Tom Pelton | WYPR

Tom Pelton

Host, The Environment in Focus

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007.  He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.  From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Last week on this program, we examined the environmental record of Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan as he runs for re-election on November 6.

This week, we’ll look at the environmental platform and history of his Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous. Jealous has never held an elected office. But he’s a former Rhodes Scholar, newspaper reporter and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At the NAACP, Jealous started the organization’s climate justice program, which emphasizes that minorities and lower income people are often hit hardest by flooding, extreme weather, air pollution, and other impacts of burning fossil fuels.

As candidate for Governor, at the top of Jealous’ list of environmental priorities is to have Maryland join California and Hawaii as states that plan to stop using coal and natural gas to generate electricity and switch to 100 percent solar, wind and other clean fuels.

Chesapeake Bay Magazine

With Republican Maryland Governor Larry Hogan running for re-election in a majority Democratic state on Nov. 6th, he’s emphasizing his record on the environment as an area to claim a moderate legacy, and to differentiate himself from Republican President Trump, who is highly unpopular in the state.

Hogan’s environmental secretary, Ben Grumbles, highlights Governor Hogan’s efforts to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, including the tons of sediment pouring over the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.

“I would say, number one, would be the strong, bipartisan support for Chesapeake Bay restoration,” said Grumbles, asked to list the governor's top environmental accomplishments.  “And I have to fold into that not only the governor’s record funding for the Chesapeake Bay restoration, from Program Open Space, to the 2010 Trust Fund, to full and robust support for the Bay Restoration Fund and the other funding programs. But it’s also about being a strong supporter of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.”

The Bay TMDL – or Total Maximum Daily Load – is the set of EPA pollution limits that the Obama Administration imposed for Chesapeake region states in 2010. And this is where Hogan’s claims of success become as murky as the bay itself has been this summer, with the record-breaking rainfall and large amounts of runoff pollution.

Tom Pelton

I’m on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, near Denton, standing in a forested wetlands surrounded by miles of corn and soybean fields. Here, in this little island of biodiversity, sweetgum trees and bald cypresses rise up from coffee-colored water.

A gentle wind sways the branches, leading spots of light and shadow in a dance over the surface of the water, illuminating tufts of grasses and rotting logs that are home to salamanders and frogs.

This place is what is called a “Delmarva Pothole” or “Delmarva Bay.” They are small, isolated, fresh water wetlands that are connected only beneath the ground to nearby streams and rivers.

Although few outsiders have ever heard of them, biologists say these potholes – which locals call “whale wallows” -- provide invaluable ecological services for the Chesapeake Bay by filtering runoff pollution being washed by rain off of farm fields.

Tom Pelton

 

A white ash tree stands beside my front porch in Baltimore -- its trunk nearly as thick as I am tall, and its branches stretching at least three times the height of my three-story house, shading one side of my roof to the other.

It’s about 200 years old, and it started growing back when this section of the city was still farmland beside a stream, decades before the Civil War.

From one of its massive branches, I hung a rope swing that my daughters flew on through the air in their white first communion dresses many springs ago, and that all my neighborhood’s children adopted as their swing.

But recently my old friend hasn’t been looking himself.   The tips of several of its high branches never grew leaves this summer.  So I called in a tree doctor: Matt Mitchelltree of North Hill Tree Experts.

“Well the tree definitely has emerald ash borer, which is an invasive insect we’ve been dealing with over the last five six years," Mitchelltree said. "It does a lot of internal damage to the plant, which causes die backs in the tips and eventual death of the tree.”

 

Tom Pelton

Maryland has experienced the rainiest year on record in more than a century, with the 43 inches falling through August 15th -- the most since 1889.

So much stormwater has been flooding down the Susquehanna River into the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay that the Exelon Power company opened several of the flood gates on the Conowingo Dam, unleashing a torrent of sediment and pollution that had been trapped behind the dam.

In the past, large rainstorms have proved devastating for the bay’s underwater grasses – which are home to blue crabs and fish and perhaps the single best indicator of the Chesapeake’s health. After Hurricane Irene and then Tropical Storm Lee hit in 2011, for example, grasses in the bay were smothered by sediment, plummeting by 44 percent over two years. That was before they then rebounded and more than doubled to more than 100,000 acres last year, the largest extent since monitoring began in the 1980s.

To get a sense of how the bay’s grasses are holding up to the historic rainfall this year, I set out in a boat from Havre De Grace on the northern Bay with Brooke Landry, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist and aquatic vegetation expert with Chesapeake Bay Program.

Tom Pelton

It was just after dawn when I set out paddling in my kayak to find nature in one of the least natural places on Earth.

I had launched into the Patapsco River from Fort Armistead Park near the base of the Francis Scott Key Bridge south of Baltimore. Truck traffic roared overhead on Route 695.   Ahead of me, the morning sun sparkled silver in a rippling path toward the old Sparrows Point steel mill.  Behind my back rose the smokestacks of a pair of coal-fired power plants, a chemical factory, sewage plant, and the mounded back of the city’s Quarantine Road landfill.

But the sky was blue, the breeze was balmy, and out on the water I felt away from it all.

Tom Pelton

I’m at Gertrude’s Restaurant on North Charles Street in Baltimore with its owner, famed Chesapeake Bay chef and author, John Shields.  I’m here to talk about his newest book, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, which makes the case that we should all make our eating habits more sustainable.

He escorts me into his inner sanctum: the kitchen.

“These are the single fried oysters, right here,” Shields said, lifting a clear plastic container brimming with mollusks.  “So you see here, you have the shucked oysters, and you make a mixture of cornmeal and flower. You just shake off the excess, and then it goes right over there, into the deep fryer. No muss, no fuss!"

As the breaded morsels sizzle and brown in the roiling oil, it becomes obvious that when Shields says he’s making his meals more environmentally friendly, he’s not doing what some people might associate with the term: inflicting hardship and denial, perhaps by demanding that we only eat kale and tofu.

wikipedia

This month, the U.S. Senate will be considering legislation that threatens to reverse historic progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

On July 19, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives voted 213 to 202 – largely along partisan lines – to pass a budget amendment that would prohibit the federal Environmental Protection Agency from penalizing states that fail to meet pollution limits for the bay imposed by EPA in 2010.

The lead sponsor was Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, an ally of the farm lobby, which went to court to contest the federal Bay pollution limits.

“The EPA cannot be allowed to railroad the states and micromanage the process,” Goodlatte said. “With this amendment, we are simply telling the EPA the important role that states play in implementing the Clean Water Act and preventing another federal power grab.”

Wikipedia Commons

According to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, more than 40 percent of mammal species have experienced severe population declines over the last century, meaning that their range has shrunk more than 80 percent.

Almost 200 species of vertebrates have gone extinct over the last 100 years, a rate of about two extinctions per year. That’s 100 times the historic rate. Previous mass die-offs have been caused by asteroids, volcanos and other natural catastrophes. But this one has been triggered by human population growth, development, and climate change, scientists have concluded.

In the face of this rapid decline in biodiversity, a few things have worked to protect nonhuman life. Notably, in the U.S., the Endangered Species Act of 1973 has succeeded in saving several animals faced with elimination, including American alligators, whooping cranes, grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, California condors, the American gray wolf, and, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the Delmarva fox squirrel.

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.

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