Mary’s County to remain forested.  And he aggressively rotates 70 different crops -- including cucumber, sweet potatoes and flowers -- from plot to plot on much of his remaining land. To protect the health of the two streams that flow through his property, he planted rows of black locust trees and loblolly pines to act as natural water filters.

Grohsgal is part of the new "Fair Farms" movement in Maryland.  Fair Farms is an alliance of 90 farmers, environmental organizations and farmers that supports growers who are not only organic, but also using practices like forested buffers along streams, which many conventional farmers do not use.

Tom Pelton

In the early 19th century there was a Baltimore tavern owner and merchant named Joseph Hart. He had his own, unconventional way of looking at the world – and he did not trust banks.

He was also somewhat strange and secretive. And so all of the money that he earned from his tavern, he snuck offshore in a boat and buried on a tiny, marshy island east of Essex, at the mouth of the Back River in the Chesapeake Bay.

As legend had it, the tavern owner – in his legitimate business dealings or otherwise – also somehow came into possession of a barrel full of gold pieces.  And so he also buried that on what became known as Hart Island.


WBAL-TV

Last week, in the far south Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay, an accident at a chemical factory released a huge cloud of chlorosulfonic acid – a gas that can burn the lungs and even be fatal.

Longshoreman Kasimir Kowalski was working nearby.  “A truck of chemicals inadvertently pulled off with the line still hooked up, and ripped the line and the chemicals came out and hit the ground and that’s why you got the flume,” he said.

The Baltimore Fire Department issued a “shelter in place” warning. City officials told 18,000 households within a mile radius of the Solvay Inc. USA chemical plant at 3440 Fairfield Road in Baltimore to remain indoors, close their windows, and try to avoid contact with the toxic yellow cloud drifting over the city.

No serious injuries were reported. But several Curtis Bay residents were angry about the lack of effective safety procedures and good public information about the numerous chemical and industrial plants that surround their homes.

 


@RepGoodlatte/Twitter

From the 1980s until 2010, the health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve – and it even worsened in some areas, with the waters becoming murkier with algae – despite three state-led, voluntary bay cleanup agreements.

After the failure of the third agreement in 2010, President Obama’s administration changed directions and asserted more federal leadership. EPA for the first time imposed numeric pollution limits on each of the bay region states and threatened penalties against states that did not meet the goals of what was called the bay pollution “diet.”

Despite opposition from the farm lobby and real estate developers, the new system worked.  According to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, from 2011 to 2016, the overall health of the bay surged, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution fell, dissolved oxygen levels improved, the water became clearer, and the extent of underwater grasses in the bay doubled.

On September 7, however, U.S. Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and ally of the farm lobby, sponsored a bill designed to end the new system.

 


The Daily Oklahoman

With hurricanes and floods recently swamping Florida, Texas, India and Bangladesh, and wildfires raging across California and the U.S. west, climate change is at the forefront of public policy discussions around the world.

An American agency with a central role in studying climate change is NASA, with its satellites providing critical data about temperatures and weather conditions. President Donald Trump has nominated as the next Administrator of NASA Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, Navy aviator and booster of the idea of privatizing space exploration. 

Bridenstine is strongly supported by the commercial space flight industry. But his confirmation is being opposed by many scientists, environmentalists and others who object to his denial of the scientific consensus that global warming is real.

CNBC

With Texas officials predicting more than $100 billion in cleanup costs from Hurricane Harvey, and Florida now threatened with flooding from Hurricane Irma, Sandra Knight couldn’t help thinking about flooding right here in Maryland.

Knight is a former deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency who is now a research engineer at the University of Maryland’s Center for Disaster Resilience. She said that with climate change driving up sea levels, cities like Baltimore and Annapolis in recent years have been experiencing far more frequent floods – and should prepare for even higher storm surges in the near future.

“Some of the statistics from NOAA tell us that, since the 1950s or 1960s, Annapolis and Baltimore have had their rates of sunny day flooding increase over 900 percent,” Knight said. “That tells us we’re very vulnerable.”

 


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.

 


Tom Pelton

In the Guilford neighborhood of North Baltimore, what had been a scenic man-made lake – a drinking water reservoir, high atop a hill, surrounded by a walking path -- has been transformed into a muddy construction site.

The Guilford Reservoir has been drained, and the tall grassy dams surrounding it are being bulldozed.  Cranes, backhoes and teams of workers are replacing the open drinking water storage pond with underground water storage tanks.

It is part of a $400 million project by the Baltimore Department of Public Works to rebuild five post-treatment, above-ground drinking water storage reservoirs – including Druid Lake and Lake Ashburton – to comply with new EPA drinking water safety regulations.  

Tom Pelton

On January 1, 2016, Baltimore missed a deadline from the U.S. Department of Justice to halt its chronic and illegal releases of raw sewage into the Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.

After negotiating with federal officials and the Maryland Department of the Environment, city officials last week released a revised consent decree that would give Baltimore another 14 years to fix the problem. 

Repairing and replacing all of the city’s leaky sewer pipes will eventually cost local ratepayers a total of $2 billion.

Speaking at a construction site, Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the city plans to stop the vast majority of sewage overflows within three years. The city will spend $430 million removing a sewer line obstruction at the entrance to the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant that has been causing a 10-mile sewage backup under the city, Raymond said. 


Tom Pelton

It’s a warm afternoon on the Chesapeake Bay, with a light breeze and the clouds piled high, and Brooke Landry, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is in a skiff motoring toward Marshy Creek.

After weaving between channel markers, she finally reaches a cluster of floating islands of underwater grasses.  It’s a dense jungle, with seedpods projecting from the surface like clusters of grapes. Hundreds of minnows dart between the branches and a Chesapeake stingray glides past.

Landry, chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s aquatic vegetation research workgroup, reaches down into the forest and pulls up a handful of plants.

 “The one I’ve got in my hand right now is Elodea canadensis, Canadian waterweed,” she says, fingering a feathery shaft. “It’s a lovely, beautiful plant. The second one I managed to grab was redhead grass, Potamogeton perfoliatus. It’s different from a lot of grasses in the bay because it has these small, maybe one inch long leaves that grow alternately all the way up the stalk.”

 


Solar Gaines

The solar energy industry has been growing rapidly in Maryland and across the U.S. over the last eight years. One of many signs of that explosion can be seen here at the Gilman School in Baltimore, where a local company called Solar Gaines last year installed 288 black glistening solar panels on the rooftops.

Hans Wittich, president of Solar Gaines, said the installation not only saves the private school money on its electric bills, but also provides an educational example for the students about how pollution-free energy can be practical and affordable.

“It’s visible. It looks great. And it generates, I believe, 20 to 30 percent of their electricity needs,” Wittich said.


Phys.org

Political winds are blowing hard this time of year off Ocean City.

In May, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved a $2.5 billion wind farm east of the Eastern Shore that would raise as many as 187 wind turbines, each more than 50 stories tall, 17 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But then last week, U.S. Representative Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore and parts of central Maryland, threw a wrench into the turbines.  He introduced language into a federal appropriations bill that would block the U.S. Department of the Interior from spending any money evaluating the U.S. Wind Project.


Tom Pelton

Devra Kitterman dug up the lawn of her home on Hawthorne Road in Baltimore and replaced the turf grass with a lush jungle of ferns, dogwoods and a pond floating with lilies and frogs. She also planted several milkweed plants to feed monarch butterflies.

“Butterflies need milkweed – especially Monarchs – to lay their eggs,” said Kitterman, a beekeeper and Pollinator Program Coordinator at the Maryland Agricultural Resources Council.  “And monarchs are very, very dependent on milkweed. All of the types are really important. And I encourage people to plant as many as you can." 

Like many other gardeners across the country, Kitterman been trying to fight back against a sharp decline in butterflies, bees and other insects. Scientists say this decline has been caused in part by widespread spraying of agricultural pesticides and herbicides, including Round Up (the trade name for glyphosate), which kills the milkweed that many farmers regard as a nuisance.

 


EPA

The Trump Administration recently announced that it would 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.”


Tom Pelton

In a remote valley in the Appalachian mountains, as the setting sun lit the tops of sycamore trees with gold light, Keith Eshleman strode down a ragged logging road, past yellow and white wildflowers, to his workplace.

Eshleman is a water quality scientist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s lab in Frostburg. He stepped on mossy rocks through a stream called Black Lick, which has a water quality monitoring device in a box mounted atop a pipe.

It was here, nearly 200 miles from the Chesapeake Bay, that Eshleman made a discovery that turned the bay upside down. Over two decades of monitoring this and a dozen other streams that flow into the  Potomac River, Eshleman found that levels of nitrogen – a pollutant that fertilizes algal blooms and dead zones in the bay -- plummeted as much as 70 percent  in forested streams from 1995 to 2010.

Tom Pelton

It’s just after sunrise, and James “Ooker” Eskridge, a Chesapeake Bay waterman and Mayor of Tangier Island, is in a skiff motoring across the harbor in his morning commute to his office.  The soft morning light illuminates rickety crab shacks on pillars above the water and workboats heading out into the bay.

Above it all rises a water tower, painted with a blue crab on one side and a huge cross on the other, representing the two things that keep this island town of 470 people afloat: the seafood industry and prayer.

When the mayor pulls up to his work shed on a platform over the water, he introduces his political staff: Four stray cats that work with him out here with his tanks full of soft crabs.  ”That’s Condi Rice,” Eskridge says of the first cat. “That’s Sam Alito, John Roberts and Ann Coulter.”

The cats’ names hint at his conservative politics.  And yet, when he’s not tending his soft crab business, he spends much of his time on an issue that not many Republican office holders want to tackle:  The impact of climate change, which is driving up sea levels and rapidly eroding Tangier and scores of other low-lying islands in the bay and around the world.


Tom Pelton

It’s a warm June night and a full moon is painting a silvery path across the gentle ripples on Delaware Bay.

I’m on the beach, southeast of Dover.   And from the darkness of the bay, I watch what looks like an invading force of army helmets with eyes on them emerge from the murk to crowd, clatter and scrape against each other along the shoreline.

These are horseshoe crabs – prehistoric creatures that have been summoned by full moons and high tides like this for hundreds of millions of years to perform this springtime mass mating ritual on the beach.


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