Looking back - and ahead
As we start a new year, it's worth looking back at the big news of the past year - if only because many of those developments will resonate through 2011 and for years to come.
So here's my list of the top 10 green stories of 2010:
1) Gulf oil spill: The catastrophic explosion, fire and blowout of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off Louisiana's coast took 11 lives and earned a spot in history as the nation's worst oil spill, gushing from April 20 until mid-July. Short-term, the impacts were not as bad as many had feared, as much of the oil dispersed, but the long-term ecological effects won't be known for some time. The disaster also prompted the Obama administration to reverse course and drop plans to expand offshore oil drilling in the Gulf and elsewhere - something that's likely to be challenged with the Republican takeover of the House in Congress.
2) Congress shuns climate action, EPA steps in: While inaction rarely gets the same headlines, the decision last summer by the Senate's leaders to pull the plug on climate and energy legislation ranks, if not outranks, the Gulf oil spill in significance. Where politicians feared to tread, however, the Environmental Protection Agency plunged ahead. EPA at year's end announced initial requirements for limiting emissions from power plants. Efforts are brewing in Congress, though, from Republicans and some Democrats to strip EPA of its authority - or funding - to follow through.
3) Bay gets pollution diet, crabs rebound: The Environmental Protection Agency finished the year by putting the Chesapeake Bay on a "pollution diet," requiring 20 to 25 percent reductions in the amounts of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment getting into the estuary from its 64,000-square-mile watershed. It remains to be seen, though, how much state and local governments will do in the coming year, as they struggle with budget gaps and sluggish economies. Meanwhile, the bay's iconic crustaceans staged a second straight year of strong recovery from near collapse, with the annual winter survey showing a 60 percent increase in the crab population over the previous year, to a level not seen since the late 1990s.
4) Wind gets a push offshore, and lawsuits on land: The prospects for giant turbines eventually catching the sea breezes off the US East Coast grew last year, with pushes from the Obama administration and from states like Maryland. The Interior Department set up a "fast track" approval for offshore wind leases, and in November invited bids for placing turbines a dozen or more miles off Ocean City. The state's first two industrial wind projects got built on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County, but conservationists filed suit alleging the turbines would harm endangered bats.
5) Baltimore greens up, slowly: The city took steps last year - however haltingly - to make itself a greener, more sustainable place. After years of debate over plastic shopping bags, City Council acted to curb their littering by imposing a "partial ban" - allowing supermarkets and other stores to keep using the flimsy throwaway sacks as long as they encouraged their customers to recycle or shop with re-usable bags. The city got its first food "czar," Holly Freishtat, to encourage more healthful eating among city dwellers. And municipal officials also quietly issued green building standards last summer, after sitting on them for a year to mull over developers' concerns that they'd stifle urban revitalization. Stuart Kaplow, president of the local chapter of the US Green Building Council, calls the city's 2007 green building law, nor fully in effect, a "game changer."
6) Scrubbers help clear Maryland’s air: The state's air got easier to breathe last year after six huge coal-burning power plants were required to install "scrubbers" to clean up the toxic, acidic smoke they once belched from tall stacks. Constellation spent $875 million installing two at its Brandon Shores plant just south of Baltimore. Under the 2006 state Healthy Air Act, the power plants were supposed to reduce emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury by 70 percent to 80 percent last year, and by 75 percent to 90 percent by 2013.
7) Shore farmer, Perdue sued over pollution - lawmakers lash back: Environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in March accusing an Eastern Shore farm and giant poultry producer Perdue Farms of polluting waters that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. The case is the first attempt to hold Maryland's chicken industry legally accountable for the environmental effects of their animals' manure washing into nearby streams and rivers. Perdue and the farmer deny any wrongdoing, and CEO Jim Perdue warns of dire consequences from the litigation. Maryland lawmakers responded by voting to withhold funding from the University of Maryland law clinic that helped bring the suit. The funding block was later withdrawn, and the suit is pending.
8) Sparrows Point steelmaker sued over harbor pollution, begins cleanup: Fed up with waiting for cleanup of harmful steel-making wastes at Sparrows Point, a pair of environmental groups and several Dundalk-area residents filed suit last summer against the present and former owners of the mill that has operated there for over a century. The lawsuit, filed more than a year after the groups' formally warned of legal action, alleges that the Patapsco River and nearby residents' health continue to be harmed despite a 13-year-old federal court consent decree requiring remediation. The groups go to court even as Severstal NA begins work on containing and treating a plume of contaminated ground water seeping off the peninsula into the river and nearby creeks.
9) Fishy fish - engineered salmon and intersex bass: A Massachusetts company's proposal to market a new type of fast-growing, captive-reared salmon renewed debate last year about the safety of consuming genetically engineered foods. At year's end, the Food and Drug Administration was still weighing whether to approve the modified salmon, and whether to require it be labeled as such, so consumers could decide for themselves if they wanted it.
Meanwhile, scientists last year discovered more instances of modified fish, these apparently accidental. University of Maryland researchers collected largemouth bass with intersex traits from ponds on the Eastern Shore, while federal scientists reported finding intersex smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River, after initially finding them a few years before in the Potomac River and its tributaries. Researchers can't say why male fish have eggs in them, or whether it's harming their reproduction, but they're looking for possible links to hormone-like substances getting in the water from human or farm animal waste.
10) Going green runs into red tape: Marylanders found it wasn't easy going green, tripping over red tape and regulations when they tried to erect wind turbines in the Baltimore suburbs, use wood chips to "pave" their driveway or put solar panels on a boat pier. Baltimore County backed away from long-debated guidelines for residentail windmills in the face of opposition from others who feared they would harm property values, while the enterprising individuals gave up their bids for a wood-chip driveway and a solar-powered pier in the face of determined bureaucratic opposition. On a more encouraging note, the city did move forward last year with a new zoning code that officials said would encourage community gardens, beekeeping and any number of other more environmentally friendly activities.
(Photos: Gulf rig fire, AP; western MD wind turbines, Baltimore Sun's Kim Hairston; Brandon Shores scrubber and frustrated waterfront property owner with solar piers, Baltimore Sun's Kenneth K. Lam)