The Environment in Focus | WYPR

The Environment in Focus

Wednesday 7:46 am and 5:45 pm

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing our natural world.  Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday at 7:46 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Tom Pelton is a national award-winning environmental journalist, formerly with The Baltimore Sun.  He is the author of the book, The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.  Pelton is also Director of Communications at the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations.   The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation, which is working to enhance the quality of life in Baltimore and in Maryland.  The views expressed are solely Pelton's.  You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com

Archive of Environment in Focus for 2010-2014

On August 31, Baltimore suspended its curbside recycling program. The coronavirus pandemic and fear of infection had caused about a third of the city’s solid waste workers to call in sick or take days off, which triggered a trash collection crisis in the city.

To address the problem, the Department of Public Works directed all remaining workers in that division to concentrate only on trash pickup.  As an alternative to curbside recycling, the city is asking residents to now drive their own recyclables to 14 drop-off centers scattered around the city, through November 1st.

One of the drop-off centers is here in Northwest Baltimore in front of Greenspring Middle School. Yesterday morning, a city worker tossed cardboard boxes into the back of a truck as he expressed anxieties about getting the virus on the job.

“Yeah, it’s been a hard time, with people being out,” the DPW worker said. “That’s why we’re having all this problem. I’m worried, but you know – you got to work, you got to work.”  

The sun was already low on the horizon when I set off into the Susquehanna River in my kayak just southwest of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The golden light illuminated rocky islands in the broad and quiet river, and the crowns of sycamores towering alongshore.

The guide on my trip along the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest tributary was historian Paul Nevin, the Director of a museum in Lancaster County called the Zimmerman Center for Heritage.

“We are on a trip to see the Safe Harbor Petroglyphs, which is one of the most outstanding rock art sites in the northeast United States,” Nevin said.

In the distance, a wall appeared– the nearly century-old Safe Harbor hydroelectric dam, stretching across nearly a mile of the river.  Downstream from the dam, amid a jumble of boulders, is an island of rock the size of a beached sperm whale.  Across its back teeters a sun-bleached and twisted tree trunk, thrown high by floodwaters.  

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.  

During the Republican National Convention last week, President Trump and his surrogates used environmental issues – especially climate change – to try to portray the moderate Joe Biden as a socialist radical.

“Biden has promised to abolish the production of American oil, coal, shale, and natural gas, laying waste to the economies of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas…and other states,” Trump said.

Trump’s warning laid waste to any notions of reality or truthfulness in the presidential campaign, because Biden has promised none of those things. 

As a matter of fact, when Biden was vice president, the Obama Administration encouraged innovations in the oil and gas industry -- hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling -- that were opposed by many environmentalists. Those innovations allowed America’s oil and gas industry to grow into the largest in the world, surpassing even those in Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Biden corrected the record on his alleged opposition to hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” -- during a speech on Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

“I am not banning fracking,” Biden said.  “Let me say that again: I am not banning fracking, no matter how many times Donald Trump lies about me.”  

  

Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan chaired an annual meeting of Chesapeake region government officials supervising the Bay cleanup effort.

“It’s been an honor to serve as the chairman of this body for the last three years,” Hogan said to open the meeting the Chesapeake Executive Council. “Our theme for today is: Healthy Bay, Healthy People, Healthy Economy.”

One thing that was not healthy was the turnout for the annual meeting of Bay leaders. Only two of six regional governors even bothered to attend the video conference: Hogan himself and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, who showed up in part to receive the gavel for next year’s chairmanship.

A key no-show was President Trump’s EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who – in theory – is supposed to act as the cop overseeing and enforcing the whole Bay cleanup. 

Brent Walls has dedicated his life to stopping water pollution in Western Maryland. He’s worked for the last 11 years as the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, an advocate with a nonprofit organization, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Now 48 years old, his life turned in this direction because of a moment of clarity he experienced when he was 21. He recalled that was serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S.  Constellation. During his first cruise in the Pacific Ocean, he witnessed a routine procedure.

“Twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, the boat will slow down and a bell will ring, and everyone on that ship will gather their trash and take it to the back of the boat and throw it over,” Walls recalled.  “I did this several times, and I remember one time, in particular:  It was a sunset, nothing but open ocean, you see the glow of the sun in the background, and the boat slowed down and you see this miles and miles of floating, huge paper garbage bags, that we have just unloaded into the ocean. And that just kind of made me sick. It really did.”  

He knew there had to be a better way.   And so, Walls transformed himself into not only a clean water warrior, but a high-tech sleuth who works every day to document pollution with digital photos and video, and report it to the authorities.

  

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.  

  

Singer and songwriter Caleb Stine – a folk music legend in Baltimore -- is playing his guitar on the porch of his rowhouse in the city’s Remington neighborhood.

He recently released a new song called “Let the Trees Do What They Will.” In a way, it’s a radical political statement about modern America – but not radical in the way most people would think.

“Hell, I guess in some ways you could call me a conservative,” Stine said during an interview on a recycled backseat from a van set up on his porch, his guitar beside him. “I want to conserve things. In fact, I might even be a radical conservative in that I think that not only should we conserve our environment, our natural lands, I think we should prevent development upon them, and we should regain and rewild lands that should not have been developed.  

The origin of the coronavirus wreaking havoc around the world remains a source of mystery and controversy.

Scientists generally agree that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease. That means it jumped from animals to humans, most likely from horseshoe bats to people perhaps near the city of Wuhan, in China.

But, how exactly did people come to such close contact with horseshoe bats and trigger this global pandemic?  And what does this fatal interaction between humans and wildlife say about the broader need to separate wild animals and people for the survival of both?

Author Debora MacKenzie offers some answers to these questions in her new book titled, “Covid-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One.”  

  

Lynda Mettee lives in a house built high up on risers on a slender peninsula called Swan Point that sticks out into the Chesapeake Bay east of Dundalk, in Baltimore County.

She does not need scientists to tell her that floods are becoming more common. A neighbor in a kayak told her as he paddled right down the middle of her street on April 30.  She illustrates this by showing  dramatic flood photos on her iPhone.

“These are pictures where the water was so high that it covered the entire road and you couldn’t even see where the edges of the road were,” said Mettee, a 45-year-old physician’s assistant who lives on Cuckold Point Road. “Even in the past five to seven years we’ve noticed the coastal floods have been increasing. Where it used to happen once or twice a year, this year it’s happened three or four times.”

A new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concludes that flooding – driven by climate change and rising sea levels and higher tides – is accelerating at 75 percent of locations on the East and Gulf coasts. Last year, 19 areas broke or tied previous records for flooding, including six in Maryland and Virginia, according to NOAA oceanographer William Sweet.  

My wife and I were strolling late at night in Fells Point, near Baltimore’s waterfront when we heard an odd sound coming from the trees in Thames Street Park.

A neighbor of the park, Rob Baumann, came walking along with his dog. He smiled at, what to him, were familiar noises.

“They sound like monkeys – they really do,” laughed Bauman, owner of a real estate data company who has lived in Fells Point for two decades.  “It sounds like a jungle, if you sit out here in the middle of the night and they are active. It’s crazy. It’s really cool.”

As it turns out, the calls were not from primates – but from a rare and growing urban colony of black crowned night herons. About 10 of the birds have built a small city of nests and are raising their young in the park’s trees.  

Wikimedia Commons

Driven in part by the coronavirus recession and reductions in driving and air travel, the number of oil and gas drilling rigs operating in the U.S. has plummeted by 70 percent over the last year, falling to a record low since World War II.

At least 14 oil and gas companies have declared bankruptcy since March. The casualties include, last week, Chesapeake Energy, a once high-flying but heavily indebted pioneer of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

Oil and gas is a famously boom and bust industry. But Andrew Lipow, a Houston-based energy analyst and President of Lipow Oil Associates, LLC, said that the coronavirus could cause permanent shifts in American working and transportation habits that could impose long-term harm on the fossil fuel industry.

“One thing that we’ve seen with this virus is the ability of companies to allow a significant amount of their workforce to telecommute and work from home,” Lipow said. “And of course, that I expect to continue going into the future. Which means there is going to be less demand for gasoline.”

The global plastics industry is booming, adding trash to our oceans and greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Plastics production has grown even during the coronavirus recession because of the increased need for disposable gloves, cups, and bags.

The epicenter of the U.S. plastics industry is along the Gulf Coast. There, about 60 miles west of New Orleans, in St. James, Louisiana, a Taiwanese company called Formosa Plastics is proposing to build North America’s largest plastics plant on a former plantation site that includes an historic burial ground for slaves.

The mostly African-American community of St. James is fighting to stop the $9 billion dollar project, in part because of concerns that the plant’s air and water pollution would jeopardize their health.

Last week, a leader of those protests, Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and a colleague were arrested by police. Their crime? Six months earlier, as part of a day of activism to educate the public about the problem of plastic pollution, and bring the issue home, they placed a box of plastic waste  -- tiny pellets discharged from a Formosa plastics factory in Texas – on the porch of a home owned by a plastics industry lobbyist.

“It’s an abuse of the law to claim that, by leaving a box of their own product on their own doorstep, we are somehow the bad guys,” Rolfes said. “It’s wrong.”

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.

In the distance, I saw the outlines of an island covered in trees, with a squat rectangular lighthouse near the center.

Paddling closer, it became clear that it was a manmade structure: an abandoned fortress, with weather-streaked, stone walls, tufted with grass and featuring an intimidating row of cannon ports whose iron doors had rusted long ago.

This was Fort Carroll, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1847 to defend Baltimore from naval attacks like the one the British had launched from near this location three decades earlier in the War of 1812.

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.

  

NPR/Associated Press

In his documentary titled The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, filmmaker Ken Burns described why parks and wildlife preservers – lands owned by the public – are really an American invention.

“They are more than a collection of rocks and trees and inspirational scenes from nature,” narrator Peter Coyote says in the film.

“They embody something less tangible, yet equally enduring.  An idea, born in the United States, nearly a century after its creation, as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence, and just as radical. What could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, the most magnificent places, the palaces, the parks, are owned by aristocrats, by the monarchs, by the wealthy.”

Not so in the U.S., where parks have always embodied American ideals, such as freedom of assembly by the rich as well as the poor, the powerful as well as the homeless.

This is especially true for the national park immediately north of the White House: Lafayette Square Park.  These seven acres, shaded by trees surrounding a statue of President Andrew Jackson, for decades have served as an open space for the First Amendment for anyone who wants to raise a voice in protest.

The recent legal actions by the attorneys general of Maryland and Virginia against the Trump Administration’s EPA over the Chesapeake Bay cleanup are evidence that the landmark 2010 Bay restoration agreement has failed.

Under President Obama, the Bay cleanup effort was actually making progress. The overall health of the Chesapeake improved from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 54 out of 100 in 2016, according to annual report cards issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

But under President Trump, the Bay’s health rapidly deteriorated, falling from a 54 in 2017 to a 44 last year. Now, some of that decline was because of increased rainfall, driven in part by climate change. More rain flushes more farm fertilizer and other pollutants into the Bay.

However, another cause was ideological: the Trump Administration is purposely weak on environmental enforcement – especially with regard to the Bay’s biggest polluter, Pennsylvania. And Trump’s EPA has been energetically working – even during the coronavirus shutdown – to eliminate pollution control regulations.  

This is the call of a meadowlark. (Sound of meadowlark plays). This is an upland sandpiper. And this excitable fellow is a burrowing owl. (Hooting sound of owl)

What they have in common is that they are among more than 5,000 species of birds whose survival is threatened because of the expansion of industrial-style, modern agriculture around the world. Populations of meadowlarks, for example, have fallen by 71 percent since 1966.  And it’s not just birds.  Farming and development have reduced the population of all wild animals – mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians -- by more than half since 1970.

This is according to a new book, titled “In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land," written by John Marzluff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington.

Marzluff explains how stripping away forests and meadows to replace them with monoculture fields of crops like corn and soybeans unintentionally brings an end to meadowlarks and other wildlife.  

The Attorneys General of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump Administration’s EPA on Monday over its failure to enforce a landmark Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement signed in 2010.

That agreement has a goal of forcing the Bay region states to put water pollution control programs in place within five years – by a deadline of 2025 -- to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the estuary by about 25 percent.

The problem is that Pennsylvania and New York have fallen far short in their plans and investments. And the overall health of the Bay has only declined since the agreement was signed, slipping from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 44 out of 100 last year, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said he and his allies are taking legal action against the Trump EPA for failing to penalize Pennsylvania and New York for refusing to meet their Bay cleanup obligations. 

Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed 38 bills passed in March by the Democratic-majority General Assembly. The governor explained that the economic crash caused by the coronavirus had opened up a massive state budget deficit which made the new proposals– including for increased funding for public schools – suddenly unaffordable.

However, at least one of the bills Hogan vetoed had absolutely nothing to do with state funds or the coronavirus.

That was Senate Bill 300, which would have outlawed the use of a pesticide called chlorpyrifos that researchers have concluded can cause brain damage in children and kill aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.

Via Publisher Roman and Littlefield

With the number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. seeming to decline, but unemployment soaring and the economy in free-fall, President Trump held a press conference recently to talk about a political imperative: getting capitalism off the stretcher.

“There is a hunger for getting our country back and it’s happening faster than people would think,” Trump told reporters. “Ensuring the health of our economy is vital to ensuring the health of our nation.”

Part of the prescription the president is expected to announce later this week, during a rollout of a new administration plan to stimulate the economy, is a slashing of environmental regulations, as well as further tax cuts, loans and grants for business.

planetofthehumans.com

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day last week, documentary maker Michael Moore and his longtime collaborator Jeff Gibbs released a powerful new movie called “The Planet of the Humans.”

Like many Michael Moore films, itʼs highly controversial and flawed. But you should watch the movie because itʼs very well done, thought-provoking and gut- wrenching. Itʼs free on YouTube, and you can find it there by just searching for "Planet of the Humans."

In the film, just after the opening sequence, Jeff Gibbs, the writer and narrator of the documentary, is driving on a highway at sunset. He asks: “Have you ever wondered what would happen if a single species took over an entire planet? Maybe theyʼre cute, maybe theyʼre clever, but lack a certain – shall we say – self - restraint?”

Itʼs a theme, the dangers of human population growth and consumption – delivered in a cool, rational tone, thankfully free of Mooreʼs trademark grandstanding – that the movie returns to and builds on.

Tom Pelton

  Carlene Zach worked as a postal clerk and then the U.S. postmaster in the tiny town of Melfa on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.  She proudly showed a visitor her 119-year-old wooden house, with its robin’s egg blue shutters, and doormat proclaiming, “home sweet home.”

 

“This is an Eastern Shore farmhouse,” Zach said. “The original homestead was over there. That one dates back to the 1700’s, and it’s the same family.”

 

Behind her house is a barn, where she feeds and cares for her horses. “They’re babies,” she said, kissing one of her animals and feeding it an apple. “He’s a good boy.”

 

It was through horses that she met the love of her life, her future husband, Peter, an Army veteran and lineman for the local electric company.

 

 

Wikipedia, marked for public use

Next Wednesday, April 22nd, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So even though we’re living in strange and difficult times – with the coronavirus keeping most of us at home – it is an appropriate time to take stock of how we’re treating our home, the Earth.

The founder of Earth Day was U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. He was a pioneer in environmental advocacy who was at the center of successful legislative efforts to pass the federal Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act; as well as to ban the pesticide DDT; and create the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.

Senator Nelson framed his vision for the environmental movement in broad terms in the very first Earth Day speech back in 1970.

U.S. Department of Defense

The coronavirus crisis has contributed to a crash in oil prices, as people are driving less while working at home and many businesses are shut down. Competition between Saudi Arabia and Russia has also caused a glut in global oil production.

As a result, many oil and gas companies are suffering huge financial losses, laying off workers, and asking the federal government for a bailout or some kind of government assistance.

President Trump held a meeting on Friday at the White House with the CEO’s of eight major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Phillips66.“I just want to start by saying it’s an honor to be with you,” Trump told the executives.

“I know most of you… But I know all of you by seeing you on the covers of all the business magazines and other magazines. And you’ve done a great job and we’ll work this out.  And we’ll get our energy businesses back. I’m with you 1,000 percent.”

Wikimedia Commons

Thirteen years ago, after a series of near-miss pandemics, including those caused by the swine flu, bird flu and the SARS virus (which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome), U.S. health officials decided they needed to build an additional 70,000 ventilators.  

Ventilators, of course, are medical devices that hospitals use to help patients breathe when they are suffering from pneumonia or lung failure. The goal was to save lives in case of a future global pandemic of the kind we are now experiencing with the coronavirus.

According to reporting in The New York Times, the public health project got off to a great start. The federal Department of Health and Human Services awarded a contract to a small and nimble California company called Newport Medical.

Tom Pelton

 

In these times of the coronavirus, the public health strategy of “social distancing” is hard on people because humans are, by their nature, a social species.

Wikimedia Commons

 

Kavin Senapathy is a freelance journalist who was drawn to the field of science blogging nine years ago. It was just after her first child was born and she found herself obsessed with and terrified about her daughter’s health.

Tom Pelton

Maryland faces a critical decision point in its decades-long effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The poultry industry on the Eastern Shore produces about 300 million chickens a year. But the byproduct is about a half billion pounds more manure than can be absorbed by crops when farmers spread the litter as fertilizer for their corn and soybeans. That leads to runoff of phosphorus pollution into rivers, streams and the Bay.

In about two years, pollution control regulations imposed by Governor Larry Hogan’s administration will restrict manure application on about 160,000 acres of farms on the Eastern Shore that are already overloaded with phosphorus. But state officials do not know what to do with all the extra tons manure that farmers will no longer be able to spread under the new rules.

Wikimedia Commons

It’s a watershed moment in American politics. Climate change and the environment, for the first time, have risen to become among the top issues in a Presidential election. President Trump is campaigning against the whole idea of environmental regulations and has falsely labelled climate change a “hoax.”

In stark contrast, all of his Democratic challengers are pledging unprecedented action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders: “What the scientists are telling us is – in fact – they have under-estimated the severity and speed in which climate change is damaging not only our country, but the entire world.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said: “I think it is the existential threat to humanity. It’s the number one issue.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg made this statement: “Climate change is not a science problem – it is a political problem.”

And Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed: “I support the Green New Deal.  We have got to make change. We’ve got to make big change. And we’ve got to do it fast – we’re running out of time.”

But what’s fascinating about the Democratic candidates is that all of them – while promising action on the climate – have completely abandoned the main policy vehicle for combating global warming that Democrats, and even a few Republicans, championed until a few years ago.

That was the imposition of a carbon tax – or a Wall Street friendly “cap and trade” system – to gradually increase the price of oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuels to create economic incentives, in the free market system, for cleaner energy.

Pages