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.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)

During the last decade, when the Chesapeake Bay region states publicly promised to increase their efforts to clean up the nation’s largest estuary, four of the six states quietly cut funding for the state environmental agencies responsible for carrying out that cleanup.

Among the worst offenders, according to an examination of state budget documents by the Environmental Integrity Project, was Pennsylvania, the state that contributes by far the most pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Governors and lawmakers in the Keystone State cut funding and staffing at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection by about 15 percent between 2008 and 2018, even as the overall state budget grew by 18 percent over this time.


Bonnie Bick is an unassuming person. She’s a 72-year-old former flower child and pre-school teacher with a soft voice, who has little money and few possessions, but loves walking in the woods near her small brick house in southern Maryland.

But among land conservationists, she is a hero – a fierce and tenacious fighter who outlasted developers and the political establishment in Charles County to stop a highway project – the Cross County Connector, which would have fed sprawling subdivisions. The project has now turned into a proposal for a much greener bike path surrounded by trees.

“It’s a very exciting end for that terrible, long ordeal – fighting the Cross County Connector,” Bick reflected. “It was like a miracle to stop it.”

Over three decades of unpaid and often unrecognized behind-the-scenes work, Bick took on development projects that many people thought were unstoppable -- but it was the gentle, patient, tenacious Bonnie Bick who proved unstoppable. The result: She quietly helped to save thousands of acres of green space in a state increasingly consumed by cul-de-sacs and strip malls.

Wikimedia Commons

During a recent press event, President Trump declared that he is urging his Environmental Protection Agency to weaken federal water conservation standards because of troubles that unnamed friends of his have been having with their toilets.   

It was 9 am Friday outside an office tower on Charles Street in downtown Baltimore. Thirteen activists wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with a rising sun emblem and wielding bright yellow and orange cardboard shields gathered to protest at the office of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

Evelyn Hammid, a local leader of the group, called the Sunrise Movement, explained what the organization is all about.

“We are a movement of young people across the country mobilizing to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, and ensure that we have a just transition to renewable energy," Hammid said.

The group’s goal that day was to march into Senator Cardin’s office and demand that he sign a written pledge to support the Green New Deal. It's a resolution that outlines a World War II-scale mobilization to transform the U.S. economy so that it has net zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years. 

I ask her:  In this era of the Trump Administration’s outright denial of climate science, is it perhaps politically counter-productive to protest a Democrat like Ben Cardin who has a generally strong record on the environment?

Wikimedia Commons

More than two decades ago, an outbreak of toxic algae and fish kills in the Pocomoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore set off alarms about the dire state of the Chesapeake Bay’s health.

On December 1, 1997, a blue ribbon panel of experts, led by former Governor Harry Hughes, recommended that Maryland take “immediate” action to halt the over-application of poultry manure to farm fields, which was feeding the algal blooms.

The growth of industrial scale poultry operations – and the massive amount of excess manure they produce – had long been suspected as a major source of phosphorus overload in the soil and pollution in the Eastern Shore’s rivers. 

But the call for immediate limits on manure spreading ran immediately into the political power of the farm lobby in Maryland state government.  And so nothing significant happened on this problem for 13 years.

Wikimedia Commons

Last November, just after Thanksgiving, General Motors announced that it would eliminate 4,000 auto manufacturing jobs by shutting down plants in Baltimore County; Warren, Michigan; and Lordstown, Ohio.

But then in March, GM switched gears. The company said it was building a new $300 million auto plant north of Detroit. However, the new plant in Orion, Michigan, would employ only 400 workers – not 4,000. And the workers would primarily be building electric vehicles, not petroleum-fueled cars and trucks.

The change was a sign of the times. The growing popularity of Tesla electric cars has proven that zero emission vehicles are increasingly marketable and functional. And California’s tightening of fuel-efficiency standards – although under regulatory assault by the Trump Administration—is, in fact, driving GM, Ford and other manufacturers to build more electric vehicles.

Wikimedia Commons

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

Schloegel and her fellow researchers concluded that the breeding and farming of bullfrogs in Brazil, Taiwan and China, and the international sales of these live frogs may be spreading a fungus that causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is often deadly in amphibians.

Although bullfrogs are native to North America part of the natural ecosystem here, their sale, release and multiplication around the world is also creating an invasive species problem in other countries, as the large and aggressive bullfrogs gobble up smaller frogs and amphibians.

Wikimedia commons

Around the world, humans have wiped out 60 percent of all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, according to a report by the World Wildlife Foundation.

To cite one just example in North America, seventy percent of shorebird populations have disappeared since 1973. That was when I was a child strolling on the beach. 

Modern civilization is wreaking havoc on biodiversity, with our industries, population growth and pesticides gradually killing off most large forms of life that do not serve humanity or feed off of us.

This is frightening. But at the same time, the average life span of people around the world has more than doubled since 1900, because of medical improvements, advances in farming technology and rising incomes.

This conflict is sometimes described as the “environmentalists paradox.” The paradox, in a nutshell, is that the quality of life for humans has improved even as we’ve pillaged and destroyed the planet’s natural ecosystems.

The Intercept

Since 1971, 10 states – led by Oregon and Vermont – have passed bottle deposit laws. These so-called “bottle bills” have proven to increase recycling rates and reduce litter on roadsides and in waterways. The laws give people a financial incentive, often five or ten cents per bottle or can, to pick up the litter and return the containers for a cash reward.

For example, Michigan passed a 10 cent bottle deposit law in 1976 and today enjoys a 95 percent recycling rate for bottles and cans. That’s almost four times the 25 percent rate in Maryland, which does not have a deposit law.

Six times in Maryland over the last decade, legislators have proposed bottle bills. Predictably, soda and beer manufacturers and store chains have fought the laws, because they don’t want to lose any income or take responsibility for handling dirty containers.

But that’s not why the bottle bills keep dying in Maryland and other states. The really effective lobbying against them in recent years has come from county and city recycling programs. These local government programs do not want to lose any of their own income, either from re-selling glass and aluminum or through grants from phony environmental groups such as Keep America Beautiful that are quietly bankrolled by the soda companies.

Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner popped the top off of this recycling corruption scandal in a recent article published on the news website The Intercept.

Thomas Easley

Thomas RaShad Easley grew up in an apartment in an urban neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. But he learned to love nature, in part because his grandparents cultivated a lush garden amid the concrete and blacktop.

He was also an Eagle Scout, and Scouting got him out of the city and into the woods, where he enjoyed  spending time at Tannehill State Park.

“Yes, we would go camping, and I’m glad that we did it. Because at first, I didn’t want to do it,” Easley recalled. “And then, when we got out there, it was so much fun. You know, me and the guys. And the other good thing about our scout troop was we were a diverse scout troop. So we had black, white, as well as brown young men in our troop.  So it was almost like a social experiment – Troop 49 in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Easley went on to earn an undergraduate degree in forest science from Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University; a master’s degree in forest genetics is from Iowa State University; and eventually a doctorate from North Carolina State University. He is now an assistant dean at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

But in his work with environmental groups, he noticed that they were not like Troop 49 in Birmingham.  They were almost entirely white – with very few African Americans like him, or Latinos or other minorities. This ethnic narrowness caused a problematic narrowness of focus – in terms of both audience and subject matter.

Tom Pelton

Last week, Baltimore Mayor Jack Young abruptly announced the retirement of city’s Director of Public Works, Rudy Chow, amid public controversy surrounding steep rate hikes that have more than tripled water and sewer bills.

One of the most expensive infrastructure projects that Chow launched was right here, in Baltimore’s Hanlon Park. Hundreds of trees have been cut down and the grass torn up into a mud and gravel landscape rumbling with bulldozers.

“This was the most wooded areas of the Ashburton community in Northwest Baltimore,” said Mark Reutter a reporter for the news website Baltimore Brew who has been writing about the project. “This park had 198 mostly old-growth trees, all of which have been removed to place these tanks.”

The tanks he’s referring to are massive underground drinking water holding tanks that the Baltimore Department of Public Works is building both here and beneath part of Druid Lake in Druid Park to replace old open drinking water reservoirs and comply with EPA regulations.

But Reutter’s investigations revealed that the drinking water projects, under Chow’s leadership, were almost $200 million more expensive than they had to be, and delayed for years.

University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Many of us would like to gaze into a crystal ball and see what the future will be like.

Well, Matt Fitzpatrick, an ecologist and associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that for Baltimore. And he discovered that our future is … Mississippi.

In an article published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, Fitzpatrick examined the best available climate change modeling data for 540 North American cities sixty years from now, assuming that current rates of greenhouse gas pollution continue.

“By 2080, we expect Baltimore’s climate to become most like those found in the Deep South today,” Fitzpatrick said. “So we are talking Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, East Texas, those kinds of places.  Actually the best match is a town called Cleveland, Mississippi, in the northwestern part of the state.”

In case you are not familiar with this non-Ohio Cleveland, Cleveland, Mississippi, is a depopulating town of about 12,000 souls in the Mississippi Delta. It has a per capita income less than half that of Baltimore’s and is most famous as the former home to the legendary blues musician W.C. Handy, who called himself the father of the blues.

Tom Pelton

It was a late Saturday afternoon, and I was on the Chesapeake Bay, on a peninsula of land called Taylor’s Island, about 15 miles southwest of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

I dragged my kayak across slabs of concrete beside the road and then launched into the Little Choptank River. Blue crabs were dense in the nooks between the rocks, scuttling away when I dipped my paddle into the waters.

As the sun slid lower on the horizon, I headed out across the rippled, olive-green surface toward a tuft of trees rising from the waters, about a half mile out. Fish jumped. An osprey circled and then dove.

My destination was James Island. Settled by the English in the 1600’s, James Island was once a 1,300 acre expanse of forested land -- a fishing and farming community with 20 homes, a school, store, and Methodist church.  But it was abandoned to rising sea levels in the 1910’s. James Island is one of hundreds of Chesapeake Bay islands that have been consumed by rising sea levels driven by climate change.

Tom Pelton

Almost four years ago, the sewers of Baltimore erupted in a scandal.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment had sued the city to force it to fix its leaky and overwhelmed sewer system and stop discharging raw waste into the Inner Harbor and urban streams.

The Baltimore Department of Public Works more than tripled water and sewer rates, but mismanaged the sewer system upgrade project. City workers shut down sewage outfall pipes before it increased the capacity of the system. This caused raw waste to erupt into the basements of hundreds of homes.

Natasza Bock-Singleton, a community leader and mother of three from southwest Baltimore, described what these sewage floods are like during a public hearing on the problem Monday at the Maryland Department of the Environment.  She said her home suffered more than $25,000 in damage from three sewage floods.

“It’s a geyser of human waste,” said Bock-Singleton. “And just to clarify – it doesn't happen when it starts to rain. There is a little bit of a lull.  You have a rain storm, and you think you might have a problem, so you go in your basement and you wait and you watch (the toilet) and you put everything else on hold.  And there is a little gurgle, so you call 311, and just as the rain stops, and the sun comes out, and the birds chirp, and rainbows come, then the geyser of human waste comes up.”

Tom Pelton

On Monday in Washington D.C., three blocks north of the White House, climate activists shut down traffic by banging drums, chanting, and dragging a 24-foot long boat into the middle of a busy intersection.

The sailboat was painted bright pink on one side, and yellow on the other, and emblazoned with the words, “Tell the Truth,” and “Rebel for Life.”  As more than 40 police officers surrounded the protesters, one of the crew raised a flag over the ship with a black X surrounded by a circle. It’s the symbol of a group called the Extinction Rebellion.

One of the protesters, Nadine Bloch of Tacoma Park, explained what the advocacy organization is. “The Extinction Rebellion is a group that’s global, that’s working on moving governments and others to take responsibility and change what we’re doing,” Block said.  “The goal is to actually address the climate crisis now and keep fossil fuels in the ground and make sure the government is doing what it needs to do to keep our climate change in check.”

Tom Pelton

On Friday, groups of students around the world plan to walk out of classes and hold marches and protests to demand government action on climate change.

Globally, the youth protests are being inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist named Greta Thunberg.  She held a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court today and told elected officials: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists and I want you to unite behind the science.”

In Baltimore, several students have been influenced by Thunberg’s leadership. A coalition of activists plans to meet at 8:30 am on Friday at the Bryn Mawr School at 109 West Melrose Avenue in North Baltimore. The students will then march south down Charles Street and hold a demonstration at noon at the Inner Harbor.

Hachette Books

One of the biggest obstacles to dealing with the problem of climate change is that it will not impact everyone equally.

Even if temperatures soar, coastal cities are flooded, and drought makes water supplies dwindle, the rich will still be able to turn up their air conditioning, jet off to Aspen, and pay a few bucks more for bottled water.

And it’s these millionaires and billionaires  -- like the current occupants of the White House -- who control the levers of government in the United States and other countries. They decide whether or not we should change our fuel consumption or lifestyles.

Meanwhile, the people who will suffer and die from global warming are the poor. They don’t have air conditioning when temperatures hit 104 degrees, often live in older urban like New Orleans or Baltimore beside the rising waters, and will be powerless if their food and water becomes too expensive.

This is one of the insights of author Bryan Walsh’s new book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World.

Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years ago, following a trend of Republican-style free-market deregulation across the country, the Democratic-led Maryland General Assembly passed a law called the Electric Customer Choice and Competition Act of 1999.

The whole point of the law was to make electricity cheaper for average folks. The idea was to give people the freedom to choose whether to keep buying from old-fashioned, regulated public utilities like BGE or PEPCO, or sign contracts with a whole galaxy of new, unregulated electric providers.

Utility executives who pushed the scheme made millions.

But customers did not make out so well. Two decades after the deregulation law passed, a pair of authoritative reports -- by the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel and the Abell Foundation -- have concluded that Maryland rate payers were ripped off and are now paying more, not less, as promised.

Tom Pelton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized Pennsylvania for being the state that contributes by far the most pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and the state that has done the least to meet its cleanup obligations.

But the problem in Pennsylvania is a political one, because many local voters don’t care about the Chesapeake Bay because they don’t live near it.

So I worked with my colleagues at the Environmental Integrity Project to investigate the question:  Well, how is Pennsylvania doing on enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect local waterways in its own back yard, in the state Capital?

We examined fiveyears of public records and found that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been taking a lax approach to sewage discharges in Harrisburg. The state agency has penalized only 20 percent of 131 self-reported illegal sewage discharges from the city’s water and sewer authority since 2015.

Tom Pelton

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, at the very end of a long peninsula reaching out into the Chesapeake Bay, is a remote and isolated crabbing town called Deal Island.

The place is so little-known and off the grid that it is often mistaken for the better known town of Deal, Maryland – on the Western Shore. But this is a different place, all the way on the other side of the Bay. And the only way to get to Deal Island is down a long road leading west from Princes Anne through vast and open wetlands and over a narrow bridge.

The town is dominated by a wooden dock, piled with crab pots. A waterman’s bar called “Arby’s”  doubles a general store, and about 20 workboats come and go.

A skipjack called the Somerset is tied up beside the boat ramp, its canvas sails furled and streaks of rust tracing its white wooden hull. It’s a sign of this town’s still-living connections to the Chesapeake’s history, when thousands of these single-masted ships dredged oysters from the bay bottom.

D Coetzee/flickr creative commons

President Trump’s official campaign website features a new product for sale: Red plastic drinking straws with the word “Trump” emblazoned on their side.

The price: $15 for a pack of 10. The website advertises them this way: “Liberal paper straws don’t work. STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP.”

Apparently, Trump voters are snapping them up – despite the fact that, at the price of a dollar and a half for each straw, the Trump straws are about 75 times more expensive than biodegradable paper straws. Politico reports that the Trump campaign has already raised almost half-million dollars selling plastic straws.

Now, you might think, well that’s just funny. Trump supporters are gleefully trolling liberals and environmentalists by saying, in effect, “You say the ocean is full of plastic trash?  Your beaches are covered in litter? Stick a Trump straw in your political correctness …and your biodegradable straw mandates.”

Tom Pelton

It was a hot Friday afternoon, with mounds of white clouds in a dazzling blue sky, and I was hiking along the gravel of the Chesapeake & Ohio canal trail in Western Maryland. 

To my right, down a steep, wooded embankment flowed the waters of the Potomac River. The river here, at a place called the Paw Paw Bends, twists and snakes in five horseshoe-shaped turnarounds within a six-mile stretch.

To the left of the trail is a muddy ditch, spouting with wetlands plants. It’s all that’s left of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The canal was built from 1836 to 1850 to carry coal and other goods from the Appalachian Mountains 184 miles down to Washington, D.C.

I pass a stand of sycamores trees, and suddenly, up ahead, I see something dramatic:  The gaping mouth of an ancient-looking tunnel, carved from rock to allow the canal and trail to pass through the mountains.

This is the entrance to the Paw Paw Tunnel -- in my view, one of the most amazing places in Maryland for hikers and nature lovers to visit, and a gem in the chain of scenic wonders that line the C & O Canal Trail National Historic Park.

Wikimedia Commons

As he runs for re-election, President Trump is portraying himself as the man who turned around the American energy industry and rescued it from a hostile Obama Administration that strangled energy innovators with regulations.

“The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy,” Trump said during a July 8 speech on the environment at the White House.  "They can't do that. They sought to punish our workers, our producers, and manufacturers.”

The Trump Administration has been good to energy innovators?  Tell that to Hans Wittich.  He’s a Baltimore area businessman, president of the Solar Gaines solar panel installation company based in Hunt Valley. In part because of technological advances and falling prices of solar panels, under the Obama Administration, Wittich’s business grew from two employees in 2009 to 45 in 2017.

Then President Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels manufactured in China – raising their prices to Wittich’s customers and undermining financial support for his industry. Wittich was forced to cut his workforce by more than 40 percent, from 45 employees down to 25.

“You know, as a business owner, we never anticipated those layoffs, and you feel badly about it,” Wittich said.  “I mean, these are people whose families depend on the income, so we’ve been very careful about re-hiring.  We’ve looked to subcontract some stuff so that we don’t over hire.”

Crown Publishing Group

In the science fiction film The Matrix, the global environment has been destroyed. But most people don’t know it, because their minds are caught up in a software program and all they see is a beautiful, computer generated reality while their bodies lie in metal and glass capsules.

To David Wallace-Wells, the movie is a good analogy for what advancing technology is doing to people’s ability to see, and therefore care about, the ecological damage we are inflicting on the earth. His new book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explores the intersection between people’s growing obsession with iPhones and digital images and the widespread lack of concern about the very real floods, wildfires, pollution and plastic trash all around us in the real world.

Here’s Wallace-Wells discussing how people respond to climate change. “The Matrix is absolutely right that one way we may respond it to try to concoct, or enact, false bubbles in which we can continue to live or pretend to live in a kind of time of plenty and paradise, when – in fact, in reality – we are living in a much, much more degraded landscape,” he said in an interview.

Wikimedia Commons

The Trump Administration is proposing to roll back car and truck fuel-efficiency standards that were imposed by the Obama Administration to cut down on the burning of petroleum and reduce the greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change.

The main public argument the Trump EPA is making for this de-regulation is the suggestion that smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles are more dangerous to their drivers in crashes than larger, heavier gas guzzlers like SUV’s, crossovers and pickup trucks.

Here’s Bill Wehrum, chief of the EPA’s air program, testifying before a U.S. House committee on June 20 about the Trump Administration’s so-called SAFE (Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient) vehicles rule proposed for the years 2021 through 2026.

“The proposal would revise existing fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards to give the American people greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles,” Wehrum said. “The proposal estimates that the preferred alternative would prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries.”

It should be noted that Wehrum resigned six days after this testimony amid ethics investigations into his former work as a lobbyist at a firm that represented polluting industries, including clients – petroleum refiners – who would profit from the more relaxed fuel-efficiency standards Wehrum was promoting.

But beyond this ethical issue, what about the broader assertion that bigger vehicles are safer?

Wikimedia Commons

A heat wave in Europe this week drove up temperatures to a record-breaking 115 degrees in France.  In the American Midwest, scientists said climate change contributed to torrential downpours that flooded farms and killed livestock.

In Delaware Bay, rising water temperatures are playing a role in a small but increasing number of cases of swimmers becoming infected with a  flesh-eating disease called vibrio that normally only lives in tropical waters, according to a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

With all of these climate-related impacts unfolding, a reporter asked President Trump at an international economics conference in Japan on Saturday why he is rolling back environmental regulations and pulling out of an international agreement, the Paris Climate Accord, meant to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that is causing global warming.

Here’s how the President responded. “I’m not looking to put our companies out of business,” Trump said at the G20 conference. “I’m not looking to create a standard that is so high that we’re going to lose 20 to 25 percent of our production.  I’m not willing to do that.  We have the cleanest water we’ve ever had.  We have the cleanest air.  You saw the reports that came out recently – we have the cleanest air we’ve ever had.”

This is an argument that Trump and Congressional Republicans have frequently made for reducing pollution control regulations and slashing the budget of the EPA.  Essentially, the claim is that environmental regulations kill jobs and that our air and water are in good shape, so we don’t need the bureaucrats.

But this deserves some fact checking… and a reality check.

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.

What if there were no more blue herons?  It’s not an idle thought.  During the quarter century after World War II, the spraying of the pesticide DDT almost eliminated the species – as it almost killed off bald eagles, osprey and other fish-eating birds.  EPA’s ban on DDT in 1972 brought all these birds back, in big numbers.

But now the Trump Administration is proposing to dramatically shrink EPA. And this raises in my mind again the question of economic value – the worth to capital markets -- of all the nonhuman life saved by EPA and environmental regulation.

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.

Tom Pelton

It was a warm spring evening as I set off in a kayak from a boat ramp in Middletown, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Baltimore, into the still waters of Swatara Creek.

A family of ducks, with a dozen ducklings, paddled in the river.  A pair of kayakers, father and son, came in off the waterway, dragging their boats up and laughing with each other. Children in their bathing suits splashed in the shallows at the boat launch.

As the sun set, illuminating  the clouds, I passed around a bend and, beyond the trees, saw the four enormous cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

It was 40 years ago, in 1979, that a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island triggered the evacuation or flight more 140,000 people from south central Pennsylvania. The incident – and the authorities’ bungled response to it -- generated so much fear that the nuclear industry never recovered in the U.S.

Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia commons

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators. Many Americans used the occasion to criticize the Chinese government for being intolerant of public protests, and to feel good that such authoritarian behavior could never be tolerated in the U.S., where the rights to freedom of assembly and speech are enshrined in the Constitution.

After all, America was born in protest – with the Boston Tea Party. Nonviolent civil disobedience was the cornerstone of the abolition, suffrage, labor, and Civil Rights movements.

But over the last two years, a growing number of Republican states have been passing laws to outlaw and criminalize public protests, often threatening long prison sentences for activists.

A recent example was in Texas, where state legislators last week passed a law making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for protesters to try to interrupt the construction of oil and gas pipelines or any other so-called “critical infrastructure” projects.