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

Archive of Environment in Focus for 2010-2014

Amid the chaos of a pandemic, as well as the lingering shock waves from the recent anti-Democratic riots by Trump followers in Washington D.C., the Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opened today in Annapolis. 

The most important environmental bills being debated in Maryland this year focus on two aspects of the most weighty issue facing our planet: Climate change, and mass transportation as a key strategy for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

A bill called the “Climate Change Solutions Now Act” would require the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by about half within 10 years and have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

The legislation, backed by a coalition of 73 environmental and community groups across the state, would also require the planting of five million trees – many in urban neighborhoods – and the electrification of the state vehicle fleet, among other steps.


  Yesterday, the Trump Administration’s EPA Administrator spoke during an online press conference to announce a new regulation that he said would end EPA’s use of “secret science” in federal government decisions to control pollution from industry.

 “Why would anyone want our decisions to be made in secret?” Administrator Andrew Wheeler asked. “In the past, increased transparency strengthened EPA’s credibility among the public.  I continue to pursue that legacy today.”

The new regulation – called the “Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science” rule -- prioritizes which public health studies EPA can use as the basis for future pollution control rules. It allows political appointees to de-emphasize or put aside scientific research that does not reveal to industry underlying details such as the names of patients surveyed and their personal medical histories. This kind of disclosure is often impractical or impossible, because medical researchers interview patients under promises of confidentiality.


  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.”


Common ravens, or Corvus Corax, are – of course – beloved in Baltimore, with their ties to Edgar Allan Poe and our NFL team.  But historically, around the world, ravens have been seen either as harbingers of death – because of their habit of eating dead animals and people – or, alternatively, as godlike tricksters, because of their intelligence, dexterity, and bizarre vocalizations.


Ah, Christmas time!  I went walking through my neighborhood and was charmed by the strings of lights illuminating porches, the inflated Santa, the plastic reindeer, the snow and ice.  But then I saw flowers emerging from the ground, near a cherry tree in full bloom.  

It made me confused. Why are flowers blooming in December in Baltimore?  The wildflowers called snowdrops normally emerge from the ground in February or March. And most cherry trees, of course, bloom in March or April; although a few do flower in the fall.

“It definitely seems odd this year,” said Theresa Crimmins, a plant ecologist at the University of Arizona and Director of the National Phenology Network, which studies which seasons plants bloom in across the U.S. 

“All across the country, people have reported things flowering this fall – this past October and November, specifically – that they never reported in the past flowering in October and November,” she said.  "Things like chokecherries and mountain magnolia were in flower this past fall in North Carolina, which is not normal. On Long Island, people reported clematis and false lily of the valley flowering in the fall, and those are definitely springtime species."   

  As President-Elect Biden assembles his new administration, one candidate being considered for a top environmental position, perhaps director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is Mustafa Santiago Ali.

Ali worked for 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency and was its senior advisor for environmental yustice. He was a founding member of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, which is dedicated to reducing pollution in minority and lower-income communities, including those in Baltimore.

After working for EPA most of his life – he started there as a student intern -- Ali quit in March of 2017 after the new Trump Administration tried to eliminate the Office of Environmental Justice. It was part of Trump’s general hostility toward government programs, especially those that would help urban areas and people of color.   

Here’s Mustafa Ali: "I saw what the new administration was going to do by not honoring science, by eliminating programs that were critical for front-line communities in protecting their lives and their health.  And I knew that I couldn’t be part of that.”


The inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden on January 20 will mean a new day for millions of federal civil servants who were disparaged by Donald Trump as so-called “deep state” enemies of his administration.

The federal agency that will be perhaps most relieved when Trump steps onto the final flight to Mar-A-Lago will be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which marked its 50th birthday on a downbeat note last week. Under Trump, more than 1,200 EPA employees were fired or quit – leaving staffing at the lowest level since 1987. His administration also weakened or eliminated almost 100 pollution control rules.

Stan Meiburg served at EPA for 39 years until 2017, including as Acting Deputy Administrator.

“The last several years have been tough for EPA,” said Meiburg, who now works as Director of Graduate Studies in Sustainability at Wake Forest University. “There are many employees in the agency who feel that the agency stepped away from its basic core values: Follow the science; follow the law; and be transparent.”

Under Trump, EPA ignored its scientists and literally followed the direction of a former coal industry lobbyist.


Last Friday, on Black Friday, instead of hitting the malls or shopping online, I escaped to go paddling in my kayak. I explored the streams, rivers, and wetlands at Point Lookout State Park, in far southern Maryland.

The thousand-acre park is at the tip of a narrow peninsula sticking far out into the Chesapeake Bay, at its confluence with the Potomac River.

About a quarter mile out into the river, a forest of wooden poles rose up with fishing nets suspended between them. Brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants and seagulls perched on the ends of the poles, looking down on the pound nets – fishers, keeping a hungry eye on the work of fishermen.

After a few hours of fishing with my feathered colleagues, I put down my rod and dragged my boat up onto the shore. I was on a crescent of sand, with no footprints – only oyster shells, driftwood, and gently lapping waves. It was a stunningly beautiful landscape. And because of its beauty, it was hard to imagine the dark and bloody history that unfolded here

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but because of the coronavirus, many people – for the first time in their lives -- won’t be able to gather with their families and friends.

As an alternative to a big indoor get-together, consider a socially-distanced hike in the woods with your family in one of Maryland’s 53 state parks.

One great way to find the nearest one to you is by downloading the free Maryland Department of Natural Resource “ACCESS DNR” app from the Apple iPhone app store. It provides great maps, directions, public boat launch locations, fishing and hunting licenses – everything.

I used the app for directions to Cunningham Falls State Park, about an hour and a quarter northwest of Baltimore, where I went hiking recently.   

Just before the presidential election, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sent me a letter asking me for money.

Many of you probably received the same fund-raising letter from the nonprofit group, urging financial support for their oyster planting campaign.

The letter said,  “You can help bring back the oysters and save the Bay!  Your gift to CBF of just $18 will help us plant 1,800 oysters… Larger gifts will help us do even more!”

Along with the letter came a bright yellow slip of paper with what it called an important update. The note assured voters: “Our work has always been bipartisan, because we know that the health of the Bay – and the people and wildlife that live in the watershed -- is not political.”

This final bit – about saving the Bay being non-political – is not really true, although it is probably effective as fundraising language among CBF’s wealthy donors who enjoy oysters. The fact is, environmental laws and policies are inherently political. This is because they usually require votes by elected officials who are members of political parties and must make decisions that are almost always controversial because they involve some kind of economic compromise for the common good.  

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

After a presidential campaign that gave historic prominence to climate change and a debate over the future of the oil industry, Democrat Joe Biden’s victory – even in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the oil industry – could have been a cause for jubilation by environmentalists.

But hold the champagne. Green dreams about the Biden Administration have been sobered by the reality that Republicans appear likely to retain control of the U.S. Senate – pending special elections in Georgia on January 5.  A continued Republican majority would likely block any sweeping climate legislation along the lines of the Green New Deal, which seeks to create millions of jobs through investments in clean energy.

“The fact that Mitch McConnell (the Senate Majority Leader) is there now and could possibly be there next year clearly will make it more difficult to pass important initiatives,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democrat. “That said, No. 1, we hope to win the two Georgia Senate Seats.  Number 2, I know that a President Biden is going to work hard to push through this climate agenda in Congress, no matter what.”  


Tom Pelton

Charlie Reeves grew up in public housing in South Philadelphia near the oldest and largest oil refinery on the East Coast.

“I grew up in the projects called the Tasker Homes,” said Reeves, 62, a community activist in Philadelphia’s Tasker-Morris neighborhood. “So I remember the Sunoco refinery from a young age.  We have a high school right around the corner from it, and an elementary school directly across the highway  from it.  There was a bridge there, and we used to go across that bridge onto the refinery grounds. We’d play over there, just have fun. We were young. We didn’t know.”

What they didn’t know was that – during more than a century of operation -- the Point Breeze Refinery, which was later called the Sunoco refinery and then Philadelphia Energy Solutions – spilled so much gasoline and other petroleum products onto the ground that a plume of cancer-causing benzene had contaminated the soil and groundwater, according to EPA records. From that tainted soil, and from leaky storage tanks, benzene fumes wafted into the air.


Next Tuesday is Election day. And for the first time ever, environmental issues --and specifically climate change --are center stage in the public debate during the decisive final phase of a presidential contest.

President Trump has been leading rallies across Pennsylvania – a swing state that was the birthplace of the U.S. oil industry – slamming former Vice President Joe Biden for allegedly wanting to abolish the oil industry.

Trump’s claims are based on an exchange he had with Biden over fossil fuels and global warming near the end of the final presidential debate last week.  


The Earth, as we know it, is being threatened by at least two simultaneous environmental crises.

The first is climate change, which is sparking wildfires, droughts, heat waves, and flooding.

The second is a collapse in biodiversity. The clearing of forests and wetlands to accommodate human population growth is destroying wildlife habitat. This has contributed a 68 percent drop in populations of wild animals over the last 50 years.

Fortunately, the solution to the first of these crises could be the same as the solution to the second – and it could be remarkably simple, according to a new report in the journal Nature.

Ecologist Robin Chazdon and colleagues published a report that concludes the answer is allowing just a small portion of farmland around the world to revert to forests, which both absorb carbon dioxide and provide homes for wild animals.

Allowing just 15 percent of agricultural lands to return to tree cover could avoid 60 percent of expected global extinctions, while also sequestering about a third of the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, according to the study in Nature.


Forty minutes northeast of Baltimore, at the Boulevard at Box Hill shopping mall in Harford County, hundreds of empty parking spaces surround a J.C. Penney store. Signs out front proclaim: “CLOSING. Entire store, 75 to 90 percent off. Everything must go!”

J.C. Penney, which is closing 150 stores in malls nationally, is one of several major retail chains going bankrupt or shifting to strictly online selling as the coronavirus recession and competition with have combined to drain mall-based retail.

Veronica Cassilly, a retired environmental science teacher, shakes her head outside of the big box store. She says she’s disgusted, in part because the mall itself is fairly new – but soon to be partly vacant and thrown away, like a giant fast-food container.

“J.C. Penney is a renter, and now they’re done, and the land is wasted – and it happens over and over and over again,” Cassilly said.

According to a recent study by an international investment bank, Barclays, the percentage of U.S. malls with a vacancy rate of more than 20 percent – putting them in danger of failing -- increased to 28 percent in September, up from just 8 percent a year ago.

And yet, despite the acres of vacant mall space opening up in Harford County and elsewhere, not far from the J.C. Penney here, a developer is planning to clear-cut more than 300 acres of old growth forest to build a brand new retail and business project.


After months of ridiculing scientific guidance on the use of masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – and even demanding that his own employees inside the White House not take precautions around him – President Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19.

But it was not just Trump infected. It was much of the leadership of the Republican Party that has mocked and belittled public health protections in the midst of a pandemic. 

After spending time with the super-spreader in chief, Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien was diagnosed with COVID-19. So was Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, presidential advisors Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller, as well as the White House press secretary and three Republican Senators.

Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican political strategist and co-chairman of a pro-Trump super PAC, told the Washington Post: “Now we’re sort of the stupid party.”

Yes, the Republican party’s rejection of science has come home to roost in the White House. This is not just an issue with Covid.  President Trump and the Republican establishment have been equally skeptical and dismissive of the scientific consensus about climate change, which Trump has called a hoax.  


Reuters/Tom Brenner

Earlier this month, during a press conference in Jupiter, Florida, President Trump recalled how lawmakers from Florida asked him to sign a nonbinding resolution urging Congress to expand a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off America’s southeastern coast.

“They came to my office and they said that this will make us, and make you, the number one environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt,” Trump said from the podium. “I said, ‘Huh. Why does it have to go back only to Teddy Roosevelt, which is over 100 years? Why can’t we say from George Washington? Right from the beginning. It’s true. I’m number 1 since Teddy Roosevelt. Who would have thought? Trump is the great environmentalist.”

Trump’s endorsement of an offshore drilling ban in Florida – a key swing state in the upcoming election – was a switch for the President, who has opened up millions of acres of public lands to drilling and mining as part of what he calls his “Energy Dominance” policy.

But beyond that, what about this idea of comparing Trump’s environmental record to that of Teddy Roosevelt and other presidents?

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.