December 2, 2011

Saving menhaden, Chesapeake Bay fishermen


Can the Atlantic coast's menhaden population be restored without hurting Chesapeake Bay commercial fishermen?

That remains to be seen, as the video above makes clear. It was produced by students in the environmental law class at University of Maryland law school.  Yup, that law school - the one in the crosshairs for the Clean Water Act lawsuit filed by its environmental law clinic against an Eastern Shore farm couple and the Perdue poultry company. The clinic's catching hell for not representing the farm couple as well as - or instead of - the Waterkeeper Alliance, the client for whom it filed the suit.

On this issue, the students' video does a good job of presenting both sides - the argument for conserving, and the concern about how a catch reduction could hurt Bay fishermen and crabbers. Of course, the class video project is an academic exercise, so you would expect the students to examine all sides in a dispute. In the real world in which the clinic operates, lawyers represent one client at a time, and can't ethically work both sides of a case.

Thanks to Joey Kroart for sharing. 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)

December 1, 2011

Another tiff brews over Constellation ash landfill

A new dust-up is brewing over the coal-ash landfill on Hawkins Point in South Baltimore.

Nearby residents, who waged a vain fight to keep power plant waste out of the landfill, now are girding to oppose a proposal to expand it.

Constellation Energy recently began dumping ash there from its three local coal-burning plants, Brandon Shores, H.A. Wagner and C.P. Crane. Meanwhile, the company has applied to the Maryland Department of the Environment for a permit to operate the disposal site and to expand it, bulldozing an acre of wetlands in the process.

The 65-acre site on Fort Armistead Road had been owned by Millenium Inorganic Chemicals, but Constellation bought it about the time MDE approved depositing coal ash there.  Now the energy company wants to expand the landfill on the tract from 28 acres to 32 acres and raise the height by up to 50 feet (from 220 feet above mean sea level to 270 feet, or 156 feet above ground level.)

Some environmentalists and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold have already weighed in against the expansion.  Leopold, who's maintained a ban on ash disposal in Arundel since an earlier Constellation dump contaminated Gambrills residents' wells, wrote a letter urging the state to deny the permits for the expansion.  The ash contains toxic residues, some of them carcinogenic.

"We weren't crazy about this - we fought it," Mary M. Rosso, a longtime activist from Glen Burnie, said of the landfill.  Now the expansion proposal "just drives me crazy," she added.

She and other residents have dueled with Constellation before over ash disposal and have long complained about air and water pollution from other facilities in the nearby industrial areas of South Baltimore.  This time, she said, she and others are particularly upset about the prospect of losing an acre of noontidal wetlands.

Continue reading "Another tiff brews over Constellation ash landfill" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:33 AM | | Comments (1)

November 29, 2011

New farm nutrient rules pulled back


Feeling the heat from farmers and environmentalists alike, the O'Malley administration has put on hold new rules on how and when farmers can fertilizer their fields.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture had planned to publish new "nutrient management" regulations on Dec. 2, but has now postponed them in order to meet with critics, including municipal officials.

"We were contacted by stakeholders on all sides (ag, enviros, locals) and asked to discuss a little more the draft regulations," MDA spokeswoman Julianne Oberg said in an email. "We're affording that opportunity, and will be resubmitting soon."

The new rules, aimed at reducing nutrient pollution of Chesapeake Bay, have been stirring furor since they were first floated last summer. Farmers complained about proposed limitations on putting animal manure in their fields in fall and winter, and about another provision essentially requiring fencing livestock out of streams. Municipal and county officials, meanwhile, objected to another provision barring the spreading of sewage sludge on fields in winter, which they said would require costly storage facilities.

Environmentalists joined the critics a few weeks ago, charging that agriculture officials had watered the rules down unacceptably in an attempt to mollify other critics.

Continue reading "New farm nutrient rules pulled back" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:00 PM | | Comments (2)

November 28, 2011

Greens pushing offshore wind at forums

Gearing up for another push in Annapolis to get legislation subsidizing offshore wind development, environmental and labor groups are staging public forums over the next few weeks to tout the economic and health benefits of building the giant electricity-generating turbines off Ocean City.

There's an offshore wind "town hall" planned in Baltimore Wednesday (Nov. 30) from 7 - 8:30 p.m. in the fellowship room at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. 1900 St. Paul St.  Details here. Other forums are planned in Salisbury Dec. 5 and in Rosedale in Baltimore County on Dec. 13.

Despite backing from greens, unions and some businesses, Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid earlier this year to help offshore wind developers failed to win General Assembly approval.  Lawmakers balked at the potential cost to ratepayers of an administration bill that would have required utilities to sign long-term deals to buy power from the projects.

The administration has been working since spring with legislative committees studying the issue and appears leaning toward trying again in January with a different approach - this time geared towards requiring state electricity suppliers to get a certain share of their power from offshore wind projects.  Supporters are touting the jobs the projects will support, the relatively pollution-free nature of wind-generated electricity and the potential for stable (if higher) power prices in a potentially volatile future.

For more info, go here or contact Keith Harrington at

(Wind turbines off the Dutch coast, 2007. Reuters photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:22 PM | | Comments (0)

November 23, 2011

Septic task force produces "roadmap" for MD growth

The task force Gov. Martin O'Malley formed to revive his failed attempt to curb septic systems in Maryland has come up with something far more sweeping - a "roadmap" to future growth in the state that attempts to rein in the metastasis of sprawl into the countryside.

Whether the panel's new "tiered" approach to development will win over the builders, farmers and local pols who blocked O'Malley's septic restrictions remains to be seen. Likewise for whether it will work, even if it becomes law.

The 28-member panel, meeting Tuesday in Annapolis, sidestepped O'Malley's contentious proposal to ban large new housing projects on septic and voted instead to recommend putting all state land into one of four growth "tiers," with varying degrees of incentives or hurdles for new septic-dependent development in each. 

The impetus for change comes as the state struggles to meet its federally set targets for reducing the nutrient pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.  Per household, officials say, septic systems release far more nitrogen into ground water and nearby streams than do properly functioning wastewater treatment plants.

Continue reading "Septic task force produces "roadmap" for MD growth" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:02 AM | | Comments (1)

November 16, 2011

Legal battle breaks out in Frederick Co over growth

Three environmental groups and a group of residents have gone to court in an attempt to block Frederick County from rezoning nearly 200 properties to allow for greater development.

Friends of Frederick County, Audubon Society of Central Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and 29 county residents filed a lawsuit in Frederick County Circuit Court on Tuesday charging the county's rezoning move is illegal, would harm the environment and raise taxes to pay for the schools, roads and other infrastructure the additional development will need.

The county commissioners elected last year had vowed during the campaign to revisit comprehensive plan and zoning changes made in 2010 by the previous board of county commissioners.  Their predecessors had rezoned about 700 properties, according to Gazette.Net, shifting them from commercial or residential to agricultural or resource conservation zoning in order to scale back development and protect environmentally sensitive lands.  The newly elected board, contending those property owners had been deprived of their rights, invited applications this year for new zoning.

The groups contend the county is acting unawfully in selectively rezoning 193 properties whose owers have applied for a change - some of them unaffected by last year's down-zoning. If all the changes requested are granted, the environmental groups contend it would allow for 17,000 new homes.  Even before this move, planners now project the county of 243,000 people to grow by 20,000 households and roughly 80,000 people over the next two decades.

"No consideration is being given to adverse effects of such increased development on the environment or on public facilities," Janice Wiles, executive director of Friends of Frederick County, said in a statement.  She predicted taxes would have to be raised to cover the costs of building or expanding schools, roads and other facilities.

Jon Mueller, the bay foundation's vice president for litigation, called the rezoning an "illegal short cut to allow potentially substantial new sprawl development."  He warned that it would lead to increased runoff pollution of local waters.

County officials vowed to go ahead, according to the Frederick News-Post, while stressing they had yet to decide anything.  The county planning commission is set to begin hearing the zoning requests tonight.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:45 AM | | Comments (0)

November 14, 2011

Oyster die-off ends skipjack captain's career

The oyster die-off this year in the Chesapeake Bay may have been limited to its northern reaches, but it's had  a severe impact on at least one waterman who worked there.

Capt. Barry Sweitzer has laid off his crew and put his 106-year-old skipjack, the Hilda M. Willing, up for sale after managing to find just a couple dozen live oysters in his first day of dredging for them, the Washington Post reports.

The state Department of Natural Resources reported last week that 74 to 79 percent of the oysters had died in two areas north of the Bay Bridge.  Record-high fresh-water flows from heavy spring rains killed most of them, state officials said, with another fresh-water influx from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee probably adding to the mortality.

Only about 2 percent of Maryland's commercial oyster harvest comes from those areas, according to DNR.  But for an estimated 30 watermen who worked those bars, the loss is a major blow to their livelihood. Oyster bars down the bay apparently didn't suffer similar die-offs, but many northern bay watermen probably can't make enough money oystering to cover the added costs of taking their boats down there and either making long commutes or staying far from home while they work those distant bars.

It's a sad end for Sweitzer, 50, who acquired the skipjack from his father and dredged for oysters two days a week.  Let's hope it's not the end of the line for the Hilda M. Willing.  Built in 1905, it's one of a handful of survivors from the hundreds of skipjacks that worked the bay in the heyday of sail-powered dredging around the beginning of the 20th century.  Sweitzer told the Post he hopes to sell the vessel to another commercial waterman who'll take it down the bay to harvest oysters there. 

(Skipjacks dredge the Choptank River for oysters at dawn in 1988.  Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:21 AM | | Comments (0)

November 11, 2011

Bay 'dead zone' sets new record in fall

The Chesapeake Bay's 'dead zone' has set another record - reappearing this fall after Tropical Storm Lee washed millions of tons of nutrients and sediment into the estuary. 

State officials and scientists with the University of Maryland say the expanse of oxygen-starved water in the bay, which had virtually disappeared by the end of August, re-formed in September and was still growing in late October. 

"It's surprising we're seeing it this late," said Tom Parham, director of tidewater ecosystem assessment for the state Department of Natural Resources

The dead zone reached record size earlier in the summer, spreading to cover 40 percent of the bay from the mouth of the Patapsco River practically to the Virginia line. At the time, scientists blamed that on an unprecedented influx of fresh-water into the bay in spring.  With it came an extra-heavy load of fertlizer, sewage and other pollutants, which feed massive algae blooms and ultimately consume the oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe.

The winds of Hurricane Irene in late August stirred up the bay, breaking up the dead zone by reintroducing dissolved oxygen into deeper waters. Scientists and others breathed a sigh of rellief after the rough summer.

But the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Lee in early September flooded the bay with more water-fouling nutrients, in addition to millions of tons of sediment that turned the water brown.  Scientists predicted the influx could revive the dead zone, and by the end of September, water monitors were detecting its reformation.

When scientists went out again to check in late October, oxygen-starved water covered the bottom in the deep waters down the middle of the bay.  The 'dead zone' stretched from the Bay Bridge south to the mouth of the Patuxent River, according to marine ecologist Diane Stoecker of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. About 10 percent of the bay was plagued with extremely low oxygen levels, DNR's Parham estimates, when by this time of year the zone normally covers no more than 2 percent.

"It's probably the worst we've seen in October," said Bruce D. Michael, DNR's director of resource assessment.  To see the October extent of the 'dead zone,' go here.

Continue reading "Bay 'dead zone' sets new record in fall" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:00 PM | | Comments (0)

November 9, 2011

Fishing curb due for 'most important fish in sea'


Fisheries regulators meeting in Boston have decided to increase protection for menhaden, a small silvery fish that's widely regarded as ''the most important fish in the sea''' because it's a key food source for birds and other fish in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast.

Before a crowd of onlookers, many of them concerned recreational fishermen, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted overwhelmingly to set new population threshold and harvest targets for menhaden, effectively reducing the catch for now by about 37 percent, starting next year, according to my colleague, Candus Thomson, who's there reporting for The Baltimore Sun. The commission, which oversees all in-shore fishing along the coast, represents all the states from Maine to Florida. 

Biologists, conservationists and recreational fishing groups had pressed the commission to act, pointing to signs menhaden are in trouble. They've noted, for instance, that menhaden are a shrinking source of food for Chesapeake striped bass, going from 70 percent to about 8 percent of their diet.  Most stripers, or rockfish as they're known locally, are infected with a bacterial disease which scientists have said could be aggravated by not getting enough to eat.

There was pushback, though, from commercial fishermen, who catch menhaden for crab and lobster bait, and from Omega Protein, based in Reedville, VA., which harvests the fish on a grand scale for processing into animal feed and heart-healthy diet supplements.  The Omega Protein Corp.'s fishing fleet hauls in 80 percent of all menhaden caught along the coast, making the port of Reedville, Va., the second busiest for fish landings in the United States.

The harvest reduction agreed to was short of the 45 percent cutback some anglers wanted, but still steeper than what Omega's spokesman had indicated the company could live with.  The company's supporters had urged the commision to leave harvest limits alone, for the sake of its 300 employees. Other commercial fishermen also had argued they have no other bait they could use.  The commission vote was 14 to 3, with Maryland in the majority.  Virginia, New Jersey and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission opposed major changes.

The decision heartened conservationists, though, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who issued a statement saying the commission's move helps ensure "a sustainable future" for menhaden and all the fish and wildlife that depend on them for food.


Jay Odell of the Nature Conservancy called it "a great day" for menhaden and for all the other species and people who depend on them remaining abundant.  He stressed that the harvest cutback agreed to is "not a permanent throttle on fishing, but an investment in the future." If, as expected, the population rebounds, the size of the catch will come back as well, he said.

“We’ve learned from other fisheries, such as striped bass and crab, that easing harvest pressures can dramatically replenish a stock," said Bill Goldsborough, senior fishieries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a member of the fisheries commission. "This decision will spur menhaden abundance and begin the rebuilding process.” 

(Menhaden caught in Chesapeake Bay. 2011 Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

Oyster die-off intense but limited, state says


State biologists have found "concentrated pockets" of dead oysters in the upper Chesapeake Bay, which they attribute to record-high flows of fresh water into the estuary this year. But according to the Department of Natural Resources, the die-off appears so far to be limited to two areas north of the Bay Bridge, which together account for just 2 percent of Maryland's overall oyster harvest.

Watermen have reported finding relatively few live oysters north of the Bay Bridge since the harvest season began Oct. 1, less than a month after Tropical Storm Lee flooded the upper bay with fresh water and sediment.

DNR reported preliminary findings today from the upper bay of its annual fall survey of oyster bars, which show 79 percent mortality on four bars north of Rock Hall and 74 percent mortality on six bars between the Patapsco and Magothy rivers.  Mike Naylor, DNR's chief of shellfish programs, said that from the barnacles and other fouling organisms found inside their gaping shells, it appeared many of the dead oysters had died before the storm, probably as a result of the record high fresh-water flows from March to May.  For more, read my story in The Baltimore Sun here.

(2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:11 AM | | Comments (0)

November 8, 2011

Storm-water fee proposed in Arundel

As pressure mounts on local governments to tackle polluted storm-water washing off their streets and parking lots, politicians are grappling with how to pay for it.

Anne Arundel County Council member Chris Trumbauer - whose day job is as the Riverkeeper for the West and Rhode rivers - has decided to make another run at financing the needed pollution controls through a fee levied on all property owners.

Trumbauer introduced a bill Monday night that would tack a $35 annual fee on every homeowner's property tax bill ($25 for condo and townhome owners) to pay for reducing storm-water runoff.  Nonresidential properties would be assessed a fee based on the amount of pavement and rootfops they have.

The fees would go into a dedicated fund that can only be spent on storm-water controls, and could not be raided or diverted, according to Trumbauer.  They'd be spent on retrofitting storm drains, replacing pavement with porous pavers and creating rain and roof gardens, among other things.

"This bill is a much-needed investment in Anne Arundel County,” Trumbauer said in a statement announcing the bill. “The money from this dedicated fund will go directly back into our communities, creating local jobs and cleaning up our waterways."  The bill, 79-11, is due for a public hearing Dec. 5.

Nearly one-third of the nitrogen pollution getting into the Chesapeake Bay from Anne Arundel County is estimated to come from urban and suburban storm-water runoff washing fertilizer, pet waste and other organic debris into local streams and coves. 

Continue reading "Storm-water fee proposed in Arundel" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:36 AM | | Comments (0)

November 7, 2011

DNR investigating storm-related oyster die-off

State biologists are investigating watermen's reports of a major die-off of oysters in the upper Chesapeake Bay that may have been caused by Tropical Storm Lee, a spokesman said today.

"They’re out there on the bars checking to see if the reports are true, and what’s the cause," said Josh Davidsburg with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He said officials hoped to have information later this week.

The Annapolis Capital reported Sunday that watermen who've been working in the South River and other local Western Shore waters say their oyster tongs and dredges are coming up full of empty shells.

The early September storm dumped nearly 29 trillion gallons of rain on the mid-Atlantic region, by one estimate, flooding the upper Bay with fresh water and flushing an estimated 4 million tons of sediment into it from the Susquehanna River alone.   The dirt and debris turned the water a chocolate brown, and the surge of fresh water from rivers lowered salinity levels to near zero for weeks after the storm.   Oysters don't grow or reproduce well in water with low salinity, and can even die if trapped in fresh water for extended periods of time.

UPDATE:Davidsburg called back to say DNR biologists are in the midst of checking the upper bay as part of an annual survey of 400 oyster bars in state waters. While not willing to describe the extent or severity of the mortality yet, Davidsburg said, "Preliminary reports show that it's a salinity event."

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said his members say 95 to 100 percent of the oysters are dead along the western Shore as far south as the Bay Bridge.   The Chester River, Eastern Bay and other areas along the Eastern Shore were not hit as badly.  Oysters can only survive about 10 days in fresh water, Simns said.

Oysters farther down the bay appear not to have been greatly affected, if at all.  At the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Oyster Fest in St. Michaels on Saturday, Southern Maryland oyster grower Jon Farrington of Johnny Oyster Seed Co.  told me that salinity levels had dropped alarmingly in the lower Patuxent River after Hurricane Irene in late August, which produced locally intense rainfall.  But the freshet did not last, and his oysters survived, he said.  I noticed that many of the oysters served on the half-shell at the fest came from the Choptank Oyster Co., which raises them in floats near Cambridge. (CORRECTION: Those were being served at one tent - museum spokeswoman Tracey Munson reports the bulk of the oysters served at the fest were wild-caught by members of the Talbot County Watermen's Association. Apologies to them.)

A Deal Island waterman who works Tangier Sound told me there appeared to be a good supply of oysters there, but he was worried about added fishing pressure on them because watermen from up the bay are coming down to harvest there.

(Oysters in tongs; 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:50 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

November 4, 2011

State blocks controversial Charles Co highway


After years of back and forth, Maryland regulators have finally turned thumbs down on a highway in Charles County that environmentalists feared would devastate Mattowman Creek, one of the Chesapeake Bay's most productive nurseries for migratory fish.

The state Department of the Environment notified Charles officials by letter on Tuesday that it had decided to deny a wetlands permit to build the Cross County Connector, a four-lane highway that county officials have long sought to improve east-west traffic. The project as proposed called for filling in more than seven acres of fresh-water wetlands, disturbing more than 2,000 feet of stream and clearing nearly 74 acres of forest. 

Environmentalists argued that the Mattawoman, which flows into the Potomac River, was too valuable ecologically and already suffering degradation from development occurring in its watershed.  Two years ago, American Rivers named Mattawoman its fourth most endangered US waterway because of the threats it feared from the highway and the development it would encourage in areas of the creek watershed now relatively untouched.

Their concerns were echoed by state and federal environmental agencies,  Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service weighed in urging regulators to deny the permit and require more study of alternative routes or ways to reduce the highway's impact.  Extremely popular with anglers, the creek is a prime spawning area for shad, blueback herring and striped bass.

The county originally sought state approval in 2004, but MDE repeatedly extended its review of the project and kept requesting more information of the county.  The issue apparently came to a head recently, when the Charles commissioners voted last month not to spend any more money on the project, including on studies of its potential environmental impact.  The MDE letter details four areas where state regulators contend the county never provided requested information or studies.

In addition, state planning Secretary Richard E. Hall wrote Candice Quinn Kelly, the president of the Charles board of commissioners, to say the road project did not square with the state's Smart Growth policies because it would have facilitated development in areas not designated for growth. He pointed out that 215 homes had already been built on nearly 1,300 acres of land outside growth zones.

Continue reading "State blocks controversial Charles Co highway" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:12 PM | | Comments (3)

College cruise-ship "dorm" curbs oyster harvesting

The decision by St. Mary's College in southern Maryland to house some of its students on a docked cruise ship has prompted the state to close that area of the St. Mary's River to shellfish harvesting.

The move announced today puts off limits a portion of an oyster bar on the bottom of the river that is commercially harvested by local watermen. The Maryland Department of the Environment's release notes that a larger portion of the Seminary bar is already closed to harvesting because it's been declared an oyster sanctuary.

The college moved 250 students to a rented cruise ship, the Sea Voyager, while working to remove mold from their dormitories.  School officials have told state regulators they plan to collect wastewater in a holding tank onboard the rented 268-foot ship and periodically pump it to a wastewater treatment plant.  But MDE said it's closing nearby waters to shellfish harvesting because of the potential health risk from any spill or accidental discharge from the vessel.

The closure took effect Tuesday and will remain in effect until the cruise ship departs, according to MDE.

(Sea Voyager docked in St. Mary's River.  Washington Post photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:33 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

House panel pans EPA Bay plan, as scientists see progress


Republican (Correction: and Democratic) lawmakers in Washington questioned federally ordered Chesapeake Bay pollution reductions on Thursday, even as scientists in Maryland were reporting signs the long-running cleanup effort has been making progress after all.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry grilled an Environmental Protection Agency official, complaining about the costs of meeting the agency's bay restoration targets and questioning the accuracy of its computer model for setting them.

"We are in the midst of a process that could cost individual states like Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania more than 10 billion dollars per state," Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said, according to a report in Agri-Pulse. "What's most problematic is that no one can say with certainty whether the cost is worth the effort, as we still do not have a cost-benefit analysis of this process."

Shawn Garvin, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator, told lawmakers the agency hope to have by 2013 an analysis of the costs and benefits of pollution reductions undertaken by the states to comply with the Total Maximum Daily Load, commonly called a "pollution diet," the agency has set for the bay.  And he said the agency is working to refine its computer model and plans a full reevaluation of cleanup targets and methods by 2017, midway to the 2025 deadline for having all restoration measures in place.

Meanwhile, scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science said that after taking a new look at 60 years' worth of water monitoring data, they've found that the "dead zone" that forms each year in the bay has actually been shrinking in late summer since the late 1980s, tracking declines in nitrogen levels measured in the Susquehanna River, the bay's largest tributary.

As I reported today in The Baltimore Sun, the researchers said that they were encouraged by the finding. In an ecosystem as large (64,000 square miles) and complex as the bay is, it's been hard to find clear evidence whether it's getting better or worse amid weather-driven annual variations.  The scientists said their new analysis shows that pollution reductions made to date have improved water quality some, though still far from enough to declare the bay restored to health.

(Sandy Point State Park. 2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:25 AM | | Comments (5)

November 3, 2011

EPA going "flexible" on clean water?

Under assault from conservatives and the business community, the Environmental Protection Agency is showing its "flexibility" these days on a variety of regulatory fronts.  Could they  portend slower or delayed cleanups of polluted waters in Baltimore harbor and the Chesapeake Bay?

Case in point: EPA has been pressing for years to get cities to fix chronic sewer overflows that routinely foul rivers and streams with raw human waste whenever it rains.  Baltimore, one of the early targets of the federal crackdown, is still working through a 9-year-old consent decree requiring $1 billion worth of repairs to clogged and leaky sewer lines. The job is far from done, either in the city or in neighboring Baltimore County - remember the 100 million gallons of diluted but unreated sewage washed into the Patapsco River after Hurricane Irene?

The agency released new guidance last week at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington instructing regulators to show some "flexibility" in setting compliance schedules and allow for "innovative solutions" to pollution problems.

Cash-strapped local officials who've been pressing EPA for relief welcomed the move, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is co-chair of the mayors group's water council.  In a statement issued by the mayors' group, Rawlings-Blake said: "While we share the goal of clean water, mayors must also safeguard the fiscal health of their cities. EPA is demonstrating that they are serious about moving forward in a true partnership with mayors across the country."

It's understandable Rawlings-Blake would be among those cheering EPA's new-found sensitivity to cities' fiscal straits.  In addition to the ongoing sewer overflow work, the city is waiting for a new storm-water permit that's likely to require major reductions in polluted runoff from streets and parkings.  And the city also faces marching orders in the next few years to curtail trash flowing into the harbor and to clean up sources of unsafe bacteria levels that make the harbor unsafe in places for human contact, including kayaking, rowing and swimming. 

The costs of fixing those problems could run to tens of millions of dollars, which the city plainly doesn't have.  Rawlings-Blake has been urged to raise revenue by imposing a storm-water fee on all property owners, but in the current anti-tax climate has yet to propose one.  Baltimore County also is under a similar order from EPA issued in 2005 to fix chronic overflows in its aging sewer lines as well.

Continue reading "EPA going "flexible" on clean water?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:17 AM | | Comments (0)

November 1, 2011

Diminished herring eyed for 'endangered' protection

After prolonged and "drastic" declines, Atlantic river herring - which have been fished for centuries - are now being eyed for federal protection as endangered species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admnistration announced today that it willl review the status of river herring - alewives and blueback herring - which have been classified as "species of concern" since 2006.  NOAA's move comes in response to a petition filed in August by the Natural Resources Defense Council calling for the government to determine whether they should be classified as endangered or threatened.

Alewives and blueback herring both roam coastal waters from Canada to North Carolina, while blueback herring range as far south as Florida.  The two fish are found in the Chesapeake Bay and swim up its rivers to spawn.  But whether from overfishing, dams blocking access to their upriver spawning grounds or some other cause, their numbers have slid downward over the past several decades.

River herring, as they're collectively known, have been fished for 350 years, mainly in inshore waters. But the fishery shifted offshore in the 1960s, as foreign fishing fleets went after them off the Mid-Atlantic coast. They're also a bycatch taken accidentally in fishing for other species, including menhaden (also in decline, about which I wrote earlier this week in The Baltimore Sun).

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates inshore fishing, has been conducting a stock assessment of river herring for the past three years, looking at the condition of fish that spawn in more than 50 rivers along the coast.  NOAA has a year to determine whether river herring should be listed.

For more information, go here and here.

(Blueback herring in Broadway Branch, tributary of the Choptank River, 2001 Baltimore Sun photo by Jerry Jackson)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:33 PM | | Comments (0)

"Gasland" screening and "fracking" film talk

Film maker Josh Fox will be on hand this evening (11/1) at the Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown for a free screening of his controversial documentary "Gasland" chronicling problems with "fracking," the widely used drilling technique for extracting natural gas.

The film, which came out in 2010, was nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy and several other awards. The oil and gas industry contends the movie contains errors and distortions, assertions which Fox rebuts.

It will air at 6 p.m. in the 3rd floor Wheeler (no relation) auditorium at the library, 400 Cathedral Street.  Afterwards, there'll be a discussion led by Fox.  The event is sponsored by Baltimore Green Works.  For more information, go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:31 AM | | Comments (0)

October 31, 2011

Blackwater wildlife refuge expanding

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, this region's premier preserve of woods, wetlands, bald eagles and other critters, is growing by another 825 acres, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin announced today.

For $1.4 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has bought a tract of land along the Nanticoke River owned by Tideland Ltd. The service said the land is prime habitat for eagles and migratory waterfowl, including black ducks, blue winged-teal and wood ducks, and possibly habitat for the recovering Delmarva fox squirrel. A southern portion along the Nanticoke helps preserve views for the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

The refuge, south of Cambridge in Dorchester County, covers more than 27,000 acres, including a third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and some of the most ecologically important areas of our state, Cardin noted.

(Osprey nesting at Blackwater, 2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:02 AM | | Comments (2)

October 28, 2011

Weekend cleanup touts "scary" Chesapeake

With Halloween just around the corner, the Washington-based green group Environment America is sponsoring a spooky-themed cleanup of the Anacostia River on Saturday (Oct. 29), as well as a teach-in of sorts on the woes afflicting the Chesapeake Bay.

Volunteers will be picking up trash in Bladensburg Waterfront Park, 4601 Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Folks are encouraged to dress up in costumes, though also to wear clothes and boots they don't mind getting grungy.

Not one to miss a chance to talk policy, Environment America plans to use the event to tout "10 scary problems" plaguing the bay.  Among them:

- Chickens outnumber people 1,000 to 1 on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the group says, and poultry growers on the Delmarva Peninsula generate upwards of 1 billion pounds of manure annually;

- The "dead zone" that forms each summer in the bay, where fish and shellfish can't get enough oxygen in the water, stretched from Baltimore Harbor to the Potomac River, covering a third of the bay;

- The state has lost more than 75 percent of its wetlands

And so on.  Not sure whether they're scary, or just depressing.  The event's co-sponsored by the American Public Health Association, which is holding its annual meeting in DC over the weekend.

(Flotsam on the water at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, summer 2011)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, Events, Volunteer

State moves to limit farm fertilizer, sewage sludge


Maryland is moving ahead with plans to impose controversial new limits on how and when farmers can fertilize their fields. 

The proposed changes to the state's "nutrient management" regulations, submitted Thursday to a legislative committee for review, are meant to reduce polluted runoff from farms as part of Maryland's effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay.  But they've stirred intense opposition as they were being drafted from farmers and from local officials as well, because they not only limit the application of animal manure to farm fields but also of sewage sludge. 

Opponents have complained the move by the Maryland Department of Agriculture is unwarranted and costly, potentially requiring Anne Arundel County, for instance, to spend upwards of $30 million to store its sewage sludge over the winter. 

UPDATE: "The consensus from most folks I have spoken with agree that these new guidelines will hasten the demise of Maryland Agriculture to about 10 years down the road," emailed state Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican representing Harford County who's heard from a lot of farmers in his area concerned about being required to fence livestock away from streams.  Glassman works for Constellation Energy but raises sheep as a hobby.

But state agriculture officials say the rules are based on research indicating more needs to be done to curtail farm pollution.

“As science evolves and we learn more about how to better manage farms, it’s appropriate to change policies," Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy"  Hance said in a press release announcing the move.

Continue reading "State moves to limit farm fertilizer, sewage sludge" »

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October 26, 2011

MD backing away from Bay cleanup deadline?

Is the O'Malley administration backing away from the 2020 deadline it set for Maryland to complete its share of the regional Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort?

On Tuesday, members of the governor's Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal suggested delaying the cleanup deadline - dropping back to the 2025 target previously agreed to by the other five states engaged in bay restoration. The members making those suggestions just happened to be O'Malley cabinet secretaries.

John R. Griffin, secretary of natural resources, presented recommendations from a committee of the task force, including one urging a gradual tripling of the $30 annual "flush fee" every Maryland homeowner pays now to help restore the bay.

Gov. Martin O'Malley called it a "stretch goal" in 2009 when he committed Maryland to reaching the state's pollution-reduction goals five years earlier than the other states involved in the bay restoration effort. He said it was to "maintain our own sense of urgency" about the cleanup, which has dragged on for more than 25 years and repeatedly missed other goals.

Without more funds, the state won't be able to take all the actions needed by 2020 to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, officials have said.  But Griffin said state and local officials could use more time to raise the funds and get programs and projects in place to fulfill the state's obligations under the baywide "pollution diet" set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Continue reading "MD backing away from Bay cleanup deadline?" »

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October 21, 2011

Study finds MD lags in polluter penalties, permit fees

Maryland is often accused by business groups of going overboard on environmental regulation.

But according to a new study, the state actually lags behind its neighbors and the federal government in a couple key categories - the size of the fines it can levy for pollution violations, and the fees it charges businesses and local governments for seeing that they don't foul the Chesapeake Bay or local waterways.

The Center for Progressive Reform, a pro-regulation think tank based in Washington, argues in a report released today (10/21) that Maryland lawmakers have handcuffed the state's environmental regulators by not authorizing them to impose stiffer penalties on polluters.

The group also contends the state could do a better job protecting the state's waters - and paradoxically, reduce regulatory delays - by charging higher fees for permits to discharge wastes and storm runoff into streams and rivers.

The report was to be presented at a daylong forum at the University of Maryland Law School on how to hold Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states accountable for their obligations to restore the degraded estuary.

Rena Steinzor, a UM law professor and the center's president, argues that with state and federal budgets squeezed, it's unrealistic to expect much more money can be directed at the cleanup effort in the near term.

"There aren't federal mega-bucks coming for the Bay," she said in an interview. But she added that "we can't sit by twiddling our thumbs" and let the restoration effort stall. "In times like these," she concluded, "the most effective approach is to use deterrence via enforcement."

Continue reading "Study finds MD lags in polluter penalties, permit fees" »

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October 20, 2011

Bay crosscurrents: Rockfish up, ospreys down

Good news this week about the Chesapeake Bay's most treasured finfish is offset by some troubling news about one of the estuary's signature birds.

Maryland natural resources officials reported their annual survey tallied the fourth highest number of young striped bass, or rockfish, in state waters in nearly six decades.

It was heartenng news about the bay's most prized fish for recreational anglers and commercial fishermen alike, after  several years of below-average counts of juvenile rockfish.  As my colleague Candus Thomson reported, the upper bay is the spawning ground and nursery for three-quarters of the striped bass that roam all along the East Coast.

There's been growing concern over their status lately.  Besides sub-par spawning four out of the last five years, the overall striped bass population is down 25 percent, and up to 60 percent of adult striped bass in the bay are afflicted with a deadly disease, mycobacteriosis. The  Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is weighing whether to curtail catches of them - a vote is set when the panel meets in early November.

Virginia saw similarly good reproduction of striped bass in their rivers feeding into the lower Chesapeake.

There's worrisome news out of Virginia, though, about ospreys, one of the birds that preys on fish inthe bay.  A biologist at William & Mary College reports a dramatic decline in survival among osprey chicks.  Bryan D. Watts, director of the college's Center for Conservation Biology, said in an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that "nine of every 10 eggs hatched, but only four of every 10 chicks survived to fledge. Chicks were hatching, but they were starving in the nest."

The Virginia biologists think the problem may be a shortage of menhaden, a forage fish humans don't eat but that is food for many other fish, including striped bass, and birds of prey like ospreys and bald eagles.  Where menhaden once made up 70 percent of young ospreys diet, it's declined to less than 27 percent, Watts reports.

Concerned by recent finding that menhaden have been overfished for 32 of the last 54 years, the Atlantic States fisheries panel is also weighing whether to curtail catches of them.  They're taken as bait by commercial fishermen and crabbers, but the bulk are caught by a Virginia-based fishing fleet and processed as animal feed and for their heart-healthy oil.  A decision on menhaden's fate also is slated in early November - the biologists suggest what's decided could affect more than just commercial fishermen.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)

October 18, 2011

Rural lawmakers push back against Bay cleanup, sprawl curbs


Maryland's lawmakers are in Annapolis this week to redraw congressional district boundaries, but Republicans are using the occasion to drum up resistance to Gov. Martin O'Malley's environmental agenda.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who represents the upper Eastern Shore, and more than a dozen GOP delegates from rural (or once-rural) parts of the state have introduced 10 different bills aiming to counter the O'Malley administration's push to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, to limit new development on septic systems and to use state funds more effectively in fighting rural sprawl. 

Pipkin was expected to decry what he and other GOP lawmakers are calling O'Malley's "war on rural Maryland" at a tea party rally today in Annapolis that was ostensibly called to protest the governor's redistricting plan. 

Some bills target the "watershed implementation plans" each town and county must draw up for carrying out its share of the bay cleanup effort.  One measure would require each plan's costs to be estimated, and would cap the overall cost at $14.7 billion through 2017 - the pricetag the state estimated when it submitted its overall plan late last year.  Another bill would free local officials from having to carry out any cleanup actions required under the bay "pollution diet"  unless funding is provided by the state or federal governments.

Continue reading "Rural lawmakers push back against Bay cleanup, sprawl curbs" »

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October 12, 2011

O'Malley's green grade slips a little


The Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave Gov. Martin O'Malley a B+ today for his environmental record over the past three years, a slight decline from the record-high A- grade it gave him shortly after he moved into the State House.

The slippage represents activists' unhappiness over O'Malley's backing and signing a bill this year to boost incentives for generating electricity by burning trash. Under the measure, "waste-to-energy" plants get top-tier status and lucrative incentives under Maryland's program meant to promote renewable energy developement.  Green groups complained that encouraging more trash burning would pollute the state's air while undermining prospects for developing other renewable energy sources, notably solar and offshore wind projects.

The group also downgraded O'Malley on water quality, reflecting its concern that he has yet to push for an increase in the "flush fee" to finish upgrading the state's largest sewage treatment plants.

The league did give O'Malley top marks for funding land preservation, pushing through climate-change legislation, for drafting the most aggressive Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan of any of the bay-watershed states, and for restricting wild oyster harvests while encouraging watermen to move into aquaculture.

It also credited him with pushing to develop offshore wind energy and for seeking to ban large-scale new development on septic tanks.  Both measures failed to pass this year, though O'Malley hopes to revive them.

Continue reading "O'Malley's green grade slips a little" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:49 AM | | Comments (2)

October 11, 2011

Hearing on menhaden catch limits moved


A little housekeeping announcement: The hearing this evening in Annapolis on whether to cut back the catch of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast has been moved to a new location.

The session, scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., has been moved to Calvary United Methodist Church, 301 Rowe Boulevard. Plans had been to hold it in Department of Natural Resources headquarters, but I'm guessing the prospect of a big crowd prompted officials to seek larger meeting space.

With the Atlantic menhaden stock at a record low level after being overfished 32 of the last 54 years, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is weighing whether to clamp down. A decision may be made in November. The commission voted in August to seek public comment on a range of options, from doing nothing to cutting the catch by up to 45 percent.

Unless you're a fisherman, menhaden may not be on your radar. They're not on anybody's dinner table, but the oily fish is a prime food for striped bass, or rockfish, which is a favorite among anglers and restaurant patrons alike.  They also serve another vital ecological role in the bay, as filter feeders. 

Its lack of table appeal notwithstanding, the little fish have been heavily harvested over the years to provide feed for farm animals and farmed fish, and their oil's extracted and sold as a heart-healthy food supplement.

Cutting the menhaden catch is opposed by Virginia, home to the last large-scale commercial menhaden fishing fleet on the East Coast. Omega Protein's vessels operate out of Reedville, which almost entirely on the size of its menhaden catch has the second highest commercial fish landings of any port in the United States.

But cutting menhaden catches also could hurt Maryland's commercial fishermen, as it's caught for bait to  catch other fish and especially blue crabs.  The state's watermen aren't happy about the prospect of yet another restriction on their livelihood - ergo the likelihood of a big turnout tonight.

(AP file photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:00 PM | | Comments (0)

October 10, 2011

Poll: MDers willing to pay more for offshore wind


A new poll says 62 percent of Marylanders favor putting huge wind turbines off Ocean City and would be willing to pay as much as $2 per month on their electric bills for it. 

The poll done by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies of Arnold was paid for by environmental groups which favor offshore wind development in Maryland. It was released the day before the opening of an offshore wind industry conference in Baltimore, at which Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to reiterate his support.

With backing from environmentalists, labor and some clean-energy businesses, O'Malley attemped to spur offshore wind development by pushing a bill that would require the state's utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy the electricity generated by turbines placed a dozen miles or so off the coast. But lawmakers tabled the legislation for more study amid questions about how much ratepayers would have to pay.

O'Malley is expected to renew his push for offshore wind in the General Assembly next year. Supporters say the poll shows he has public backing.

"These poll results couldn’t be more clear," said Mike Tidwell, head of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of the groups that paid for the poll " Maryland voters want the General Assembly to bring offshore wind power to the state. Marylanders understand that the benefits of offshore wind are more than worth a modest initial investment."

According to the pollsters, 62 percent of those who responded to the survey agreed that they would be willing to pay $2 more a month on their electric bill to have a greater percentage of their power from "clean, local" wind turbines rather than from coal, oil and gas.

The support was statewide, with 55 percent backing it on the Eastern Shore in in Southern Maryland, 62 percent in Baltimore's suburbs, 67 percent in the DC 'burbs and 75 percent in Baltimore city.  Pollsters said paying up to $2 more for wind-generated electricity also won favor from 75 percent of African-Americans surveyed.

UPDATE: A second poll released today, done for the developer of a new offshore wind transmission grid, finds even stronger public support for putting turbines off the coast - especially if it means the new industry would bring jobs to Maryland.

The survey, done by Frederick Poll for the Atlantic Wind Connection, finds 77 percent of those questioned favor developing wind power off the Maryland coast  Sixty-eight percent - including 51 percent of the Republicans surveyed - agreed with the statement that they want elected officials to push offshore wind, even if it initially costs more.  Seventy-four percent want offshore wind transmission built, even if it also costs more.

(Wind turbines off the UK coast, Getty Images)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:15 AM | | Comments (1)

September 28, 2011

Va renews ban on winter crab fishery

In a boost to efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay's crab population, Virginia's fisheries regulators have banned wintertime dredging for the crustaceans for the fourth straight year.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission voted 9 to 0 on Sept. 23 to renew the winter dredging ban, declaring that while the bay's crab stock has rebounded dramatically in the past few years, "more work remains to be done to bring the population back to healthy, sustainable levels."

Prompted by warnings from scientists that the bay's crab population was perilously low, Maryland and Virginia clamped down on commercial crabbing in 2008, attempting to replenish the stock by reducing harvest of female crabs.   Regulators shortened the harvest season and imposed other catch restrictions, including Virginia's ban on its winter dredge fishery, which targets primarily pregnant females. 

A new scientific assessment found that while crab numbers have recovered significantly since the restrictions, they are still below sustainable levels.  The population had been more depleted than previously believed, researchers concluded. 

(Maryland Dept Natural Resources biologists conduct dredge survey of Patuxent River to assess population.  Baltimore Sun photo by Candus Thomson)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:01 AM | | Comments (0)

UM "barging" into fight vs invasive species


The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has a new weapon in the fight to slow the spread of invasive species - a $2.7 million floating laboratory to test methods for purging unwanted marine hitchhikers from the ballast water of oceangoing ships.

The 155-foot converted barge was trotted out Tuesday for a dedication ceremony in the Inner Harbor.  Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., was on hand for the event.  He called the more than 150 invasive species reported to date in the Chesapeake Bay a "significant threat" to native fish and plants.

The barge, part of the university's Maritime Environmental Research Center, is one of three such facilities around the country that can test the effectiveness of ballast treatments, such as ultraviolet light, chlorine and oxygen removers.  It can be towed from port to port to conduct testing in different seasons and water conditions.

(Photo courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:20 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

September 19, 2011

An Irene P.S. - another sewage spill

Just when it seemed storm-spawned sewer overflows were done, another one happened over the weekend.

Baltimore County's Department of Public Works reported more than 500,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled out Saturday morning near the Patapsco pumping station in Baltimore Highlands. The overflow occurred on a 40-foot stretch of force main that had recently been replaced because it ruptured during or right after Hurricane Irene blew through the area.

A leak was detected last Wednesday in the replacement 54-inch diameter pipe, which had been put in on September 1. Utility crews excavated the pipe and discovered a joint failure. Sewage overflowed while repairs were under way to fix the joint.

Health officials have extended the water-contact warning they issued after the original overflow, cautioning against swimming, wading or touching the Patapsco downriver of the spill. County officials estimated 85 million gallons of diluted but raw sewage spilled into the Patapsco during the original pipe rupture, which took nearly a week to fix. Another 13.6 million gallons spilled into the river when power went out.

The public beach in the Hammerman area of Gunpowder State Park remains closed to recreation because of Irene-related spills, and water-contact warnings are still in effect on nine other county waterways. 

In all,  Baltimore County reported more than 100 million gallons of diluted but raw sewage overflowed into Baltimore area rivers and streams during and after the storm, according to data logged by the Maryland Department of the Environment.    Many localities reported overflows, though none as large.  Second highest was Prince George's County, which reported about 20 million gallons overflowed in all.

(Worker walks by broken sewer pipe off Annapolis Road near Patapsco River, Sept. 2. Baltimore Sun Photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:16 AM | | Comments (4)

September 16, 2011

Weekend activity: beach, stream cleanups on tap

Saturday (Sept. 17) brings the 26th annual International Coastal Cleanup, a worldwide event organized by the Ocean Conservancy, when volunteers haul trash and debris from streams and beaches.

Maryland has its share of pickups planned, and there'll be no shortage of debris this time, what with the winds and flooding we've had the past few weeks. The state's shoreline could use a good housecleaning. 

Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena and Stony Run in Baltimore are among the local cleanups on tap. To find a site near you and sign up, go here.

(Volunteer picks up trash on shore at Middle Branch Park. 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:31 PM | | Comments (0)

Storm "retires" floating harbor wetland

Battered by Hurricane Irene, one of two small “floating wetlands” placed in the Inner Harbor a year ago to soak up pollution is being retired – to be replaced before long, supporters hope, by an even larger, though sturdier manmade island.

Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit promoting the Inner Harbor, said the dozen rectangular trays of marsh grass and flowers tied up by Baltimore’s World Trade Center are to be removed today (Friday, Sept. 16). They were showing wear and tear, she said, after a year of exposure to the elements – particularly the hurricane’s howling winds nearly three weeks ago.

“They stayed somewhat intact,’’ she said during the storm, but inspection afterward found the nylon ropes tethering them in place were frayed and some of the frames pulling apart.

The installation of the wetlands – seen in August 2010 photo above - was a largely symbolic first step in an ambitious campaign by the partnership to make Baltimore’s degraded harbor swimmable and fishable by the end of the decade.

Assembled by volunteers with the Living Classrooms Foundation, the wetlands were made out of wood, mesh and cast-off plastic drink bottles fished out of the harbor. The partnership and other sponsors of the project wanted to test whether the 200-square-foot array would remove any pollution and infuse the water with more oxygen for fish and crabs to breathe. They also hoped it would provide some food and shelter for fish and other aquatic creatures in a harbor that had lost all its natural marshland as the city developed over the centuries. 

Chris Streb, an engineer with Biohabitats, a local ecological restoration firm that’s helped with the project, said he believed the wetlands “worked great” and were never meant to be permanent.   

Continue reading "Storm "retires" floating harbor wetland" »

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Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News, Urban Issues

September 15, 2011

Storm that fouled Bay tests restoration efforts

The deluge that's fouled the Chesapeake Bay with mud, debris and pollution could pose a severe test for the efficacy of state and federal efforts to restore the ailing estuary.

As I reported in The Baltimore Sun, scientists are warning that the floodwaters that poured through Conowingo Dam's spillgates last week during Tropical Storm Lee may devastate underwater grasses and oyster reefs, both of which help filter the water and provide important habitat for fish and crabs.

Their fears are based on history: the bay's grasses largely vanished, and its health plummeted, after another tropical storm, Agnes, produced record flooding in 1972. (Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science argues that Agnes alone didn't push the bay into a downward spiral, that its impact was magnified by a series of unusually wet years that followed.) 

Continue reading "Storm that fouled Bay tests restoration efforts" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

September 13, 2011

MD to yank 60 recreational anglers' licenses

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources announced today it's moving to suspend the fishing privileges of 60 recreational anglers for fishing and crabbing violations.

Among the infractions alleged: taking fish during closed seasons, taking fish during spawning seasons, taking fish in closed areas, exceeding daily catch limits and possession of female crabs. Violators can be suspended from one month to a full year, but the accused have a right to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

DNR Secretary John R. Griffin called the violations a breech of the public's trust and said he hoped the suspensions serve as a warning to would-be violators.

The crackdown on sports anglers comes after DNR got lawmakers to approve stiffer penalties and suspensions for recreational fishing violations as well as commercial infractions.

(Undersized rockfish caught - and thrown back, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:42 AM | | Comments (0)

September 12, 2011

Flood's aftermath: debris litters shore

The Susquehanna River flooding has subsided since Friday, but the raging waters washed tons of mud and debris into the Chesapeake Bay.

Pictured here is a stretch of shoreline on the Magothy River in northern Anne Arundel County. The debris washes up on shore, much of it. But the mud settles on the bottom as it drifts down.

Here's a link to a satellite image of the bay, where you can see the Susquehanna quite clearly and the caramel-colored plume its created in the upper bay. (It's a huge image, so scroll right and down to find the river and the bay.) 

(Photo: Magothy River, by Amelia Koch, Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:34 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

September 9, 2011

Noah's Bay - flooding adds to Chesapeake's woes

Hurricane Irene may have paradoxically breathed a little life back into the Chesapeake Bay, but the deluge that's caused flash flooding around Baltimore and forced evacuations along the Susquehanna River could well snuff out whatever spark of vitality the earlier storm brought to the ailing estuary.

That's the prediction of a pair of scientists I canvassed, who'd previously suggested that there was a silver lining to the havoc wrought on Maryland two weeks ago by Hurricane Irene. That storm's winds, which toppled trees and power lines across the state, roiled the bay's water and broke up its massive dead zone, they said, giving fish, crabs and shellfish a fresh infusion of life-sustaining dissolved oxygen at the end of what has been an extremely trying summer. 

But the five-day downpour brought to us this week from the Gulf of Mexico by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee is nothing but bad news for the bay, the experts say.

The Susquehanna, source of half of all the fresh water entering the bay, is rising to a level not seen since Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, with projections that it will be pouring over the Conowingo Dam at more than 600,000 cubic feet per second when the flood peaks early Saturday morning. (UPDATE: The rising river may be cresting a day earlier and somewhat lower than previously predicted, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, but its flow was still projected to peak today at 777,000 cubic feet per second.)

That's well short of the 1.1 million cfs that raged over the dam during Agnes, wiping out grass beds and smothering oysters and clams down the bay.  (UPDATE 09-12: Flow peaked Friday Sept. 9 at 778,000 cubic feet per second, third highest recorded, according to US Geological Survey data. The second heaviest flow reached 909,000 cfs in January 1996.)But it'll be more than enough flow to scour out the nutrient-laden sediment that's piled up behind the dam for the past four decades, according to Bruce Michael, director of resource assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"Scouring of sediments/nutrients trapped behind the Conowingo Dam occurs when river flows exceed 390,000 to 400,000 cfs," Michael emailed me, "so this event will result in a significant amount of sediments and nutrients being transported from behind the dam and deposited in the upper Bay."

Continue reading "Noah's Bay - flooding adds to Chesapeake's woes" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:30 AM | | Comments (1)

September 1, 2011

Trash mill trashed?


Baltimore's "trash mill" is gone - for good, or ill?

The distinctive floating litter collector has been towed from the Harris Creek storm-drain outfall in Canton, where it has kept tons of refuse out of the Inner Harbor - when it wasn't broken.

Celeste Amato, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works, said it was broken and was taken away to be checked over by a consultant, who'll see what it needs to be fixed. Amato wrote in an email that "it cannot be repaired in place and was removed pending a decision on how to move forward."

Its removal upset John Kellett, who built the device evoking one of the historic water mills that once lined Baltimore's streams. Like those mills, it used a waterwheel to turn a conveyor belt, which lifted floating trash into a dumpster at the back of the shed housing the device.  Solar and wind power or water currents were supposed to turn the wheel.

But the innovative facility, which cost the city $375,000, has had a troubled three-year life. It was originally placed where the Jones Falls empties into the Inner Harbor, then moved to Canton after being deemed not large enough to handle all the debris that pours out of the falls after a storm. At the Harris Creek outfall, it captured upwards of five tons of plastic, paper and foam cups, plates, boxes and bottles every month. Its novel design and appearance also earned it support from residents who wanted to see the harbor and their neighborhoods free of unsightly and unsanitary litter. 

Continue reading "Trash mill trashed?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:50 AM | | Comments (3)

August 29, 2011

Coastal sea summit eyes natural, manmade woes

Hundreds of scientists, activists and government officials from around the world have gathered in Baltimore's Inner Harbor to compare notes on cleaning up the planet's troubled coastal waters.

From the Cheapeake Bay to the Seto Inland Sea in Japan, near-shore waters suffer similar insults - too many nutrients from sewage, fertilizer and air pollution, overfishing and habitat degradation.

What's quickly apparent from sitting in for a short while this morning on the four-day global summit is that progress in the uphill battle of restoring stressed and degraded ecosystems depends on one's perspective.

This 9th international conference on Environmental Management for Enclosed Coastal Seas (EMECS) has drawn a sizable contingent from Japan, and several speakers have touched on the devastation wrought earlier this year by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation's northeastern coast.

Many conference participants got an up-close look at a much less disruptive natural calamity oer the weekend because they arrived in Baltimore just before Hurricane Irene reached here. Indeed, several sessions planned Sunday morning were postponed in anticipation of the storm.

The Inner Harbor got off light this time, compared with the flooding brought by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.  Indeed, at the conclusion of a talk outlining the challenges of managing coastal seas, Dr. Motoyuki Suzuki, chairman of Japan's Central Environmental Council, flashed up before-and-after photos of the Inner Harbor taken from the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, where the summit is meeting. The images showed that the storm had not harmed any of the structures along the waterfront, prompting the speaker to say, "Beautiful!"

But the photo taken after the storm had passed showed a swath of caramel-colored water streaming out from Pier 6 by the concert pavilion - where the Jones Falls empties into the harbor.  Evidently the storm washed signfiicant amounts of dirt, harmful bacteria and probably other pollutants down storm drains into the falls and ultimately the Inner Harbor.

It's storm-water runoff like that - every time it rains, even lightly - that's one of the biggest hurdles to making the harbor fit for human contact.  Not the harm wrought by a a tsunami or a truly destructive hurricane, to be sure, but beneath the surface not exactly beautiful, either.

The conference, hosted by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Maryland Department of the Environment, meets here through Wednesday.

(2006 Baltimore Sun photo by Robert Hamilton)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:39 PM | | Comments (2)

Chessy Conservation Corps expands

Buoyed by the success of its inaugural class, the Chesapeake Conservation Corps is growing.

The environmental career and leadership training program created last year by the General Assembly has selected 21 young adults for its second class - up from 16 last year, the Chesapeake Bay Trust announced today.

The trust oversees the program, under which volunteers work on a variety of environnmental initiaitives, including energy-efficiency campaigns, tree planting, stream cleanup and job training. Volunteers are assigned to nonprofit groups and government agencies.

"In today's challenging economic times, it is important that we invest in our young people and provide them with the skills and training necessary for jobs that create a smarter, greener future for Maryland," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the corps' chief legislative sponsor, said in a statement. The program is underwritten by the state and the Bay Trust, with additional support from Constellation Energy.

Four of last year's initial class of 16 corps members, pictured above, wound up being hired by the groups they worked with over the past year - which organizers see as a sign of the program's strength. Of this year's group, four will work in Baltimore city, five in Anne Arundel County and one in Howard County.

Applications were solicited from young people ages 18 to 25. Corps members receive a stipend and have the opportunity to gain environmental careeer certificates from Maryland's community colleges. For more info, go here.

(2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:55 PM | | Comments (1)

August 26, 2011

MD extends review of disputed growth plan


The O'Malley administration has decided to give unhappy local officials more time to review the state's "smart growth" plan after tweaking it in response to criticism.

The state Department of Planning announced it's releasing a revised draft of "PlanMaryland" on Sept. 7, then providing an additional 60 days for public comment on the changes.

Since a draft was released in April, the first-ever state growth plan has drawn fire from local officials who've complained the state is trying to usurp their traditional prerogative to decide where development is to go in their communities.

O'Malley administration officials say the plan is meant to strengthen to-date ineffective efforts to curb suburban sprawl and conserve forests and farmland. A statewide growth plan was called for under a 1974 land use law, but never drafted until now.

State officials say the plan is only meant to improve coordination between state and local governments on growth, and that local officials would still be free allow development anywhere in their communities.  State funding for roads, schools and other infrastructure would be limited to growth areas designated in the plan, however. Local politicians have complained that is tantamount to dictating to them, and that they shouldn't be forced to comply with a "one-size-fits-all" definition of what constitutes smart growth.

"Achieving complete agreement on the process may be difficult, but there seems to be broad accord on the objectives of PlanMaryland," state Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall said in a statement. 

Comments will be taken through Nov. 7. To review the current draft of the plan, go to

(2006 Baltimore Sun file photo of development in Howard County)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:42 AM | | Comments (3)

August 23, 2011

Globe-trotting TV naturalist explores the Chesapeake


Globe-trotting TV naturalist Jeff Corwin, who's trekked rainforests and deserts in search of exotic wildlife, is turning his attention to the Chesapeake Bay.

Corwin, the Emmy-winning Animal Planet star, kayaked Monday on New York's Lake Otsego, headwaters of the Susquehanna River, as part of a multimedia educational and entertainment initiative known as Expedition Chesapeake.  It's the first of a series of paddles he's expected to make all the way from the river's beginning in Cooperstown NY to Havre de Grace, where it meets the bay.

"This is going to be an incredible journey and it starts right here, in Cooperstown and on this beautiful lake," Corwin said in a prepared statement. "The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to a staggering 17 million people and we want to educate and inspire those citizens to better understand and appreciate this incredible treasure."

Launched by the Whitaker Center, a science and arts museum in Harrisburg, Pa., Expedition Chesapeake plans to spread the word about the nation's largest estuary by producing an IMAX film, a made-for-TV documentary series, a traveling science exhibit and a set of "online learning experiences" designed to engage students throughout the 64,000-square-mile watershed that's spread across six states, including nearly all of Maryland.

The outreach effort couldn't come at a better time, as federally directed efforts to restore the bay's water quality are running into resistance, particularly in upstream states like Pennsylvania and New York, where officials and their constituents are questioning why they should shoulder any additional burden for the cleanup of an estuary far from them. 

(Jeff Corwin wearing a black-headed python at the opening of the National Aquarium's Australia exhibit. 2005  Baltimore Sun file photo by John Makely)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)

August 16, 2011

Maryland streamlines oyster farm permit process

Back in June, Tim reported on the frustrations of budding aquaculture entrepreneurs about the bloated approval process. He mentioned the state review process would soon be consolidated under DNR. On Monday, Maryland announced that watermen can now file a single, joint state-federal application with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Read more here.

Posted by Kim Walker at 11:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

August 15, 2011

National Aquarium releases turtles into Chesapeake Bay


Tim's still on vacation, but here's a little update to keep you going until he comes back:

Baltimore's National Aquarium said it released three endangered Ridley Sea Turtles into the Chesapeake Bay on Friday. The stranded turtles, Oceana, Prancer and Vixen, were among 12 rescued this winter from Cape Cod, Mass., and brought to Baltimore to be treated for hypothermia, also known as "cold stunning," the aquarium said in a news release.

On Friday, they were released at Point Lookout State Park in Scotland, Md., into the bay where they can feed on jellies and invertebrates, the aquarium said. One turtle, Oceana (pictured), was outfitted with a satellite transmitter, and you can follow Oceana's movements at

Photo courtesy of the National Aquarium

Posted by Kim Walker at 4:07 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

August 9, 2011

Sarbanes: GOP tide threatens Bay cleanup

With Congress home recovering from last week's debt-ceiling donnybrook, Rep. John Sarbanes says he's expecting a bruising fight over federal environmental programs in the fall when lawmakers return to Washington. If the GOP succeeds, he warns, it could undermine the progress recently made toward restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Speaking this week in his Towson district office, the Baltimore area Democrat said the Republican majority in the House has embarked on a "systematic assault on the environment" by moving to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and other programs, such as national parks and wildlife refuges.

"As this larger debate about cutting our debt and deficit is happening, they are sort of piling on behind that as much as they can," Sarbanes said, with measures aimed at blocking new regulations or even rolling back existing environmental protections. Given the public's understandable fixation now with jobs and the economy, he said that "it's going to be very very difficult" to hold the line.

Republicans - with some Democratic allies - attempted earlier this year to block EPA from spending any funds in the current budget on a variety of controversial regulatory activities, including curbing climate-warming greenhouse gases and enforcing the agency's "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake. Though the House approved the spending curbs, the Senate refused to go along.

Now GOP members are making another run at EPA, proposing to reduce its funding significantly in the next year while also tacking a bevy of "riders" on the appropriations bill that would prohibit the agency from doing anything on climate, mountaintop coal mining and other moves by the agency that are opposed by various industries.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, is pushing proposals to block EPA's Chesapeake cleanup plan, which set a "total maximum daily load" of pollution for the bay and requires Maryland and the other five states in the watershed to reduce nutrients and sediment to meet that cap. Officials in Virginia and New York have complained about the costs of complying, while other states have resisted EPA's pressure on them to mandate reductions from farmers and local communities. Farm and development groups have sued to block EPA's plan.

GOP members and some Democrats contend that EPA has overstepped its authority and is pushing costly regulations that could hurt industry and kill jobs.  EPA and its supporters, though, argue that the rules are mandated by law or court settlements and are meant to enhance the public's protection from air and water pollution.

Continue reading "Sarbanes: GOP tide threatens Bay cleanup" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:11 AM | | Comments (0)

August 5, 2011

EPA's Jackson defends Chesapeake cleanup plan


EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson defended Friday her agency’s plan for reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and said it remains a priority of the Obama administration despite shrinking budgets and pushback from affected industries and states.

Meeting with reporters before addressing a national ecosystem restoration conference in Baltimore, Jackson said her staff has been talking with New York officials who’ve been questioning the costs and science behind wastewater treatment upgrades they’re being required to make. They’ve been threatening to sue to challenge EPA’s bay pollution “diet,” as farm and development groups already have.

Jackson said her agency is trying to work with New York officials, and she noted that all six bay watershed states appear on track to meet their short-term cleanup goals for the end of this year. But she warned against letting up on the restoration effort just because money is tight.

“You know, the truth is It takes resources and time and effort and will to continually work hard on reducing pollution into the bay,” she said. Reductions have to be made from farmland and from urban and suburban lands as well, she said, “and it’s going to take continued effort.

“What we have to do is rely on the best science and be fair,” she concluded, “and not put in place a process that might make everyone happy, but that we know will result in us not meeting our goals.”

Jackson said the Obama administration will push for continued high levels of federal funding for the bay restoration effort, but she acknowledged that her agency and others face pressure from Congress to reduce their budgets. House members are attempting as well to block the agency from spending funds to enforce various regulations, including its Chesapeake cleanup plan.

She said if resources shrink too much, government may be forced to pick and choose which watersheds it works to clean up, though she stressed that the Chesapeake would remain a priority no matter what.  EPA and the bay states have vowed to put enough pollution controls in place by 2025 to restore the bay's water quality.

“The call for a clean Chesapeake doesn’t come from Lisa Jackson or from the EPA,” she said. “it comes from the people who love it and who are angry that it’s taken so long and that they’ve waited so long and haven’t seen progress” in cleaning it up.

To those industry and other critics who contend EPA is killing jobs by pushing costly regulations, she countered, “These are regulations designed to do some really important things like keep our air and water clean and provide certainty,” she said. “It’s unrealistic we should ask the American people to pay the price of pollution to get jobs.”

(EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson meets with Baltimore youths at Middle Branch Park during announcement of federal "urban waters" initiative in June.  Baltimore Sun photo by Joe Soriero)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:37 PM | | Comments (1)

Industry, critics spar over fracking in W. MD

Energy industry representatives and skeptics sparred Thursday over taxing natural gas drilling in western Maryland and the state's plan to take up to three years to study the environmental impacts of the hydraulic fracturing drilling technique, the Associated Press reports.

At the first meeting of an advisory committee Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed to study the risks and benefits of "fracking" for gas in Marcellus shale in Garrett and Allegany counties, Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, pressed to expedite the study and adoption of any new regulations to cover drilling.

The panel met at Rocky Gap State Park. Cobbs said the industry would consider funding an environmental baseline study in return for an accelerated timeline, according to the AP.

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, who failed this year to get the General Assembly to restrict Marcellus drilling, proposed an extraction tax of up to 10 percent.  Industry representatives warned would discourage potentially lucrative drilling in western Maryland.

To read more go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:20 AM | | Comments (0)

August 3, 2011

Curbs due on catching Bay's keystone fish?


After years of debate, East Coast states may finally be moving to curb the commercial harvest of menhaden, a silvery little fish that helps filter the Chesapeake Bay's waters - and whose population scientists say has been overfished most of the last 50 years.

My colleague Candus Thomson, the Sun's outdoors writer, reports in her blog Outdoors Girl that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted overwhelmingly last night to ask for public comment on a range of options for managing the vital menhaden stock - from making no changes in current harvest cap to reducing the catch by 45 percent from 2010 levels.

Though not a popular table fish, the small oily menhaden is a primary food for striped bass and other fish. It is prized commercially for its oil. A company called Omega Protein Corp. targets the fish in the Virginia portion of the bay, where they are ground up at a plant in Reedville, Va., and used to make diet supplements, pet food and cosmetics. They're also used as bait for blue crabs and lobsters.

Menhaden have been overfished in 32 of the last 54 years, according to biologists, and the stock is at its lowest point in recorded history. Some worry that decline could be having ripple effects on other fish like striped bass, or rockfish, that feed on them. 

The vote among Atlantic states fisheries commissioners last night on whether to consider curtailing the menhaden catch was 15 to 1, with Virginia's representative the lone dissenter, Thomson reports.

(School of menhaden in Virginia waters, 2004. AP photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:10 AM | | Comments (2)

Bay's record 'dead zone' keeps growing


The oxygen-starved 'dead zone' in the Chesapeake Bay, which covered a record third of Maryland's portion of the estuary in June, has grown still more, according to state scientists.

Samples taken by the state Department of Natural Resources in early June found that 33 percent of Maryland's bay waters had little or no dissolved oxygen, which crabs, fish and oysters need to breathe. That's the most recorded for that time in the summer since regular measurements began in 1985, DNR says.

The dead zone shrank slightly over the next several weeks, but samples taken in late July found poor oxygen levels in 39 percent of the state's bay waters - another record, according to DNR.

Scientists had predicted worse-than-average oxygen levels in bay waters this summer, based on high spring flows of fresh water into the bay. The US Geological Survey reported that fresh-water flows from the Susquehanna River by late spring had already matched what pours from the bay's largest tributary in an average year.

The extra-heavy flow flushed more nutrients into the bay from farms, sewage plants and urban and suburban land, fueling massive algae "blooms" that suck the oxygen out of the water when they die and decay. Low oxygen levels stress and can even suffocate fish and shellfish.

For more on the dead zone and other bay conditions, check DNR's Eyes on the Bay.  And listen here to a report on the dead zone by WYPR's Joel McCord.


(Algae bloom on Middle River near Essex. 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:47 AM | | Comments (3)

August 2, 2011

UM launches environmental "synthesis" center

The University of Maryland announced today it's launching a new environmental research center that will bring together economists, ecologists, engineers and other disciplines to tackle complex environmental issues like water availability, sustainable food production and large-scale restoration of degraded ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, known as SeSynC, is underwritten by a $27.5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the largest NSF award ever for the university.

Environmental experts are increasingly recognizing that science alone isn't enough to deal with knotty issues like climate change, ocean degradation and the like.  The center's leadership says its research will draw on social as well as natural science to seek solutions. And they vow to produce what they termed "actionable science," engaging the public as well as scientists.

"The enormity of today's environmental problems requires a new approach to how we conduct research," said Margaret Palmer, a University of Maryland entomologist and environmental scientist who will serve as the executive director of the new center.

To be located in Annapolis, the center will draw additional support from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which has three laboratories around the state, and from Resources for the Future, a Washington policy think tank.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:10 PM | | Comments (1)

August 1, 2011

Greens slam debt deal - O'Malley warns Bay may suffer

Some environmental groups are panning the debt reduction deal struck by Democratic and Republican leaders in Washington.

Friends of the Earth called for members of Congress to reject the plan to cut nearly $1 trillion in federal spending now, with another $1.5 trillion in debt reduction to be worked out later. Friends President Erich Pica contended that if only cuts were made, they would undermine enforcement of environmental laws, among other federal functions.

"It is likely to mean more people drinking poisoned water and breathing polluted air, and a slower transition to a clean energy economy," Pica said.

The Wilderness Society also warned that the deal would slash spending on conservation and environmental programs.

Others said environmental spending doesn't seem to take a major hit right away in the deal, but could in the second round of debt reductions.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, for instance, said he worried that environmental protections would suffer without a more "balanced" approach of raising revenues as well as cutting spending.

Speaking to reporters after addressing a national environmental conference in downtown Baltimore, O'Malley said of the deal: "It could undermine the progress that we are working towards not only in the jobs recovery but also in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Cuts sound great," he added. "Members of Congress, some of them like to pound their chests, look into the camera and say ‘cuts, cuts, cuts,’ But there are certain things that we can only do together, and protecting the environment, protecting our nation’s borders, protecting our homeland security, these are things we have a federal government to accomplish."

(Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. speaks to press in Capitol. AFP/Getty photo

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:20 PM | | Comments (3)

Biking around the Bay - with a purpose

How would you like to spend a chunk of your summer bicycling around the Chesapeake Bay watershed, covering 1,300 miles in about three weeks? Sound like fun, or a hot, exhausting grind? Maybe a bit of both at times.

Thats what a pair of Chesapeake Bay Foundation employees are doing. Beth McGee and John Rodenhausen set out Saturday from just north Annapolis, pedaling through Baltimore on their first day (Story in Baltimore Sun on Sunday).

They're headed north to Cooperstown, N.Y., where the Susquehanna River begins as little more than a trickle. Then they'll head southwest back through Pennsylvania, passing through Williamsport MD on their way into West Virginia. They'll angle southeast from Charlottesville to Richmond and on to Hampton Roads, then across the mouth of the bay and up the Eastern Shore, crossing over into Delaware briefly before returning to Annapolis.

McGee, a senior scientist with CBF, and Rodenhausen, who runs CBF's educational program for adults, are making the ride to raise money and awareness for the Annapolis-based environmental group. They're also doing it for charities with which they have a personal connection - the Johns Hopkins pediatric oncology unit and the American Diabetes Association. Bambeco, a Baltimore-based retailer of "green" home decor, has pledged to donate a portion of its sales and otherwise support the ride.

The two are keeping a blog of their travels. From the entries so far, seems they're off to a good, if steamy, start. To follow along, go here.

(Beth McGee and John Rodenhausen pause in Baltimore on their ride around the bay. Baltimore Sun photo by Colby Ware)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:10 PM | | Comments (0)

July 28, 2011

Court orders limited release of farm data

An Anne Arundel County judge has ruled an environmental group may view records on farmers’ compliance with a state pollution law, but only after key information has been deleted.

Circuit Court Judge William C. Mulford II ordered the Maryland Department of Agriculture to redact any information identifying individual farmers from documents it is releasing concerning “nutrient management plans,” which spell out how much animal manure or chemical fertilizer is being spread on fields to grow crops.

The Assateague Coastkeeper had filed a Public Information Act request last year seeking a variety of records on Worcester County farms, including their compliance with a 1997 law requiring them to have and follow plans for limiting how much fertilizer they use so it won’t pollute the Chesapeake Bay.

The Maryland Farm Bureau went to court to block the state from releasing the information, which it argued was confidential under the law. In a July 14 order, Judge Mulford declared that the state may disclose if farmers are complying, but must redact any information that might be in the plan, including the farm’s size and what it grows.

Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland environmental law clinic, which represents the Worcester group, said she was still studying the order and had not decided whether to appeal.

Posted by Kim Walker at 6:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

Industry faults poultry report, EPA's Bay model

Poultry industry groups are rejecting criticism in a new report that says modern chicken production practices are degrading the Chesapeake Bay and other waters around the country.

The National Chicken Council and U.S. Poultry & Egg Association released a statement saying the criticism of the industry in the Pew Environment Group's report, "Big Chicken," is "terribly misplaced" and reflects the group's bias against the poultry industry.

The Delmarva Poultry Industries Inc. issued a statement saying the report "contains little new information and shows that Pew is not aware of the many positive steps taken by Delmarva’s chicken community in the last decade or longer."

The Delmarva poultry industry's share of bay pollution is a fraction of what the report says, according to the DPI statement.  It cites a Maryland report saying chicken manure is responsible for just 6 percent of the nitrogen getting into state waters and contends, based on another report, that urban and suburban runoff are bigger sources of the nutrients causing the bay's dead zone.

To see the statements in full, go here and here.

Meanwhile, on a related front, an industry consultant has reiterated its attack on the Environmental Protection Agency's computer analysis used to impose a baywide "pollution diet" requiring reductions in nutrient and sediment releases to water from farms and other lands within the six-state watershed.

Limno Tech, in a report commissioned by the Agricultural Nutrient Policy Council, says there are big  differences between how computer models used by EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture assess land use and the number and effectiveness of conservation practices adopted by farmers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which filed a suit joined by other ag groups to overturn EPA's bay pollution diet, publicized the consultant's critique.  Federation President Bob Stallman said, “It is clear to us that the EPA’s TMDL water regulations are based on flawed information.” 

To see the report, go here.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued its own statement countering that "technical differences" between the two government cmputer models were being used to fight needed cleanup of the bay.  "While agriculture has made some progress reducing polluted runoff, it is still falling short of the mark, and conservation efforts need to increase substantially," said CBF senior scientist Beth McGee, if the states and federal government are to meet their latest 2025 deadline for doing everything that's needed to restore the bay's water quality.

(2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)

July 27, 2011

Report tallies "Big Chicken" toll on Bay


A new report says the industrialization of poultry farming over the last several decades is a major source of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways around the country.

"Big Chicken," released Wednesday by the Pew Environment Group highlights how poultry production has increased and become more concentrated, taking an environmental toll.  And despite heavy government subsidies to farmers to reduce runoff of animal manure from their fields, the report argues tighter limits are needed - including a cap on the density of birds being raised in places like the Delmarva Peninsula.

Nationwide, the number of broiler chickens raised annually has soared 1,400 percent in less than 60 years, the report says, while the number of farms raising birds has dropped by 98 percent in the same time. The growth in production is driven by rising consumer demand for what the group says has become the most popular meat in the United States. The average American today eats 84 pounds of chicken a year, the report notes, more than twice what each consumed in 1970.

But the increase - and increased density of growing operations - has had environmental impacts. Farms raising 605,000 birds a year - twice what they did 25 years ago - are producing millions of tons of manure, which overwhelm the ability of limited local croplands to absorb all the fertilizer, the report's authors say. Growers in Maryland and Delaware alone, they note, produce enough waste to fill the U.S. Capitol dome nearly once a week.

"Industrial production means industrial levels of pollution," says Karen Steuer, Pew's director of government relations.

Continue reading "Report tallies "Big Chicken" toll on Bay" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:01 AM | | Comments (7)

July 15, 2011

Jones Falls cleanup on tap

Who says stream cleanups can only be done in spring and fall? The Jones Falls is due for a little tidying Saturday (July 16), organized by Baltimore Youth Environmental Response and the city's Office of Sustainability.

Volunteers are to meet at 1 p.m. at 1813 Falls Road, just outside Baltimore Bicycle Works. Bags, gloves and refreshments will be provided. And around 2:30 p.m., they'll wrap the cleanup to discuss future goals and activities for the youth-led environmental group. You can RSVP and learn more about RSVP on Facebook.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:59 AM | | Comments (0)

July 14, 2011

State promotes storm-water innovations

Hundreds of people flocked to the Maryland Department of the Environment yesterday, but not for the usual reasons.

Instead of applying for permits or responding to pollution violation notices, they were there for a more upbeat reason - to promote and learn about new ways to control pollution washing off city and suburban streets and parking lots.

More than 360 people registered for the department's first-ever "Clean Water Innovations Trade Show." Three dozen exhibitors were on hand to tout everything from green roofs and floating wetlands to the latest in storm-drain retrofits.

State Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers said the expo grew out of a forum on sustainability held by Gov. Martin O'Malley earlier this year. The state is applying new storm-water pollution control regulations on all new construction and redevelopment, and is beginning to require better controls in existing communities as well.

Summers asserted in remarks to the assembled vendors, local officials and others that the state is a leader in sustainable growth, in less-polluting development techniques and the green economy. But he also acknowledged "a lot of challenges going forward," including regulatory and technical hurdles.

The latter point was seconded by Erik Dalski of Highview Creations, which has installed green roofs in New York and Boston and is branching into Maryland and the Washington area now. One of the company's more interesting projects in these parts is a green roof planned for a new barn near Annapolis.

Dalski said there seems to be "a lot of red tape" here governing green infrastructure, and local officials he's met with still seem hesitant to try new things like green roofs.

Summers suggested such red-tape complaints ought to ease under a recent initiative announced by O'Malley to streamline regulations and "fast-track" permitting.

(Barry Chenkin, founder of Aquabarrel, discusses his products at Clean Water Innovations Trade Show at MDE headquarters. Photo by Jay Apperson, MDE's Office of Communications)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:54 AM | | Comments (1)

GOP-run House targeting environmental rules

While the news out of Washington is dominated by the political stalemate over the debt limit, the Republican-led House has been busy trying to limit federal environmental regulations.

The House voted 239 to 184 Wednesday to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing water-quality standards over a state's objections. The measure also would prohibit the federal agency from objecting to pollution discharge permits issued by a state.

The "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act" was prompted by backlash to EPA imposing nutrient-pollution standards in Florida and limiting mountaintop coal mining in Appalachia, but it drew support from others chafing over federal mandates.

Maryland's two Republican House members, Reps. Roscoe Bartlett and Andy Harris, voted with the majority. The state's five Democrats opposed it, and Rep. John Sarbanes warned that if the House-passed bill became law, it could undermine prospects for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

According to a Sarbanes aide, the bill would take away EPA's ability to object if a state sets water-quality standards that federal regulators do not believe are protective enough of human health or fish and other aquatic life. So if one of the six states in the Bay watershed set a water-quality standard that EPA feared would undermine the "pollution diet" it recently set for restoring the Bay, the agency would be powerless to force the state to revise it.

Likewise, stripping EPA of permit oversight would take away the federal government's leverage to see that states don't sacrifice clean water for favored industries, the aide said. EPA has on several occasions objected to what it believed were lax permits approved by Bay region states, and the agency has said it would use that permit override power if states didn't stick to the bay diet, bureaucratically known as a "total maximum daily load."

The bill stands little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate, and EPA officials have indicated they'd advise the President to veto it if it did get through.

Continue reading "GOP-run House targeting environmental rules" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:21 AM | | Comments (2)

July 12, 2011

MD author explores Eastern "ancient" forests

When we talk about old-growth and virgin forests, we often think of the massive redwoods and sequoias out West. The eastern United States was heavily logged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so that the trees we see in this part of the country today are relative youngsters - decades rather than centuries old.

But not everywhere. Remnants remain of the forests that practically blanketed the East when European settlers arrived. Some are on steep slopes, in deep ravines or other remote, hard-to-reach places. Others are relatively easy to get to.

One's right here in Maryland - about 40 majestic acres of largely untouched eastern hemlocks and white pines at Swallow Falls State Park, near Oakland in Garrett County.

Joan Maloof, a biology professor at Salisbury University, has made a career of studying trees and forests. She's passionate about old growth and is working now to develop a network for protecting them. She's written a first-person guide to some of these overlooked pockets of biodiversity and wonder.

Among the Ancients, Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests takes the reader to one stand in each state east of the Mississippi River. Maloof recounts their history and the people who've fought to preserve them, and she details their current condition. Some are pristine, others threatened and abused. Maloof reflects in her chapters on the values of forests.

"Imagine an organism that can live three times longer than the longest-lived human," she concludes in her chapter on Swallow Falls. "We need to recognize that in trees, and honor it."

She gets personal as well, describing how the old woods touch her and shape her own outlook on life. Her visit to Cook Forest State Park in southwest Pennsylvania, for instance, makes her imagine she's one of the seven dwarves in the cartoon classic "Snow White."

She writes: "...the chipmunks were scampering along beside me, the birds were chirping and hopping on the trail in front of me, and patches of moss were glowing green from teh slender beams of light that made their way through the canopy far overhead. I felt almost as if I had been drugged. I was so filled with joy I had a cheek-splitting grin on my face."

If you'd like to meet the author, Maloof will give a reading at the Barnes & Noble at 1819 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville on Wednesday (July 13) at 7 pm.  To hear her now, tune in here to listen to an interview public radio's Marc Steiner did with her recently.  And you can read more of Joan Maloof's insights and observations on her blog here.

(Cover photograph courtesy Ruka Press)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:59 AM | | Comments (1)

July 6, 2011

Task force wades into septic, growth morass

The task force Gov. Martin O'Malley set up to study the septic system curbs he couldn't get through the General Assembly this year held its first meeting in Annapolis today, and it quickly became clear that even another five months may not be enough time to sort out this controversial issue.

There were no fireworks, everyone was cordial during the two-hour opening session, which was devoted largely to briefings from state officials. But several task force members representing farmers and rural communities made it plain they were leery of any state action to restrict development using septic systems.

State Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick, said he thought the 28-member group ought to keep landowners' property rights in mind as it contemplates recommending any new limits on development beyond the reach of public sewers. He noted that the O'Malley administration also is weighing new restrictions on farmers' use of chemical and animal fertilizer to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and called it "another perceived assault on rural or agricultural Maryland."

Patricia Langenfelder, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said farmers are worried that curbs on the use of septic systems could devalue their land. Most are not looking to sell their fields and pasture for development, she added, but rely on the development value of the land as collateral for financing their farming operations.

Others urged the panel to look at other growth-related issues, including the looming shortfall of funding to upgrade sewage treatment plants and the need for more tax breaks or other incentives to get farmers to preserve their land.

There are 426,000 septic systems in Maryland now - including nearly one-fourth of all homes - which officials estimate are producing 8 percent of the nitrogen that's getting into area streams and polluting the bay. Each household on a septic system produces up to 10 times as much nitrogen as one connected by sewer to a wastewater treatment plant.

The governor had pushed for legislation that would bar major new developments on septic systems and would have required more costly but less polluting advanced septic systems for smaller housing developments. But farmers, developers and rural officials raised an outcry, and legislative leaders tabled the bill for more study.

Continue reading "Task force wades into septic, growth morass" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:48 PM | | Comments (0)

Scientists predict large Bay 'dead zone' this summer

Scientists are predicting that this summer's oxygen-starved "dead zone" in the Chesapeake Bay will be unusually bad - fueled by a wet spring that washed a heavy dose of nitrogen into the bay from the Susquehanna River and other tributaries.

Donald Scavia, a University of Michigan aquatic ecologist, who makes annual forecasts of "dead zone" sizes in the Chesapeake and Gulf of Mexico, thinks the amount of bay water with little dissolved oxygen in it will be the largest since 2003 and the sixth largest ever recorded.  See the UMich forecast here.

Nitrogen - from sewage plants, fertilizer washing off land and vehicle and power plant pollution falling out of the sky - is one of the key drivers of the bay's hypoxia, or low-oxygen condition. The amount getting into the bay has increased significantly since the 1950s, Scavia says, and this year's estimated load is the highest in more than a decade. Not surprising, since river gauges measured unusually strong spring flows down the Susquehanna - the single biggest water source for the bay.

Scavia's prediction tracks with the preliminary forecasts of bay scientists, who a few weeks ago foresaw a "moderately large" volume of water with no oxygen in it at all from spring into mid-July. If conditions don't change, they predicted this summer's dead zone could be the fourth largest in the past 26 years.

(Note that the Michigan and Maryland scientists are measuring slightly different things. Scavia tracks "hypoxic" water, which still has a little oxygen in it but not enough for fish and shellfish to do well, while the Maryland-based group has focused so far only on the truly "dead zone," anoxic water with no oxygen at all in it for crabs and other critters to breathe. Eco-Check, the Maryland-federal scientific partnership, has yet to issue its prediction for the broader hypoxic zone in the bay.)

Variations aside, the general forecast is tor a rough summer for striped bass, blue crabs and oysters, points out Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  When oxygen levels in the water drop, fish and shellfish become stressed.

Some might wonder why the bay's dead zone can still be so bad given the billions of dollars spent on cleanup - this past fall, for instance, Maryland farmers planted a record number of acres in "cover crops" to soak up excess nitrogen in their fields that would otherwise wash into the bay in spring.  McGee points out such efforts take years to influence water quality; much of the nitrogen from farm fields gets into the bay via ground water, she notes, and can take a decade or more to seep out into surface streams.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:23 AM | | Comments (3)

July 5, 2011

Study: Horseshoe crabs key to shorebird survival


A new study confirms what bird-lovers have long believed - that horseshoe crabs are key to the health of imperiled shorebirds that drop by Delaware Bay every spring.

The research, published in the online journal of the Ecological Society of America, finds the eggs produced by female horseshoe crabs during their spawning season provide essential nourishment for red knots, which stop over on the shores of Delaware Bay during their annual migration to nesting grounds in the Arctic.

The chance a red knot will gain significant weight during its Delaware Bay stopover depends on how many horseshoe crab eggs it consumes, according to the study, which was led by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey. Birds that don't gain enough weight before heading on toward the Arctic have a lower chance of surviving the year.

But the study also found that the birds' survival is closely tied to snow conditions when the birds get to their Arctic breeding grounds. In fact, the depth of the snow when the birds reached the end of their migration apparently mattered more than the birds' weight when they left Delaware Bay - a surprising finding, according to Conor McGowan, chief author of the study.

Researchers had expected that the less snow on the ground, the better the birds would fare, but the data showed exactly the opposite. McGowan said scientists don't have a ready explanation yet for the unexpected relationship.

The study comes amid debate over whether Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states are doing enough to rebuild the mid-Atlantic's horseshoe crab population so it can supply more eggs for the red knots, whose numbers have plummeted over the last 15 years. Conservationists want to see harvests banned altogether, but fisheries managers have defended the current limits, saying the crabs are recovering while the birds' fate depends on more than just the eggs.

Continue reading "Study: Horseshoe crabs key to shorebird survival" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:34 PM | | Comments (0)

July 1, 2011

PETA wants MD to teach 'factory' farming's ills

An animal-rights group wants Maryland's new environmental education requirement to include lessons on the ills of animal agriculture and meat consumption. 

Seizing on the decision last week by the state Board of Education to make "environmental literacy" a graduation requirement for all new high school students, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote to the board president urging that there be lessons on the harm done  by animal agriculture and the benefits of going vegan.

According to Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, the production of meat and eggs is a major culprit in causing global climate change as well as degrading the Chesapeake Bay. She said her group would be happy to furnish school officials lesson material.

"Waste and run-off from chicken, egg, and turkey factory farms in the region have played a major role in turning vast areas of the bay into "dead zones," she wrote. She also said a University of Chicago study had found that cutting meat, dairy and eggs out of one's diet does far more to combat climate change than buying a hybrid vehicle.

(Photo: Milking parlor, Kent County farm. 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:20 AM | | Comments (1)

June 30, 2011

"Plunge-in" highlights slow pace of river cleanup

Environmental activists and former and present elected officials staged a "plunge-in" today of the Anacostia River in Washington's Maryland suburbs to highlight the failures of government at all levels to clean up the Chesapeake Bay region's degraded waterways.

Several donned white "haz-mat" coveralls before wading in to emphasize the polluted nature of the Anacostia, a tributary of the Potomac River that flows from Prince George's County through the District of Columbia.  Vernon Archer, mayor of Riverdale Park just downriver, waded into the water in a business suit.

Like the Patapsco and Back rivers in the Baltimore area, the Anacostia is fouled with trash, sewage and polluted runoff, and its bottom sediments are contaminated with toxic wastes.

The waders at Bladensburg Waterfront Park - and one impulsive soul who did a cannonball into the river - risked infection and illness, as bacteria levels in the Anacostia there often exceed safe levels, especially after it rains.

Speakers pointed out that the federal Clean Water Act, which became law in 1972, called for all American waterways to be fishable and swimmable by July 1, 1983.

Former state Sen. Gerald Winegrad of Annapolis called it "a national disgrace" that the Anacostia, which flows through the nationl's capital, is not even close to being safe for water-contact recreation.

"We've come a long way in cleaning it up," said Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society.  But, he added, "we still have a long way to go."  A plan for restoring the Anacostia adopted last year calls for it to be cleaned up by 2032, but Foster indicated he didn't want to wait that long.  Although the Anacostia and Baltimore's Patapsco have both been chosen by the Obama administration as "pilot" rivers for a new federal effort to restore urban waters, the initiative promises no infusion of new funding.  "One month's rent in Iraq or Afghanistan," Foster said, referring to the costs of the two wars, "would clean up this entire watershed."

The event was conceived by Howard Ernst, an Annapolis political scientist and author of two books critical of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts to date.  Others attending included state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, and David Harrington, a former Prince George's senator and former mayor of Bladensburg. 

The event was staged in Bladensburg to emphasize activists' concerns that Prince George's County is not moving aggressively enough to curb polluted runoff from new development.   The county council is considering legislation to meet new state standards for controlling runoff -  capturing the first 1/2 inch of rain - but activists point out that neighboring Montgomery County mandates that new and redevelopment projects soak up twice as much rainfall.

Among the participants was Dottie Yunger, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, who said her dog normally accompanies her on outings.  But before wading in, she said, "there's no way I would let my dog swim in this river." 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:38 PM | | Comments (1)

June 29, 2011

MD senators press feds on oyster farming permits

Maryland's two US senators have written a top Obama administration official expressing their frustration over federal delays in approving new oyster farming ventures in the state's portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both Democrats, wrote Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce who directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, complaining that her agency is endangering the state's fledgling aquaculture industry by taking so long to review permits needed by the new oyster farms.

As I reported last week, only a handfull of the new oyster-growing enterprises that have applied in the past year to lease areas in the bay and its rivers have received final approval. State officials say some are held up by objections from waterfront property owners or from watermen, but many are awaiting approval of permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps consults with NOAA, and the federal oceans and fisheries agency has raised questions about the impacts of oyster farming operations on endangered sturgeon and sea turtles. NOAA and Corps officials both told me they were on verge of working everything out and should be issuing more permits soon.

"NOAA's role in this process is necessary, and one that we fully support," the senators wrote in a letter last wek to Lubchenco. But they added that the amount of time NOAA officials have taken is "unreasonable."

"This work began well over a year ago, with promises that issues were being worked out time and again," they wrote. "Time is up." Saying the permit delays are putting new jobs in jeopardy and stalling economic opportunities in coastal communities, they called on NOAA to wrap up its review "immediately" and give the Corps its final feedback "without further delays."

(Jay Robinson, director of the Watermen's Trust, with a pile of oyster shells he plans to use to raise oysters in Fishing Bay south of Cambridge.  Batimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:05 PM | | Comments (1)

Report: MD beaches 16th cleanest; Del beaches "super"


Maryland's ocean and Chesapeake Bay beaches ranked 16th cleanest for swimming and wading in the latest nationwide survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Delaware's Rehoboth and Dewey beaches, though, earned "superstar" ratings for the quality of their water and their monitoring.

Overall, seven percent of the water samples taken last year at the state's 70 coastal beaches exceeded health standards for bacteria that could make bathers sick, the national environmental group reported in "Testing the Waters," its 21st annual report on beach water quality.

Tolchester Beach Estates in Kent County was the worst, with 43 percent of samples registering unsafe bacteria levels, followed by Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County (26 percent) and the YMCA's Camp Tockwogh, a youth camp in Kent County.

The NRDC rated Ocean City's beach in the top tier of water quality, with just 3 percent of the weekly water samples there showing high bacteria counts. But NRDC noted that its "superstar" beaches like Rehoboth and Dewey had tallied zero bacteria exceedences in the past three years.

In the Baltimore area, unsafe bacteria levels were detected in 7 percent of the samples taken at Anne Arundel County beaches, and in just 2 percent of tests done at Baltimore County's beaches - though one beach there, in the Hammerman area of Gunpowder State Park, had swimming advisories in effect for 24 days.

The 7 percent of high bacteria measurements at Maryland's beaches last year represented an increase over 2009, the NRDC reports, when just 3 percent of samples exceeded daily maximum bacteria standards.

Maryland's beaches generally rated a little cleaner than the national average, according to the NRDC report, which found that 8 percent of samples exceeded health standards.

But beach closings and swim warnings nationwide shot up last year, the NRDC said, to its second highest level in the 21 years the group has been collecting beach water quality data. It said there were a variety of reasons for the increase, including heavy rains in Hawaii, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and unknown sources of contamination along the California coast.

While the offshore drilling rig blowout forced beach closures in the Gulf, the main sources of contamination nationwide are storm-water runoff and weather-related sewage overflows, the NRDC says. It urged the federal government and states to do more to curb runoff, including requiring the use of porous pavement and installation of rain gardens and green roofs to soak up rainfall, rather than letting it wash pollutants into nearby streams.

"We still have a lot to do to clean up America’s beaches," said David Beckman, the NRDC's director of water programs. "A day at the beach doesn’t have to mean getting skin rash or dysentery as a souvenir of your vacation."

To see the entire report and a state-by-state breakdown, go here.

(Ocean City, Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:09 AM | | Comments (10)

June 24, 2011

Rescued sea turtles heading for the Bay


Five endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles nursed back to health by the National Aquarium are being returned to the wild on Sunday.

The rarest and smallest of all sea turtles, the five were found stranded last winter along Cape Cod suffering from cold stunning, not unlike hypothermia. They were shipped to Baltimore by the New England Aquarium, where they've spent the past six months rehabilitating in the local aquarium's marine animal rescue program.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday, the aquarium staff plan to release the turtles at Point Lookout State Park in southern Maryland, where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. Kemp's ridley sea turtles are known to feed on jellyfish and other aquatic life in the bay during the summer. The public is invited to be on hand to observe the release. Directions are here.

If you can't make it, some of the turtles will be fitted with small satellite transmitters so their movements can be tracked. The aquarium plans to plot the animals' locations on a map on its website, which you can see here.

(Rescued sea turtle being examined, Dec. 2010.  National Aquarium photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:20 AM | | Comments (0)

June 23, 2011

Feds to announce new urban waters effort in Bmore

A batch of top Obama administration officials are coming to Baltimore Friday to announce a new "urban waters" initiative. Nice to see they're getting out of Washington and maybe recognizing that the Patapsco River, rated the sickest waterway in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is every bit in need of help as the DC area's Anacostia River.

Middle Branch Park in South Baltimore is to be the setting for the late-morning announcement. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are among the officials scheduled to be there, as are the White Houses's environmental and domestic policy advisers and high-level agriculture and housing officials.

The media advisory put out by EPA gives no details, other than to call it a "new initiative to restore and revitalize waterways in cities across the nation." EPA has been pushing something called the "Urban Waters Movement," aimed at helping communities - especially underserved ones - to improve and benefit from their waterways. 

Under that program, EPA has offered "partnerships" with local governments and community groups, but it seems a little short on money to finance improvements or even the promise of greater regulatory attention to spur cleanup. At least there's no prominent mention on EPA's website of those two traditional federal tools for driving environmental restoration.

Though unsure whether this promises real or mostly symbolic support, local environmental and community activists say privately they're pleased to get top-level Obama administration officials here and to have Baltimore included in a nationwide effort that until now has showered most of its attention in this region on the Anacostia.

Not that DC's "other river" (besides the Potomac) doesn't need help, but EPA played an active role there that it has yet to demonstrate in the Baltimore harbor watershed, w hich some scientists have rated the most degraded spot overall in the entire Chesapeake watershed.  The agency, for instance, was involved in the development of an ambitiious restoration plan for the Anacostia and has pushed through a mandatory trash cleanup plan and tighter requirements on the District and its suburbs to reduce polluted runoff via storm water. 

By comparison, it's been Baltimore's Waterfront Partnership, a coalition of business and civic groups, taking the lead in drafting a restoration plan for the harbor.  And local activists, with some help and encouragement from city and state, provided the spark for getting pollution diets ordered for the harbor to reduce the trash and sewage fouling it.

President Obama directed his administration to take the lead in jump-starting the lagging Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, but that apparently hasn't extended to to the tributaries of the bay - at least not yet. EPA has been more cheerleader than player or even coach in the fledgling harbor restoration effort.

It will be interesting to see if this announcement is the beginning of a new, more active role in reclaiming Baltimore's troubled waters. With housing and domestic policy officials due for the event here, perhaps the administration will somehow coordinate better its economic and community development programs to help green and revitalize urban and older suburban neighborhoods - which many local activists see as key to any effort to halt the torrent of trash and storm water pollution fouling our urban waters.

(Trash floats in the water off Middle Branch Park.  2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:21 AM | | Comments (2)

June 21, 2011

Green literacy new graduation requirement in MD


Maryland public school students will need to know their green to graduate under a new policy adopted today by the state board of education.

State officials and environmental activists called the vote "historic" and said Maryland has become the first state in the nation to require environmental literacy to graduate from high school. Under the rule, public schools will be required to work lessons about conservation, smart growth and the health of our natural world into their core subjects like science and social studies.

The requirement applies to students entering high school this fall.  Local school systems will be able to shape those lessons to be relevant to their communities, but all will have to meet standards set by the state. School systems will have to report to the state every five years on what they're doing to meet the requirements.

Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement calling the board's action "a defining moment for education in Maryland," while environmental advocates were even more effusive. Don Baugh, head of the No Child Left Inside Coalition promoting federal environmental literacy legislation, called it a "momentous day."

Environmentalists had initially howled over draft guidelines adopted by the state board last fall, complaining they would let school systems get by without doing anything - essentially claiming they were teaching environmental literacy simply by offering existing math and science courses. But state School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and board members reassured activists they really meant to strengthen environmental education, and advocates say the final rules seem to make that clear.

The new environmental instruction should not require any additional funding or staff, according to the governor. But by adopting the requirement Maryland may be in better position to receive federal funding for green literacy, under national No Child Left Inside legislation to be reintroduced in Congress. The bill's chief sponsor is Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

(Students at Baltimore's Digital Harbor high school test water in Inner Harbor. 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Ann Torkvist)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:15 PM | | Comments (17)

Panel named to study septic pollution

Continuing his push to limit development on septic systems, Gov. Martin O'Malley named a 28-member task force to study the environmental and health impacts of on-site sewage disposal.

The task force is to be headed by Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee. McIntosh, a Baltimore city Democrat, tabled the governor's push for septic limits during this year's legislative session and called for more study of the issue. The panel's vice chair is Jon Laria, a Baltimore development lawyer who is head of the state growth commission.

A press release from the governor's office calls the task force broad-based, with representatives of business, agriculture, science, environmental advocacy and government. A quick scan of its members, though, suggests the panel is stacked at least modestly in favor of the governor's position that septic-based development needs to be limited.

O'Malley contends curbs on septic-based growth are needed to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay and to curb suburban sprawl. 

"This effort is not about stopping growth" O'Malley said in a statement. "It is about stemming the tide of major housing developments built on septic systems to generate clean water and protect our environment and public health."

State planners project that septic-based development will account for 26 percent of all the new households built in the state over the next 25 years, but produce 76 percent of all the new nitrogen pollution getting into ground water and streams feeding into the bay. Critics also say building with septics aggravates suburban sprawl, fragmenting farmland and forests and increasing the costs to government of providing roads, schools and other services.

Developers, farmers and some local officials, though, complained that the legislation supported by the governor would stunt growth in rural and some suburban areas of the state. The bill O'Malley backed would have barred septic systems for any "major" subdvisions with more than five homes, and would have required more costly and less polluting septic systems be used on individual homes or smaller developments.

Continue reading "Panel named to study septic pollution" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:46 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

June 16, 2011

Go native online - with plants!

Looking for some colorful and environmentally friendly plants for your garden or lawn? Now there's a handy online guide to native plants in the Chesapeake Bay region.

With the Native Plant Center, you can search for native plants by name, type, sun exposure, soil texture and moisture - even look for native plants that match the characteristics of popular non-native plants.  The site also features a "geo-locator" so you can identify what plants are suited to your particular location.

Replacing portions of your lawn with native plants suited to local conditions helps local water quality and the bay by reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which can wash into nearby storm drains and streams when it rains. They also cut down on the need for watering.

The online uses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's native plant database, which is associated with its print publication, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.  Other partners in the online portal are the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Image Matters, a software consulting firm based in Leesburg, VA.  

(Photo: Asclepias tuberosa, or butterflyweed.  U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:55 PM | | Comments (3)

June 14, 2011

City students picture quiet beauty of Smith Island

Schools almost out for the year, but some Baltimore city students have a truly memorable experience on the Chesapeake Bay to look back on - again and again, through the pictures they took.

Last month, National Geographic held its first all-girls photo camp on Smith Island, in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  Twelve seventh-graders from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and four high schoolers from the Refugee Youth Project spent four days on the island learning about its culture and environment, and capturing it in photographs and words. 

Their chief mentor for the camp was veteran Bay photographer Dave Harp, who's documented in pictures the effects of rising sea level and erosion on traditional Bay fishing communities like Smith Island. 

The photos shown here were all taken by Victoria Dailey, a 7th grader at the leadership school. 

(Full disclosure: my daughter teaches at the leadership school, and forwarded the pictures to me, along with a few of the girls' written comments on what was plainly an eye-opening experience. NatGeo's mission is to get people to care about the planet, and these girls came to care about an exotic place that isn't that far away.)

"Smith Island is so different from my home," wrote Julia Bainum, a 6th grader at the leadership school.  "Every morning I love to get up and watch the sun rise.  The light is so beautiful on the water and I could take thousands of pictures of it."  She also reveled in "island time," a respite from the rush of urban life.

"Being on this island with a camera changed me," Julia went on.  "I notice the beauty more."

Tila Neupane, of the Refugee Youth Project, noted she took her first boat ride to Smith, which she called "a silent place."

"It is a beautiful place where neighbors are nice and respectful," she wrote. "At my home it is very crowded and lots of cars and roads, lots of noise and people walking on the street. Some people there are nice, but some aren't." 

Finally, 6th grader Andrea Morgan wrote that she learned about the importance of pictures.

"I thought photography was just a picture," she said, but the true definition is more about telling a story."  After her "amazing experience" on Smith Island, Andrea wrote that she wants to be a photographer when she grows up.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

June 10, 2011

Bernie's wading in again - guess what he'll see


Some people just won't give up - and the Chesapeake Bay is the better for it.  Sunday brings the annual Patuxent River wade-in, begun 24 years ago by former state Sen. Bernie Fowler. Fowler, who spent decades as a Calvert County commissioner and then state senator, recalls standing chest-deep in the Patuxent as a young man in the 1950s and being able to see his feet on the river bottom while netting blue crabs.

In 1988, amid growing concern about the river's decline from nutrient and sediment pollution, he waded in again to see how far he could get before losing sight of his white sneakers. He only reached about 10 inches deep that time. He's made an annual pilgrimage into the river since then, in what's become a signature rite of the Chesapeake - and a testament to his persistence in the protracted struggle to restore the bay.

The wade-in attracts bay lovers and politicians galore.  Last year he was reportedly joined by more than 100 people. Once held at Broome's Island where Bernie used to crab, the wade-in's been moved to Jefferson Patterson Park, 10515 Mackall Road in St. Leonard. It starts at 1 p.m., and it's a great event, full of cameraderie and encouragement by Bernie and others to keep up the decades-long fight to restore the Patuxent and the Bay.

For those who can't make it, there's a way to wade in vicariously - by guessing how deep he'll get. The state Department of Planning is sponsoring a "guess-the-depth" contest. Last year, 21 people guessed everywhere from 20 inches to 41.5 inches. I was one of the more pessimistic, as I recall - it looks like I guessed 21.2 inches. Only one person, a John from Harford County, came within an inch of Bernie's actual depth - 34.5 inches.

Feel free to try your hand again this year. There's no prize for winning, just the bragging rights for knowing how clear the Patuxent is this year.  For more info, go here.

Meanwhile, it's not clear when Bernie will be able to see his sneakers in shoulder-deep water again. He's gotten up to 44.5 inches in 1997, but the water's gotten murkier since then. Last year's depth was an encouraging rebound - coming amid a renewed push to restore the bay.  We'll see if it's clearer still this year, even as there's been pushback lately against some of the new cleanup initiatives. Bernie sure would be relieved to know after all this time that his beloved Patuxent is clearly headed in the right direction.

(PHOTO: Bernie Fowler, right, wades into Patuxent with friends. 1992 Baltimore Sun.  CHART: Depths at which Bernie lost sight of his sneakers, by year.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:36 PM | | Comments (0)

Cool off this weekend with a stream cleanup


Want to beat the heat and still do something worthwhile? Why not join several dozen expected volunteers and pluck trash from Armistead Creek and Herring Run on Saturday (6/11)?

Blue Water Baltimore, the local watershed group, is teaming up to clean the stream banks with volunteers and employees of United by Blue, a Philadelphia organic cotton T-shirt and maker.

If you've never heard of United by Blue, the startup has an unusual creed - it pledges to remove one pound of trash from the world's oceans and waterways for every product it sells.  Apparently it's more than just a sales gimmick to get the green-oriented consumer.

"We’ve done over 35 cleanups in the past year, and removed about 18,000 pounds of trash all up and down the East Coast and some on the West Coast," said Mike Cangi, who's listed on the company website as "director of cleanups."  The firm's founder is identified as "chief trash collector." 

Cangi's looking to make room for sales growth by picking up 100,000 pounds of refuse in the coming year, and expecting to get several pounds picked up in the Baltimore swing.  As this was the same creek watershed where miscreants recently stuffed a bolt of some kind of fabric down a manhole and triggered a nearly million-gallon sewage overflow, they should have no trouble. The photo above is from a 2008 spring cleanup (why the volunteer is wearing a jacket).

The cleanup is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for those who really get into this kind of thing, there'll even be waders provided. Meet at 1200 Armistead Way. For more, or to register, go here.

(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:12 AM | | Comments (0)

Growing algae in sewage - a fuelish idea

An experiment in making "bio-fuel" is slated to get under way this summer at Baltimore's Back River wastewater treatment plant.

The city's Board of Estimates approved Wednesday a $255,000 contract with a small Maryland company to grow algae at the plant and convert it to fuel. The project is underwritten with federal economic stimulus funds the city receved last year.

Under the one-year agreement, Hytek Bio LLC of Dayton will install "bioreactors" to cultivate algae, using the nutrients in the treatment plant's wastewater as food.

"The water's still fairly high in nitrogen and phosphorus, and it's low in dissolved oxygen, which is not good in the (Chesapeake Bay)," said Bob Mroz, Hytek president and CEO. "The algae will consume the balance of the nitrogen and phosphorus and put oxygen back in the water."

In another kind of virtuous circle, the algae's growth will be boosted by feeding it carbon dioxide. The source - the flue gas given off by the generator that's burning methane from the sewage to help power the treatment plant.

City officials are looking to see the algae harvested and converted to biofuel, which might be burned one day in city boilers or used to run city vehicles. Mroz, a retired federal official, says this one-year project is a "small-scale demonstration of the technology." But he's bullish on the prospects for making fuel, oil, cosmetics and even "bioplastics" from the algae while capturing climate-warming greenhouse gases and helping reduce nutrient pollution of the bay.

The biomass-to-biofuel pilot is one of more than 18 initiatives the city's Department of General Services has launched with federal aid to see about reducing the municipal government's energy bills through greater efficiency and conversion to alternative fuels. 

(Sludge digester domes at Baltlimore's Back River treatment plant.  Photo special to the Sun by Colby Ware)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:08 AM | | Comments (2)

June 9, 2011

Mower swap on tap

Homeowners, if you've ever thought about ditching your messy, polluting gasoline-powered lawnmower, here's your chance: Swap it for a cleaner, deeply discounted new battery-powered job.

On Saturday (6/11), consumers can turn in their old gas-powered mowers for a marked-down rechargeable Black & Decker mower.  Buyers get 31 percent off the $379 sticker price for an 18-inch, 36-volt model and 33 percent off the $429 ticket for one with a 19-inch blade and a removable battery.

The swap will take place from noon to 4 p.m. at Cardinal Shehan School, 5407 Loch Raven Boulevard. But don't procrastinate - only 200 mowers will be on hand to sell.

Why go to the trouble? Because more than 17 million gallons of gas get spilled each year nationwide refueling lawn and garden equipment. Some of that winds up in the nearest water way, and some gets into the air, adding to our region's choking summer smog.  Even the gas that gets in the tank pollutes: a single 3.5-horsepower gas mower emits as much smog-forming exhaust as a new car driven 340 miles.

And if you let the mulching mower mulch and leave off bagging the grass clippings, you can have a healthy lawn without needing to fertilize as much - another help for stressed local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. That's why the city of Baltimore and the local watershed group Blue Water Baltimore have teamed up to co-sponsor B&D's mower swap. For more, go here.

(Old mowers being turned in for new electric ones. 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:41 AM | | Comments (1)

June 7, 2011

Horseshoe crab ban pushed to save dwindling shorebirds

Wildlife and conservation advocates are pressing Maryland and Virginia to halt all commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs, whose eggs sustain a dwindling population of red knot shorebirds when they stop over in Delaware Bay on their long spring migration from South America to the Arctic. 

Bird-lovers and environmentalists have called on the federal government to protect the red knot by placing it on the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may begin that process as early as this fall, but it may take years to achieve. 

Meanwhile, advocates warn that measures taken by Maryland and Virginia to restrict the harvest of horseshoe crabs are not enough, given the alarming decline of red knots in recent years. My colleague, Sun outdoors writer Candus Thomson, provided a thorough update on the issue earlier this week.

Maryland has curbed taking female horseshoes, and put all of them off limits until June 7 each year during spawning season, when they crawl out of the surf onto sandy beaches to lay eggs and have them fertilized by male crabs. The eggs, rich in fat, are a major source of food for migrating shorebirds.

In the 1980s, as many as 100,000 red knots stopped off every spring to rest and refuel along the Delaware Bay. By 2001, estimates put the number down to 45,000 birds, and just five years ago the count only tallied 15,000.  Conservationists have been pressing the federal government since 2006 to put the bird on the endangered species list, but only got a commitment to act on it and 250 other candidate species after filing suit.

Ten commercial entities have Maryland permits to catch up to 170,653 horseshoe crabs for bait, Thomson reports, and one company has a "scientific permit" to collect up to 150,000 horseshoes so their blood can be drawn for use in producing a medicine. It's not clear how many of those crabs, though released afterward, survive the ordeal.

Maryland officials defend the current harvest as sustainable and down from what it was 15 to 20 years ago. But others point out that the state's catch still exceeds the entire mid-Atlantic haul during much of the 1980s.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has overall responsibility for regulating inshore fisheries, is reviewing its coastwide management plan. A meeting is planned June 24 in Annapolis.

(Video by Candus Thomson; Horseshoe crabs on Cape May NJ shore by Baltimore Sun's Jerry Jackson) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:19 PM | | Comments (2)

May 19, 2011

Lawn fertilizer limits become law


Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law today legislation that limits both the content and the application of fertilizer for urban and suburban lawns, a measure supporters say should help rescue the Chesapeake Bay from the nutrient pollution fouling its water.

Touted by proponents as the most comprehensive regulation of lawn care in the Bay region, if not the nation, the law bars phosphorus in any fertilizer except those meant to boost growth of new or repaired lawns. It also limits nitrogen content.

The measure further restricts when and where homeowners and lawn-care outfits can apply fertilizer - specifying, for instance, that none is to be sprayed or spread within 10 to 15 feet of water, depending on how it's applied.

The law bars any local fertilizer bans or regulations, and would appear to invalidate the restrictions in force since 2009 in Annapolis, the only municipality or county to enact any. But proponents say the application limits in the statewide law essentially mirror the Annapolis ones, except for that city's requirement that merchants selling fertilizer post a sign urging customers not to overapply it.

Under the state law, lawns are not to be fertilized before March 1 or after Nov. 15, though lawn-care outfits get a couple more weeks in the fall than do-it-yourselfers. The paid applicators can keep working to Dec. 1, as long as they're using spraying liquid "fast-release" plant food. (CORRECTION: Mark Schlossberg of the Maryland Association of Green Industries says it comes in granular and liquid form.)

Lawn-care professionals also get latitude to continue applying "natural organic" or "organic" fertilizer containing phosphorus, though beginning in 2013 the amount of that plant nutrient would also be limited and couldn't be applied at all to lawns where tests show the soil already has plenty of phosphorus.

But people paid to apply fertilizer would be required to undergo training and obtain certification from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, much as pest-control workers are now.

State officials predict that the law should reduce the overall amount of phosphorus getting into Maryland's portion of the bay by 3 percent. They say they don't have a handle yet on how much nitrogen might be kept out of the water. But it's estimated that 14 percent of the nitrogen and 8 percent of the phosphorus polluting the bay comes from urban and suburban land, much of it fertilizer washed off by rain.

Though the law would make a relatively small dent in the bay's overall pollution problem, it's an important one, if only politically. Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance noted that Maryland's farmers have been under increasing regulation over the years, and this measure addresses a source of water problems largely ignored until now. The state has 1.1 million acres in turfgrass, he pointed out, nearly as much land as farmers use for growing crops.

"This is an opportunity for homeowners to do their share," said Del. James Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat who introduced HB573 on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The commission, representing lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, pushed the states to adopt lawn fertilizer limits this year. Virginia enacted curbs on phosphorus, and legislation is now being drafted in Pennsylvania.

Continue reading "Lawn fertilizer limits become law" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:39 PM | | Comments (2)

May 18, 2011

Smart Growth redux: State airing new development plan

With study after study showing that Maryland's Smart Growth laws and policies have been ineffective at curbing sprawl, the O'Malley administration has a new-old remedy: a state development plan.

PlanMaryland, it's called. Drafted by the state Department of Planning, the 188-page document is meant to fulfill a 40-year-old law never acted upon that calls for the creation of a state growth plan.

It was released last month, and state planners are holding a series of "open-house" style forums this spring and summer to get public reaction. The next one is Thursday May 19, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Long Reach High School in Columbia, 6101 Old Dobbin Lane.

With upwards of 5.8 million people living on the state's 6.2 million acres, the population is projected to grow nearly 15 percent over the next 20 years, adding another 900,000 residents.

PlanMaryland doesn't propose any radical changes in direction - it calls for concentrating growth in towns, cities and "rural centers," whatever those are, where infrastructure already exists or is planned. It also calls for preserving environmentally sensitive and rural lands. Its third primary goal is more amorphous - "sustainability", defined as ensuring quality of life while preserving those natural and cultural resources that distinguish Maryland as a place.

The plan proposes a collaborative new planning effort for state and local governments to designate the places where they believe growth should occur and where land should be shielded from development. And it proposes tweaking state policies and funding formulas to better focus government spending on highways, schools and other infrastructure on those areas designated for growth.

Continue reading "Smart Growth redux: State airing new development plan" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:50 AM | | Comments (0)

May 17, 2011

Whole lotta fracking goin' on

The controversy over hydraulic fracturing to tap natural gas can be highly technical and contentious. Some students at New York University put this catchy music video together to highlight the concerns that have been raised about "fracking," as it's commonly known.

 Of course, it's just one side, and there's debate over how "new" fracking is, much less how big a threat. Check out the comments posted with the video. I happen to agree with the observation it sounds like something from the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords." More seriously, feel free to go here to get the admittedly less musical point of view from Chief Oil & Gas, one of the companies drilling in Pennsylvania and seeking approval to drill here in Maryland.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:00 PM | | Comments (1)

Fracking endangers Susquehanna, group says

The rush to tap natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania prompted the environmental group American Rivers today to name the Susquehanna River the most endangered water way in the country.  One of the nation's longest rivers, The Susquehanna supplies drinking water to six million people. It's also the chief tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

The designation comes as national environmental groups press for a crackdown on the gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and other substances deep into the ground to extract methane from layers of rock.

American Rivers points to the rash of spills, leaks and contaminated drinking-water wells in Pennsylania that have been linked to fracking, which is being used to get at gas locked in vast Marcellus shale deposits underlying much of Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and western Maryland.

The group is calling for Pennsylvania, New York, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission need to impose a "complete moratorium" on water withdrawals and "fracking" until there are comprehensive regulations in place to safeguard drinking water and the environment.

"The potential for future environmental and public health catastrophes along the Susquehanna will only increase, considering the number of new wells projected and the amount of toxic wastewater produced," the group says in a release.

New York already has temporarily halted fracturing to study the issue. Maryland has had a de facto moratorium for more than a year now, holding up permits sought by a pair of companies to drill exploratory wells in Garrett County near the Pennsylvania border.  A bill that would have placed a two-year moratorium in drilling in Maryland while more study is done died, but state officials say they don't intend to issue permits unless and until they're sure adequate safeguards are in place - a process that could take close to two years anyway. 

In a related development, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection today announced it has levied more than $1 million in fines against Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies drilling for gas there, for contaminating wells in one county and for a fire in February at one of its wells.

Continue reading "Fracking endangers Susquehanna, group says" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:21 PM | | Comments (7)

Better late than never? Bay cleanup "barometer" on hold


The "Bay Barometer," an annual report card on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the efforts to restore it, is missing in action.

It was scheduled for release last month, but got held up at the last minute. Shawn Garvin, the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said in an email to officials from Maryland and other bay region states that a key component of the annual update, the assessment of progress over the past year in bay restoration efforts, had not been completed.

"We want to make sure we get it right, of course," said Margaret Enloe, spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Bay Program, the restoration "partnership" of EPA, bay states and the District of Columbia. EPA officials are in the process of revising a computer simulation, or model, that's used to calculate how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution has been reduced across the six-state bay watershed.

"Until that model is ready to run again," she said, "we are not going to have those numbers."

The "Barometer" released last spring found that in 2009 the bay's health had improved modestly - about six percent - while efforts to improve water quality and protect wildlife habitats and manage fisheries had made only incremental gains overall, to about 62 percent of restoration goals.

But the calculation of how much progress has been made on cleaning up nutrient and sediment pollution likely will change with a revised computer model. Enloe said if the model is ready to go soon, officials hope to be able to release the Barometer "sometime in mid-year."

While the Barometer is stuck in study hall, the public isn't exactly in the dark about how the bay is doing. The annual bay health report card put out by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, released as usual a few weeks ago, found that the Chesapeake's overall condition had slipped slightly in 2010 for the first time in four years. It graded the bay's health at C-minus, or "moderately poor."

The Bay Program has parceled out some info that's part of the annual Barometer report - reporting a 7 percent decline last year in Bay grasses, and the results of an eight-year sampling of thousands of streams and rivers in the six-state watershed, which found 45 percent in fair to excellent shape and 55 percent in poor to very poor condition for sustaining fish populations.

Continue reading "Better late than never? Bay cleanup "barometer" on hold" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)

May 10, 2011

Though pollution trending down, most Bay streams still struggling

Most Chesapeake Bay rivers and streams are still in poor health, federal scientists report, even though levels of nutrient pollution have slowly dropped at two-thirds of the places where they've been monitoring water quality for the past 25 years.

A survey of 7,886 sites throughout the six-state watershed found 54 percent were in poor or very poor condition, with relatively few snails, mussels, water insects and other bottom-dwelling organisms that indicate a healthy waterway. Another 19 percent were judged in fair condition, with just 13 percent in good and 14 percent in excellent shape.

That's a sobering counterpoint to the other, mostly good news about nutrient pollution put out Monday by the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency reported that nitrogen and phosphorus levels have dropped long-term at 22 of the 32 river and stream sites it has monitored since 1985. Sediment levels have declined at 40 percent of the gauges.

Continue reading "Though pollution trending down, most Bay streams still struggling" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:14 AM | | Comments (0)

May 9, 2011

Scientists say a third or more of sanctuary oysters poached

A third or more of all the oysters produced in state hatcheries to rebuild the Chesapeake Bay's shellfish population wind up getting stolen by poachers, reports Kerry Davis of the Capital News Service.

Ken Paynter, a University of Maryland researcher who monitors hatchery-produced oysters after they've been placed in the bay to grow, estimates a third of them have been illegally harvested since 2008, based on police records and eyewitness accounts. The oysters produced in state hatcheries are placed in sanctuary areas, where commercial harvest is prohibited.

Donald Meritt, who runs UM's Horn Point oyster hatchery near Cambridge, put the figure even higher, at 80 percent. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, disputes the number poached could be that high, but is quoted agreeing that the lower estimate is plausible.

About $50 million has been spent on oyster resotration since 1994, estimates state fisheries director Tom O'Connell, the article reports. Yet the bay's oyster population lingers around 1 percent of historic levels.

Legislators have approved stiffer penalties for poaching, but one lawmaker suggested efforts to protect the oyster sanctuaries are hampered by a shortage of police. The Natural Resources Police force has just 215 on staff, down from an authorized strength of 440 in 1990.

Read more:


(Baltimore Sun photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)

May 6, 2011

State lawmakers seek federal Bay cleanup help


Lawmakers for Maryland and neighboring states are in Washington this week asking for more federal help in sticking to the strict "pollution diet" they've been put on for restoring the Chesapeake Bay.   They heard encouraging words, but got nothing concrete so far.

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, met Thursday with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and with members of Congress. They were hoping to meet today with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

With congressional leaders and the Obama administration locked in negotiations over how to cut federal spending to reduce the national debt, commission members didn't ask for massive new infusions of money to underwrite their cleanup efforts.  They did, however, make a pitch for a $30 million "innovative technology fund" to help find feasible alternative uses for the animal manure that's now spread on farm fields as fertilizer - and contributing to the bay's water quality problems.

Mostly, the state lawmakers urged administration and congressional representatives to hold the line on current funding for bay cleanup. They pointed to the need for continued funding of the $1 billion upgrade under way at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, the bay region's largest. The District of Columbia, and suburban Maryland and Virginia counties served by the plant are seeking $28.8 million in federal funds next year to help keep the costs to local ratepayers down. Without that federal contribution, they warned, the costs of the upgrade would drive up residents' utility bills even more.

Commission members did press EPA and USDA to promise bay region farmers that if they take prescribed steps to reduce polluted runoff from their fields and animal feedlots they won't face any additional regulation. They also insisted that federal facilities around the bay should be held to the same pollution reduction requirements the states have to meet now under the pollution diet, or total maximum daily load, established recently by EPA.

At their meeting at EPA headquarters Thursday, Jackson didn't offer much encouragement about funding, but did seem eager to work with the states and overcome the rifts with farmers and others over the pollution reductions required under the diet.

"We're losing resources overall as an agency and as a government," she reminded commission members. But she said the bay cleanup remains a top priority of President Obama.

"Let me assure you," Jackson said, "we remain committed even within a shrinking resource budget."

Continue reading "State lawmakers seek federal Bay cleanup help" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:35 AM | | Comments (0)

May 4, 2011

Bay grasses drop in MD

Underwater grasses in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay declined by 15 percent last year, the Department of Natural Resources reports.

The decline parallels a baywide drop reported earlier In 2010, grasses covered about 40,193 acres of the bottom in Maryland's part of the bay and its rivers, down from 47,294 acres in 2009. Last year's coverage is about 35% of the state's 114,000-acre bay grass restoration goal.

For more information, go to

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:08 AM | | Comments (0)

Scientists question bay cleanup tracking

The long-running Chesapeake Bay cleanup remains plagued by uneven efforts to track and verify pollution reductions, particularly from farmland, according to an independent review.
In a report released today, a nine-member panel of scientists with the National Research Council finds that while Maryland and other states have boosted their pollution control efforts, they’re not gathering enough information to tell how much progress they're making, especially those aimed at reducing farm runoff, a major source of the degraded estuary’s water quality woes.

The review comes as Maryland and other states grapple with the requirements of a new “pollution diet” imposed by EPA requiring substantial reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution throughout the six-state bay watershed. The American Farm Bureau has filed suit challenging the EPA plan, and local and state officials in parts of the region have complained about its costs and scientific basis.

An independent scientific assessment of the bay cleanup effort was requested two years ago after the states and EPA missed another in a series of deadlines, and a federal audit faulted the largely voluntary restoration campaign for exaggerating claims of success.  At that time, the region’s governors and federal officials vowed to accelerate their efforts and hold themselves more accountable, setting cleanup “milestones” to be reached every two years.

The scientific panel said that while setting short-term goals for the restoration should help, progress is still in doubt, in part because of inconsistent tracking and verifying of farm pollution measures. States have not accounted for controls put in place without government financial assistance, the report notes, but they also have not determined how lasting or effective have been many of the “best management practices” farmers have adopted.

As a result, the researchers said they were unable to determine the reliability or accuracy of runoff reductions reported by the states.

More generally, the report says, nearly all the states lack sufficient information to properly evaluate their progress in reducing nutrient and sediment pollution, the report says.  Their ability to make mid-course corrections is hampered as a result, the scientists warn, and policy makers and the public are likely to get an incomplete and possibly inaccurate sense of how much progress is being made to restore the bay.

The review warns that after centuries of pollution it may take years, if not decades, for water quality to improve significantly, and it urges officials to be more upfront with the public about the probability of delayed results, or risk loss of public and political support for the cleanup.

The report urges creation of a new laboratory to improve the computer modeling of the bay on which EPA’s controversial pollution diet was based.   It also recommends trying new approaches to managing animal manure on farms, curbing lawn fertilizer use and further reducing air pollution that contributes to the bay’s water problems.  

It even calls for states and the federal government to promote greater individual responsibility for reducing bay pollution, including encouraging people to reduce their consumption of meat.

Ann P. Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, representing lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, said the independent review confirms for her that the states are on the right track in setting a series of two-year interim goals to keep them working toward an ultimate cleanup deadline in 2025.  She also noted that the scientists had warned the bay's restoration may never be realized unless cleanup efforts are adjusted to take into account the region's population growth, development patterns and the effects of climate change.

To read the full report, click <a xhref="" target=new>here. </a>

Baltimore Sun file photo

Posted by Kim Walker at 11:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

April 28, 2011

Summers named state secretary of the environment

Robert M. Summers, the state’s acting secretary of the environment, has been officially given the job, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced Thursday.

Summers had served as a deputy secretary since January 2007 and took over running the department in December 2010. O’Malley said Summers has been a key contributor to the state’s environmental programs, including those that focused on the Chesapeake Bay restoration, during his 27-year career that has mostly been spent at the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“With his highly-regarded expertise, straightforward approach to finding workable solutions, and passion for clean water, clean air and a healthy environment, we are confident that his continued leadership will serve the people of our state well as we work to protect our environmental priorities,” O’Malley said in a statement.

Summers said he’d apply “the best science, the best service using e-commerce, predictability and transparency in permitting and encouraging innovative technologies to protect public health and the environment.”

He said the bay particularly offered an opportunity to foster innovation and create jobs.
The appointment drew praise from leaders of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as well as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Summers earned his B.A. in 1976 and Ph.D. in 1982 in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimore Sun file photo of Summers

Posted by Meredith Cohn at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

April 27, 2011

Chesapeake Bay health declines a bit last year

Polluted rain water draining into the Chesapeake Bay caused the health of the state’s largest estuary to decline in 2010, according to an independent scientific analysis released Wednesday by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The bay scored a C-minus on the center’s annual EcoCheck report card, down from a C the year before — the first decline since 2003. The runoff was affected by natural forces and human activities such as farming and urban and suburban activities, the researchers said.

“One of the main drivers of annual conditions in Chesapeake Bay is river flow related to weather patterns,” said UMCES-EcoCheck scientist Dr. Heath Kelsey. “While efforts to reduce pollution have been stepped up in recent years, nature overwhelmed those measures in 2010 and temporarily set the bay back a bit.”

Kelsey said some variability in scores is to be expected in such a complex ecosystem. Though, Robert M. Summers, acting Maryland secretary of the environment, said the drop shows the importance of controlling pollution from all areas.

Grades declined in nine regions, remained unchanged in three and improved in two, including Virginia’s James and York rivers. Two regions scored an F for the first time since 1996, the Patapsco and Back rivers and Lower Western Shore regions.

The data in the report come from state and federal agencies, and analysis is conducted by the Maryland center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office.

Posted by Meredith Cohn at 12:00 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay

April 20, 2011

Bay crabs down, but hold the panic button

Maryland and Virginia have reported that their annual winter survey of Chesapeake Bay's crabs found about a third fewer than the year before. Scientists blame the drop on a "killer" cold wave that hit in December and lasted into February.

You can read how I reported it in the Baltimore Sun here.

Reaction to the announcement has been interesting. Some see the drop as bad news, and suggest darkly that the O'Malley administration is trying to snow the public into thinking things are better than they are, and even that O'Malley's cozying up to watermen.

First, I doubt you'd find many (any?) watermen who support O'Malley or think he'd do them any favors, given their history over crabbing and oystering cutbacks, rockfish poaching, you name it. As for whether bad news is being spun, a little perspective is important.

Last year's survey found the crab population at its highest since 1997, and this latest count is the second highest. Scientists say the population, though lower than it was, is still healthy and for the third year in a row above the threshold they had set for ensuring a sustainable number.

Also, whether because of the catch restrictions in place or other factors, fisheries scientists estimate that recreational and commercial crabbers combined took something like 42-43 percent of the available crabs,  below the 46 percent ceiling experts had set for steering clear of overfishing.

That's why the state is looking at whether it should ease or tweak the limits a bit, but not a lot.  To learn more about what the survey found and what the state is contemplating, go here.

Longer term, under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a group of biologists is in the throes of reassessing the health of the bay's crab stock.  The group's report, due next month, may recommend changes in how the fishery is managed.  One issue on the table is whether to impose differing catch limits for females than for males, since the "sooks" are the key to ensuring there'll be future waves of baby crabs in the bay.

For more on the winter dredge survey, I recommend reading this story that Sun outdoors writer Candus Thomson wrote about it last month.

(Top: Gov. Martin O'Malley announces crab survey results, Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox. Left: State biologist Joe Williams sorts crabs pulled from Patuxent River, Baltimore Sun photo by Candus Thomson)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:11 PM | | Comments (1)

April 19, 2011

Report: Climate inaction could cost Maryland

There's been a lot of debate lately about the costs of building commercial wind turbines off Maryland's coast to help ease climate change. 

A new report makes the case that failure to reduce greenhouse gases at all - whether by wind turbines or some other action - could cost state residents jobs, income and maybe even the culinary star of their summertime feasts, Chesapeake Bay crabs.

According to "Pay Now, Pay Later," by a group called the American Security Project, continued inaction to mitigate the effects of climate change could begin to weaken important state industries and erode jobs. Between 2010 and 2050, the report warns, Maryland could lose $23.7 billion in GDP and 163,000 jobs.

"Climate change is happening, and it will ultimately have a costly effect on the economy of Maryland," says Jim Ludes, executive director of the American Security Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to emphasizing the national security implications of climate change and energy policy. 

Maryland is among the states most vulnerable to climate change, the report notes, but also one of the nation's leaders in seeking to do something about it by promoting development of renewable energy.

Early signs of climate change are already manifesting themselves. The bay has warmed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit and sea level has risen in many places by a foot since 1900. Changes in the bay could affect its iconic crab population, the report argues.

Meanwhile, coastal marshes already have drowned, and beaches and islands washed away. The Environmental Protection Agency projects it could cost Maryland $35 million to $200 million to replenish beaches should water levels rise another 20 inches.

But more than real estate is at stake, the report says. As much as 16 percent of the state's labor force could be affected by changes in key state industries, such as fishing, farming, forestry, tourism, even shipping.

On the other hand, the report, argues, continued investment in and development of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass promise to create jobs and savings for residents. As of 2007, there already were 1,000 "clean energy" businesses in the state employing 12,900 people, and Maryland ranked 6th in renewable energy venture capital investment.

The future of offshore wind is uncertain, as the General Assembly shied from the costs to ratepayers of approving legislation pushed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that would have required the state's utilities to buy electricity produced by turbines placed off Ocean City.

Lawmakers may revisit the issue next year after studying it. But as my colleague Jay Hancock pointed out in a recent column, there are other, less costly ways to slow the increase of climate-altering greenhouse gases, mainly by investing in energy conservation and efficiency.

None of the possible responses to climate change is free up-front, though, so whether it's wind, solar, or energy-efficient lighting, the only real question, as the American Security Project puts it, is whether people are willing to pay now to save later, or pay later for doing nothing now.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:07 AM | | Comments (2)

April 18, 2011

O'Malley forms task force to study curbs on septic sprawl

Gov. Martin O'Malley created a task force today to figure out how to curb pollution of the Chesapeake Bay from septic systems, saying he hoped the study would help overcome "fears" of the legislation he had introduced this year that would have banned major housing developments relying on them.

"We must find a way to grow in a clean, green, more sustainable way," O'Malley said prior to signing an executive order establishing the task force. He held the signing ceremony at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center on the Severn River, where household septic systems account for roughly 30 percent of the nitrogen fouling the water.

Currently, about 411,000 Maryland households are on septic systems. Although a relatively small source of nitrogen pollution baywide compared with sewage plants or farm runoff, septic leakage of the harmful nutrient could increase by 36 percent over the next 25 years if nothing is done, state officials project. 

O'Malley's bid to curb major housing developments on septic systems failed to get out of committee in Annapolis after rural lawmakers, farmers and developers raised an outcry, warning that it would throttle growth and cost jobs in the state's rural and suburban counties.

The governor was joined by Del. Steve Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat who had sponsored the septic curb legislation the governor wanted, and by Del. Maggie McIntosh, head of the House Environmental Matters Committee who had tabled the measure for further study.

McIntosh, a Baltimore city Democrat, said she hoped the study would take a broader look at how septic systems fit into the state's Smart Growth policies.  

The task force is to include members of the House and Senate, state secretaries of the environment, natural resources, agriculture and planning, local government officials, environmental activists, scientists, developers and farmers.  It's ordered to report its findings by Dec. 1, a month before the next session of the General Assembly.

Not coincidentally, the Maryland State Builders Association released ar report today estimating that Maryland's overall efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, not just septic curbs, would cost the state's taxpayers, businesses and consumers $21 billion by 2017, trimming some 65,000 jobs from the economy.

(House with septic system under construction in Baltimore County.  Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:11 PM | | Comments (4)

Gov to launch septic pollution study

Thwarted in his bid for legislation to curb development relying on septic systems, Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled this morning (April 18) to announce the formation of a task force to study how much the systems pollute the Chesapeake Bay.

Joining O'Malley at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville for the announcement will be Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore city, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's County, and Del. Steve Lafferty, D-Baltimore County.

Pinsky and Lafferty were cosponsors of the "Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2011, which died in committee under a hail of criticism from farmers and lawmakers and local officials in rural areas.  It would have banned major new housing developments using conventional septic systems, and required less polluting advanced septic systems in all smaller developments.

McIntosh, who heads the House Environmental Matters Committee, prompted O'Malley to seek a study after tabling his bill. In doing so, she echoed concerns of rural lawmakers that the septic ban would have a disproportionate impact on their communities.

O'Malley is to sign an executive order forming a task force to study the issue, as McIntosh had urged him to do. According to a media advisory from the governor's office, the order will "establish a framework to examine the extent to which septic tanks on major developments pollute the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries" and "inform" new legislation to be introduced next year.

The task force has its work cut out for it, as some refuse to acknowledge that conventional septic systems  systems are a source of the Chesapeake's water woes at all, much less a significant and growing one.

But the criticism that apparently gave pause to McIntosh, who otherwise supports a curb on septics, was that it would stifle growth in rural areas. It wasn't enough, apparently, that a few rural counties have already effectively moved away from large-scale devleopment on septics - for other reasons - without throttling their growth. 

So it seems the task force may have to come up with more than information.  Instead, it may need to forge a political compromise to quell or overcome rural fears that curbs on septic development will kill their growth.  One suggestion heard: soften the the impact of such a ban by phasing it in.   Another: couple it with an infusion of funds for infrastructure upgrades in and around rural towns and villages, where growth is supposedly encouraged under Maryland's Smart Growth law. 

(New home on septic in Baltimore County. Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:55 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

April 13, 2011

Bay foundation sees silver lining in Annapolis

While most environmentalists found little to cheer in the General Assembly session just ended, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says it got its top priority - minimizing budget cuts to bay cleanup efforts.

Lawmakers actually put $23.5 million in the Chesapeake and Atlantic Bay Trust Fund, a $1 million increase over its current funding.  In doing so, legislators rejected a proposal by the Department of Legislative Services to cut funding for the trust fund, which pays for farm conservation practices and other efforts to curb polluted runoff

As previously reported, the Assembly also agreed to retain most of the funding for buying parkland and preserving farmland - rejecting another proposal by legislative analysts to permanently divert the property transfer tax revenue that has underwritten Maryland's open-space program for decades.

 “Governor O’Malley and the General Assembly held steady in tough times and continued to invest in clean water," said Kim Coble, the Maryland director for the Annapolis-based environmental group.

Beyond that, the foundation agreed with other green groups that the 90-day session yielded a "mixed bag" of things to cheer - such as passage of lawn fertilizer curbs and anti-poaching measures - and lament, including the failure to pass the offshore wind and septic limits bills.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:31 AM | | Comments (0)

April 12, 2011

US Senate takes a look at "fracking" in MD

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is getting the once-over this morning in Washington, with Maryland's cautious approach in the spotlight.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding a hearing on the public health and environmental impacts of the controversial drilling technique. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is joining Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, in presiding over the session.

Robert Summers, Maryland's acting environment secretary, is scheduled to testify. To read the prepared testimony or see the video, go here

The state Department of the Environment has held up acting for more than a year on requests for permits to drill in western Maryland, saying more study is needed of the impacts on drinking water wells, surface water, air quality, forests and land use.  A bill laying out an industry-financed two-year analysis failed to pass Monday in Annapolis.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:32 AM | | Comments (0)

Some hits, but mostly environmental inaction in Annapolis

Looking back on the General Assembly session that ended at midnight last night, lawmakers seemed bent on studying environmental issues more than acting on them.  The results of the 90-day session left environmental activists frustrated and in one case blaming the news media for their frustration.

A bid by Gov. Martin O'Malley to boost offshore wind energy development got sidelined for further study by lawmakers nervous about the potential cost to consumers. O'Malley's other major environmental initiative, to limit development on septic systems, got similar treatment amid worries about how it would impact rural economies.

On the other hand, an effort to mandate an industry-financed study of potential harm from drilling for natural gas in western Maryland failed in the final day, despite administration support, amid bickering over terms of the proposed two-year study. industry was willing to put up $1 million plus to pay for the study but wanted to be able to start producing gas while it was still going on.  And while agreeing to ban the use of plastic bisphenol A in baby formula containers, legislators balked at barring arsenic in chicken feed.

Other measures environmentalists hoped for didn't even get out of the starting gate.  A bill to clean up trash in urban waterways like Baltimore harbor by leving a fee on disposable store bags never emerged from committee. Likewise for legislation that would have required Maryland's communities to raise funds for controlling storm-water pollution, or that required commercial building owners to disclose their structures' energy use to potential buyers.

Continue reading "Some hits, but mostly environmental inaction in Annapolis" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:24 AM | | Comments (0)

April 11, 2011

Fracking bill deep-sixed

An update on an earlier post - the bill calling for a two-year study of natural gas drilling in western Maryland's Marcellus shale deposits is dead.

Drew Cobbs, a lobbyist for the natural gas industry, said he was informed recently that the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee has given up on trying to forge a consensus on the bill, HB852/SB634. A committee staffer confirmed it.

Cobbs, director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said what killed the bill was the O'Malley administration's insistence on limiting the ability of state regulators to approve natural gas wells after the first year of the study.

Talks between the gas industry, legislative leaders and the administration had yielded a tentative agreement to ban any drilling using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for the first year of the study.

Industry representatives had wanted the Maryland Department of the Environment free to approve drilling and natural gas production after the first year if regulators felt they had learned enough by then about what safeguards to impose to prevent potential environmental impacts of the drilling technique.

Administration officials, though, wanted the bill to allow only limited "exploratory" drilling in the second year, without any gas production -- even though, Cobbs contended, regulators already have ample authority to hold up permits if they feel they need more information.

Two requests for permits to drill in Garrett County have been under study by MDE now for more than a year.

Without a bill, the state still is publicly pledged to study the impacts of "fracking" for up to two years, but there will be no fees collected - more than $1 million worth - to help pay for the study.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:04 PM | | Comments (6)

Fracking study bill sinking?

Prospects are dimming for a proposed two-year study of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale deposits in western Maryland. 

The bill, HB852, sailed through the House 98-40 a few weeks ago, after being substantially reworked.  With only hours to go, though, it has yet to emerge from the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.  Talks between the energy industry, environmental advocates and state officials aimed at resolving their differences over the bill reportedly have broken down.

The House-passed bill calls for the Maryland Departments of the Environment and Natural Resources to study the impact on drinking water wells and surface water of hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking"), as well as the effects of drilling on air quality, traffic, forests and land use.  They were to render a report by 2013, with the study underwritten by a $10 fee paid on every acre of western Maryland land for which energy companies have leased the mineral rights - a total of $1.2 million to $1.5 million, by one estimate.

Talks have been going on between legislative leaders, the gas industry, environmental advocates and the O'Malley administration in an attempt to address continuing industry issues with the bill.

The chief hangup, according to those involved in the talks, is over allowing "exploratory" drilling before the study is concluded.  Under revisions to be proposed to the Senate panel, state regulators would have to submit an interim report by July 2012, with a final evaluation and recommendations due a year later. 

Industry officials reportedly want to be able to move ahead with producing gas as soon as possible after the interim report, while regulators and others want to limit drilling activity until all the impacts have been thoroughly analyzed.

Continue reading "Fracking study bill sinking?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:33 PM | | Comments (0)

Land preservation funding in limbo in Annapolis

Funding for preserving open space and farmland remains uncertain as the Maryland General Assembly races to finish its 90-day session by midnight.

The House of Delegates opted to take the property transfer tax revenues traditionally earmarked for preservation to help balance the overall state budget. But as they did last year, the delegates proposed replacing the transferred revenues with borrowed money - from a bond issue.

The Senate, on the other hand, apparently has followed the advice of legislative budget analysts in taking most of the transfer-tax revenues outright, and not replacing them with bond funds.

If the Senate gets its way, all funding for state purchases of parkland (projected to be $4.4 million) would be eliminated, according to Kelly Carneal of 1000 Friends of Maryland.  So would all funds for the Rural Legacy land preservation program ($14.1 million) and all the nearly $4.4 million that would have gone to the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.

The two chambers did agree not to whack open-space funding for local governments, meaning counties and municipalities will still be able to buy land and fix it up for ballfields and local parks. But if the Senate prevails, there'll be a lot less land preserved in the coming year.

Some lawmakers have argued that the state can't afford to be buying parkland when so many other things are being cut to balance the budget. But environmentalists counter that this is the ideal time to be preserving, when land prices have softened as a result of the recession.

House and Senate must resolve their differences before the day is out.

"It's down to the wire, of course," Carneal emailed me this morning.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:08 AM | | Comments (1)

Planned Bay-crossing power line getting static


Every energy project gets static, and power lines are no exception. Thirty-eight national, state and local environmental groups have banded together to voice concerns about the Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway (MAPP), a 152-mile transmission line that would cross the Chesapeake Bay and traverse much of the Delmarva Peninsula.

The $1.2 billion project is being pushed by Pepco Holdings Inc., a combination of the region's utilities including Pepco and Delmarva Power, which argues that the line is needed to avoid power blackouts, to lower electricity costs and to make it possible to access electricity generated by new wind turbines.

But the green groups question the need for MAPP, and worry about the impact on fish and water quality of carving trenches across 16 miles of bay bottom and up 23 miles of the Choptank River. In all, the project would cross 27 different streams and disrupt 76 acres of forested wetlands, the groups contend. They also suggest there are alternatives that would be less disruptive.

Under similar fire from environmental and community groups, a different group of utilities announced plans earlier this year to withdraw a bid for permits to build the 275-mile Potomac-Appalachian Transmission Highline from West Virginia to Frederick County.  The move came after PJM, the regional electric grid operator, decided to reevaluate the need for the project.

A portion of the proposed MAPP project has similarly been tabled for now, but Pepco Holdings is moving forward with the rest of the proposal. The Maryland Public Service Commission is weighing issuing a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity authorizing the project.  Testimony is to be taken through the spring and summer, with hearings scheduled in September and a decision by late fall or early next year.

(Map: Community & Environmental Defense Services)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

April 8, 2011

New film: Scientists share blame for oysters' decline

A new documentary suggests that scientists share blame with watermen and early oyster "farmers" for the drastic decline of the Chesapeake Bay's native bivalves.

In "Who Killed Crassostrea Virginica," fimmaker Michael Fincham of Maryland Sea Grant College makes the case that scientists and early oyster growers testing faster-growing foreign oysters likely introduced the MSX parasite that devastated populations of the native bivalve in Delaware and Chesapeake bays.

"Most people mention pollution as the primary cause for the decline of Crassostrea Virginica," according to Fincham. "Although pollution is a problem, it is not the problem that killed off the oysters."  His research found poorly controlled experiments and "secret plantings" of non-native oysters that may have brought the parasite to the region's waters.

Watermen, often faulted for overharvesting the bay's signature shellfish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, don't get off the hook in this new filmed history. Fincham notes how the widespread use of dredges and tongs broke down the bay's high-rising oyster reefs, destroying their habitat.

The film debuts Sunday, April 10, at 10 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.  It's the kickoff of MPT's annual "Chesapeake Bay Week," a week of programming about the bay.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)

April 7, 2011

More trash talk about the harbor

There was more trash talk at City Hall this week about Baltimore's ailing harbor - and a challenge issued to the city's tax-exempt universities to lend a bigger hand in the struggle to heal the watery heart of the metro area.

A City Council committee heard from municipal officials, business leaders and community activists Wednesday evening on what's being done, and what's to be done, to reduce the water-borne litter and debris that are just the most visible form of pollution plaguing the Inner Harbor.  It was the latest in a series of hearings held on the issue over the last 2 1/2 years.

There was no shortage of ideas and opinions aired at the hearing about how to curb the torrent of trash washing into the harbor whenever it rains. But the speakers made clear that money and political will would be needed to do something meaningful, and it wasn't clear if either would be forthcoming anytime soon.

Al Foxx, director of the Baltimore's Department of Public Works, said the city faces "some very costly and challenging mandates" from state and federal governments to clean up the harbor, and he bemoaned the inflexibility of the Environmental Protection Agency in seeming not to care about whether local taxpayers could afford the ordered cleanup measures.

The Maryland Department of the Environment will be requiring significant curbs on trash in the harbor as part of a stringent new permit calling for major reductions in pollution washing off city streets and parking lots, noted Kim Burgess, head of the DPWs surface-water section. The city already is doing some things to keep litter out of the water, she noted, including patrolling the Inner Harbor and Middle Branch with trash-skimming boats and sweeping city streets of debris that otherwise might wash into storm drains.

But some of the city's litter-collecting efforts, including a mill-style trash "wheel" at a huge storm drain outfall in Canton, have been disabled by vandalism and maintenance problems.  Though city funds are tight, some relatively small-scale "pilot" projects are planned in the near future to test other approaches to dealing with the problem, Burgess said.

Peter Auchincloss, a downtown engineering consultant who led a group studying the harbor trash problem, said it needs to be made a higher priority. His group urged the city to restore funding cut last year for street sweeping and other pollution control efforts, and it called on the city to start raising the funds needed to do more by levying a fee on all municipal properties, based on their size.  He ticked off more than $5 million in  trash-control and cleanup projects proposed, to be paid for with municipal bonds authorized by city voters.

But Dr. Ray Bahr, a retired cardiologist in Canton who's spearheaded a cleanup effort in southeast Baltimore, appealed for a much more modest city investment.  He said by working for more than a year with city officials and community leaders of 17 diverse upstream neighborhoods, they've been able to at least temporarily curtail the torrent of trash flowing through storm drains into the harbor from the Canton outfall.  He and others are eyeing expanding the effort to other nearby neighborhoods. 

But he said he needs 5,000 trash cans to distribute free to poor residents in the area he's been working in.  The cans would be offered to get them to stop putting their garbage out in the alleys in plastic bags, where they get torn open by rats, cats and other vandals.  Neighborhood leaders have told him with such a modest demonstration of the city's encouragement, a "carrot," as Bahr called it, they'll work harder to confront litterers and illegal dumpers.  Without it, he said, the progress made to date will be lost.

"We need a lot of carrots, because we have a serious education problem," agreed Glenn Ross, with the Environmental Justice Partnership. He and others said many residents still don't realize that even inland neighborhoods are linked to the harbor via the vast network of storm drains under city streets.

Councilman James Kraft, who represents the Canton area and who presided over the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee hearing, endorsed Bahr's request for trash cans and pleaded with Foxx to provide them.

(ADDED: It's illegal to put trash out for pickup in anything but a can, but Bahr said he'd found that city sanitation workers were sanctioning it in effect, by advising residents without cans to put all their bags at the ends of alleys. Also, he contended that the city had essentially ignored the buildup of more than 100 "mini-landfills" found during a 10-week sweep last summer of several neighborhoods.  Trash was piling up in the backyards of vacant homes, Bahr said, leading him to ask if there were "two Baltimores," with two levels of city services for rich and poor neighborhoods.) 

But DPW spokeswoman Celeste Amato wasn't encouraging after the hearing closed. "We've tried that before," she said, recalling that the city doled out 100,000 trashcans with "Believe" printed on them, only to see many lost or stolen or get used to store things other than garbage. 

Continue reading "More trash talk about the harbor" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:00 PM | | Comments (2)

March 30, 2011

Offshore wind catching a breeze?

Working to win over legislators worried about the costs of subsidizing offshore wind energy, Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed an amendment to his legislation that would cap long-term the amount Marylanders would have to pay on their electricity bills at $2 a month.

The governor's bid to require Maryland utilities sign 25-year contracts to buy power from offshore wind turbines has run into resistance in Annapolis, with lawmakers leery of how much the move will cost ratepayers.

In the Maryland Politics blog, Sun State House reporter Julie Bykowicz quotes Del. Dereck E. Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, saying the proffer "certainly is helpful." A Prince George's Democrat, Davis told Julie "more members are growing comfortable with the idea."

To read the rest of Julie's post, go here.

(Turbines off England, 2010, AFP/Getty)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:23 PM | | Comments (0)

Sediment floods Chesapeake Bay when it pours

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.  The satellite photo at left shows better than anyone can describe how heavy rains earlier this month flushed enough sediment into the Chesapeake Bay watershed to turn much of it a creamy brown.

A tip of the green eyeshade to BayDaily blogger Tom Pelton for spotlighting this particularly muddy image. It was too good not to share.

The photo, taken March 17, came on the heels of a downpour that dumped two inches of rain across the bay region. State officials reported that the flood of mud set new lows for water clarity in places.

With all that sediment doubtless came a huge pulse of phosphorus and nitrogen. Besides blocking out sunlight needed by underwater grasses, those pollutants are likely to feed massive algae blooms in spring and summer. They could also worsen the spread of the oxygen-starved dead zone across the bottom of the bay, stressing fish, crabs and shellfish. 

For more on the effects of late winter and early spring rains, go here.

You can see other daily snapshots from the sky, and monitor water quality readings at the "Eyes on the Bay" web page of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:12 AM | | Comments (5)

Group points to leaks at US nuclear reactors


It doesn't take a massive earthquake for radioactive material to leak from nuclear reactors into ground water, it seems. 

While authorities are struggling to contain leaks of highly toxic plutonium into the soil at the stricken Fukushima Da-ichi plant in Japan, a report released today by Maryland PIRG says there've been more than two dozen incidents of ground-water contamination at US nuke plants - including one at Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland.

"At least one out of every four U.S. nuclear reactors (27 out of 104) have leaked tritium – a cancer-causing radioactive form of hydrogen – into groundwater," the MaryPIRG report says.

The report lists leaks from Vermont Yankee in New England, where radioactive tritium was detected in ground water near the plant, at Indian Point in New York, where tritium and strontium leaked from the spent fuel pools not far from the Hudson River, and at New Jersey's Salem plant, where radioactive material was found in ground water in 2002. 

The group also said there was a tritium leak in Maryland.  In 2005, according to a separate report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, workers at Calvert Cliffs identified tritium in a shallow monitoring well onsite and traced it to an eroded pipe in an underground drainage system.  The eroded plastic pipe, two inches in diameter and made of PVC, was put in when the plant was being built in the 1970s to measure the depth of the water table.

Mark Sullivan, spokesman for Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, which runs the Calvert plant, said in an email that the amount of tritium involved posed no risk to the public. "The tritium found on site at Calvert Cliffs in the early 2000s was well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's comparison value for a safe level," he said. "Given the low tritium level and configuration of the site, there was never a risk to the local drinking water sources....The site's hydrology and topography protect against possible aquifer issues."

Nonetheless, MaryPIRG points to the leaks, "near-miss" accidents and safety violations catalogued in its report as evidence that nuclear power is just too risky to build any new plants or even keep the old ones open. 

It's unclear yet how many deaths or illnesses may be attributed to the Japanese reactor explosions and leaks. But risk experts point out that such catastrophes are rare, and that the nuclear industry has a relatively good safety record.  As a recent Associated Press story reported, more than 1,300 American workers have died since 2000 in coal, oil and natural gas industry accidents, while no one has been killed by radiation exposure at the nation's nuclear plants.

(Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:31 AM | | Comments (2)

March 28, 2011

Going less green on lawns to help the Bay


With turf grass arguably Maryland's largest crop these days, there are growing calls for city and suburban dwellers to do their part to help restore the Chesapeake Bay by cutting back on fertilizing their lawns.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md, joined environmental activists and the head of Baltimore's Waterfront Partnership at the harbor's edge in Fells Point today to push for passage of state and federal government action to reduce pollution from urban and suburban fertilizer.

"All of us can do a better job in how we manage our particular lawns," Cardin said during the press conference, which was staged next to a rectangular patch of grass jutting out into the harbor.  But Cardin added that government has a role to play in helping citizens and communities do what they need to do.

Noting that Maryland has 1.3 million acres of turf grass, Megan Cronin of Environment Maryland urged the state Senate to approve legislation that would regulate the nutrient content of lawn fertilizer and how it is to be applied.  The group released a report on lawn fertilizer, which you can read here.

More than a fifth of Maryland's land in the bay watershed is covered in grass, and in metro areas it's even more.  About a third of Anne Arundel County is turf, according to Chris Trumbauer, a county councilman and the West/Rhode Riverkeeper.

In Baltimore, the business-led Waterfront Partnership is pledging to do its part for cleaning up the Inner Harbor by changing how it tends the patches of green stretching from Fells Point around to Federal Hill. The group plans to limit the amount of nitrogen put down to green up those urban lawns, for instance, and cut back on fertilizing at all in sensitive areas closest to the water, said Laurie Schwartz, the group's executive director.

While supporting state and local action, Cardin also said he hoped his fellow senators would join him in opposing cuts in federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce its "pollution diet' for the bay. 

The House cuts in federal spending this year "would be devastating to the Chesapeake Bay," Cardin said of the rider adopted at the behest of a Virginia congressman to keep EPA from going forward with its diet, or total maximum daily load, for nutrients polluting the bay.

The Maryland senator pointed out that the bay reauthorization bill he sponsored, which failed to pass last year, would have provided extra federal funds to help communities deal with runoff of fertilizer and other pollutants.  Cardin said with the GOP in control of the House and seemingly intent on blocking EPA action on the bay and a number of other environmental regulations, "It's going to be tough to pass anything."

Continue reading "Going less green on lawns to help the Bay" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:40 PM | | Comments (1)

It's spring - time for stream spruce-ups


Cold snap notwithstanding, it really is spring.  And every spring, regular as the flowers, there's a rash of stream cleanups to clear neighborhood waterways of trash and debris. 

Volunteers are being sought for Project Clean Stream this Saturday (April 2) from 9 a.m. to noon to help give facelifts to more than 165 streams that ultimately feed into the Chesapeake Bay. 

Last year, more than 3,600 volunteers ermoved more than 118,000 pounds of trash and debris.  This year, organizers are aiming to recruit 4,000 folks to haul out 150,000 pounds of rubbish.  And they're expanding the effort to include tree plantings and removal of invasive plants.

One stream cleanup that's going to need more than three hours is Bread and Cheese Creek (seen above) in eastern Baltimore County, where previous sweeps have pulled 32.5 tons of junk from its banks. Volunteers are needed there from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Picking up trash won't cure a stream's ills if it's been degraded by development and pollution.  But it will produce some visible visual improvement - and if enough people join in, maybe it'll help build public awareness of the need to address those more systemic problems throughout the watershed. 

The annual Project Clean Stream is organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, with sponsorship from Perdue Inc. and help from the Chesapeake Bay Trust

The Alliance's map that's supposed to show all the stream cleanups in the works doesn't appear to be working, but look at the group's Facebook page for a cleanup near you, or contact project organizer Dan Ellis directly at 443-949-0575 or

(Volunteers pull a tire from Bread and Cheese Creek in Dundalk.  2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:48 AM | | Comments (3)

March 10, 2011

Group says "factory" farms pollute air


The air at some large-scale livestock and poultry farms is more polluted than in America's biggest cities and poses health risks to agricultural workers, an environmental group says.  A Johns Hopkins researcher suggests the risks are not limited to the farms, either, but could include rural communities nearby.

Drawing on air quality measurements by Purdue University at 15 farms in eight states, the Environmental Integrity Project contends in a new report that such "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, at least occasionally emit harmful levels of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and fine particle pollution. On some days, particle pollution at five poultry operations studied exceeded the federal government's 24-hour safe exposure limit, the Washington-based environmental group said.

None of the farms tested was in Maryland, and all but one of the poultry operations studied were producing eggs rather than broilers, as nearly all chicken houses do on the Delmarva Peninsula.  But at the one broiler producer checked in California, high levels of ammonia and particle pollution were measured, according to Keeve Nachman at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future, who reviewed the data.  Nor does it appear from the air test results that there's much difference in pollution levels between the two types of poultry farm, he added.

"Based on what EIP found and what the epidemiologic evidence is suggesting, there is reason to be concerned about exposure in communities surrounding animal production sites," Nachman said in an email. "There's a pressing need for community air monitoring to help characterize risks faced by residents and chldren who attend schools near AFOs (animal feeding operations)."

The environmental group says the air pollution detected from Purdue's limited sampling of farms is serious enough that the Environmental Protection Agency should revoke an agreement made under the Bush administration to exempt large-scale animal farms from reporting their emissions. To see the report, go here.

(Chicken house near Pocomoke City.  2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:34 AM | | Comments (3)

March 8, 2011

Septic stunt - O'Malley to wade in polluted Shore lake

Gov. Martin O'Malley's aides insist he hasn't given up on getting lawmakers to do something about the pollution and sprawl caused by a proliferation of homes built on septic systems. Now, O'Malley intends to highlight the issue by wading into an Eastern Shore lake rendered unswimmable by drainage from a town full of failing septics.

As my colleague Julie Bykowicz reports in the Maryland Politics blog, the governor plans to don waders Wednesday and walk into Lake Bonnie, pictured above, a private lake near Goldsboro in rural Caroline County. The aim, according to a media advisory from his office, is to show that "failure to manage the long-term and far-reaching consequences of septic systems can impact the public health and economic health of Maryland's rural communities."

It's a compelling image, wading in pollution - though I'm not sure how well Lake Bonnie illustrates the governor's campaign against sprawling housing developments on septic systems.  In this case, the problem comes from a town, albeit one where residents should never have been allowed to put in septic systems because of the high water table.  I wrote about it in The Sun last year.

The 28-acre manmade lake was the centerpiece of a private campground just south of Goldsboro.  In 1996, local health officials declared the lake unfit for swimming because of high bacteria levels linked to the many failing septic systems in the town. 

Though local officials have known of Goldsboro's septic problems since the 1970s, neither they nor the state have been able or willing to come up with the millions of dollars needed to hook the residents up to a wastewater treatment plant.  A plan for piping the waste to nearby Greensboro now looks like it may resolve the problem.  Meanwhile, though, the family that ran the campground has struggled for a decade without their prime attraction and finally shuttered the business five years ago. 

O'Malley's also apparently attempting to overcome farmers' objections to his proposed curb on rural development relying on septic.  According to an Associated Press report, his staff has drawn up amendments that would loosen restrictions in the bill on subdividing rural land, giving farmers the option to carve up their land four times, rather than just once under the original legislation.  The extra lots could only go to family members, not developers.  And another provision would let farmers divide their land for related businesses, such as a winery or dairy operation.

It's not clear if the governor really thinks all this will somehow revive his septic bill's dimming prospects.  Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who's head of the House Environmental Matters Committee, has said she's in favor of curbing sprawling development on septics but worries it could have a disproportionate impact on rural parts of the state.  She's indicated she wants to defer the issue for more study, but her committee's still planning a hearing on the HB1107, the septic curb legislation, on Friday, and the governor's spokesman has said he intends to be there to press his case. 

(Lake Bonnie, 2010. Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:45 AM | | Comments (7)

March 7, 2011

Fees proposed in MD to fight carryout bag litter


Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett announced today he'll seek legislation to levy a nickel fee on every paper or plastic carryout bag dispensed by county retailers in a bid to reduce litter in the Washington suburb and encourage consumers to shop with their own reusable bags.

If approved by the County Council, Montgomery would follow the lead of the District of Columbia and not Baltimore in tacking a small fee on throwaway bags to discourage their use. Here in Charm City, after protests from grocers and bag manufacturers the City Council backed away from bills to ban or tax plastic bags and opted instead to encourage recycling them.  

Baltimore may still see the nickel bag fee, though, and Montgomery wouldn't need to act if lawmakers in Annapolis adopt legislation that would apply a nickel-a-bag fee statewide. Tomorrow, (March 8), the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to review SB602, the "Clean the Streams and Beautify the Bay Act of 2011." 

Like the District law, the Senate bill and its House compansion, HB1034, would require stores to charge a nickel for every disposable carryout bag provided to customers.  Stores could keep a penny of every nickel to cover their costs, and could keep a second cent if they also offer their customers credit for bringing their own reusable bags for carrying away merchandise.

Environmentalists argue a throwaway bag fee is needed to reduce the litter that's choking urban waters like Baltimore's harbor and the Anacostia River in the Washington area.  The Environmental Protection Agency has declared both watersheds impaired by trash, and city and county governments are on the hook to figure out how to stop the torrents of trash washed into and down streams after every rain. 

The Anacostia Watershed Society says its trash surveys have found plastic bags the third most frequent litter item fished from the river and the most common type of detritus in the streams that feed into the river.

DC started charging 5 cents on every disposable shopping bag given customers there in January 2010. The fee raised about $2 million in revenue in its first year, earmarked for helping clean up the Anacoastia River. That's less than had been projected, but sponsors say what they really wanted was behavior change, and in that regard, estimates are that the number of bags consumed has dropped by 50 to 80 percent.

The state legislation could raise a lot more money.  Legislative analysts cite Census estimates that there were 19,100 retail establishments in Maryland three years ago, and suggests that if each dispensed 10,000 bags annually, they'd raise $7.6 million in total revenue - with $1.9 million of it kept by the stores.  The bulk of the fees collected by the state would go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a nonprofit organization that doles out grants to promote public awareness and participation in the bay cleanup effort.

Retailers and bag manufacaturers successfully fought off a similar measure last year, and can be expected to oppose it again this year. Retailers argue that the fee hurts their business by raising prices at a time when many Marylanders are still struggling economically. Plastic bag manufacturers have argued that voluntary recycling programs are the way to go.

But environmentalists point out that the disposable carryout bags handed out by stores aren't free.  Retailers usually pay 2 to 5 cents per bag, they note, and based on bag use estimates developed elsewhere, the Anacostia Watershed Society figures the average Marylander gets 750 carryout bags a year, for which they're likely paying $15 to $37.50 a year.  Reusable bags, by comparison, usually cost $1 to $3 each, and last up to two years.

If the statewide legislation fails again, that leaves the "plastic or paper" - or neither - issue to be hashed out locality by locality.  Besides the bill introduced in Montgomery, there's legislation pending in Annapolis (HB661/SB721) that would enable Prince George's County - which like Montgomery shares responsibility for the Anacostia watershed - to impose a fee on disposable plastic bags in its borders.

(Baltimore Sun photos. Top: Reusable bag display in DC Safeway, 2010, by Barbara Haddock Taylor; Above: yellow plastic bag and fast-food cup litter Baltimore's Gwynns Falls, 2008, by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:40 PM | | Comments (4)

March 4, 2011

Fracking wastewater dumped in B'more?


There's no hydraulic fracturing for Marcellus shale natural gas in Maryland yet, but apparently the state already has been on the receiving end of some of the wastes from the controversial drilling technique.

Wastewater from "hydrofracking" operations in Pennsylvania got shipped to Baltimore last year and passed through the city's Back River wastewater treatment plant, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Tom Pelton, who reported it in the group's Bay Daily blog.

Clean Harbors, a company that handles industrial wastes, disposed of 50,000 gallons a day at Back River "for a few months" early last year, Pelton says he was informed by the Maryland Department of the Environment.  The company treated the wastewater beforehand to remove metals, MDE told Pelton.   It also tested it and found "no detectable levels" of radiation in the liquid, which is a concern that's been raised about fracking wastes lately.

Radioactive contaminants have been reported in the "flowback" water pumped out of wells drilled in Pennsylvania using hydraulic fracturing, the New York Times reported earlier this week.  Much of the fracking wastewater is disposed of at municipal sewage treatment plants there, the Times said, but those facilities lack the capacity to remove radioactive contaminants, so they're likely getting into  rivers like the Susquehanna, a backup drinking water supply for the Baltimore area. Likely is the best that can be said because state and federal governments apparently don't uniformly require testing for radioactive contaminants in wastewater.

Back River, which receives the treated wastewater from the city's sewage plant, is not a drinking water source for anyone because it's brackish. But one of the comments on Bay Daily raises another concern - that the drilling fluids often contain certain chemical compounds that can be lethal to Chesapeake Bay oysters at levels even below what can be readily detected. 

(Settling tanks at Back River wastewater treatment plant. 2010 Photo by Colby Ware, special to The Sun)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:35 AM | | Comments (2)

March 2, 2011

"Popsicle Plunge" to aid local nature center

For those who like a bracing swim - or who were too chicken to take the Polar Bear Plunge right after New Year's - here's another, slightly less frigid, chance to wade in for a good cause.  Supporters of the Marshy Point Nature Center in Baltimore County are holding their 5th annual "Popsicle Plunge" on Saturday (March 5).

The waterfront park on Dundee and Saltpeter creeks encompasses nearly 500 acres of wetlands and woodlands, and it's a great place for hiking and bird-watching. The center at 7130 Marshy Point Road holds festivals, summer camps, weekend canoe trips, discover hikes and demonstrations, and every 5th grader in Baltimore County schools visits Marshy Point as part of the EcoTrekkers environmental education program.

Because the shoreline at Marshy Point is mostly marsh and protected wetlands, the plunge will actually be held on the beach in the Hammerman area of Gunpowder Falls State Park - across Dundee Creek. It costs $20 to register for the plunge, but you get a free T-shirt with just $40 in pledges, and there will be other prizes for costumes and the most pledges raised, as well as food, games, activities and exhibits.

The whole shebang kicks off at noon, with the plunge at 2 p.m. All proceeds benefit the Marshy Point Nature Center Council. For more information, contact Marshy Point Nature Center at 410-887-2817 or visit for forms  And for directions to the plunge site at Gunpowder, go here.

(Photo courtesy Marshy Point Nature Center Council)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:48 AM | | Comments (0)

March 1, 2011

A radical idea for helping Baltimore's harbor - uncover the Jones Falls


While a lot of attention has been focused lately on the sorry state of Baltimore's harbor, conditions there won't improve much until the watershed itself gets better.

Toward that end, some architects from the University of Virginia are proposing a radical remedy - "daylighting," or uncovering, part of the lower Jones Falls, which which flows underground two miles under city streets before emptying out in the harbor.

The Jones Falls was actually the birthplace of Baltimore, where the first settler, one David Jones, built his house along its banks in the 1600s.  The river was a source of drinking water for the fledgling city, and ships reportedly could sail as far inland as Calvert and Lexington. 

But growth, flooding and pollution inspired efforts to drain, tame and ultimately bury the troublesome water way around 1915.  Finally, in the early 1960s, the subverting of the Jones Falls was completed with the construction of the expressway of the same name along and atop its course.  It's just the largest of Baltimore's streams to get buried - experts estimate that two-thirds of the city's waterways are underground now, serving as conduits for storm water washing off city streets and parking lots.

That lower stretch of the Jone Falls is like the mythical River Styx - musty, foul and eternally in darkness. I paddled with some others upstream from the harbor many years ago, and the only living thing we encountered was a somewhat startled looking pigeon roosting in the gloom.

"We only peeked into the openings of the culvert and did not dare to go much further," writes Jorg Sieweke, one of the U.Va. architecture professors.  But he and his colleagues would like dare rethinking the Jones Falls, and turning back the clock.

Continue reading "A radical idea for helping Baltimore's harbor - uncover the Jones Falls" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:00 AM | | Comments (10)

February 28, 2011

Baltimore's drinking water at risk from shale gas waste?


The New York Times reports that radioactive contaminants in shale gas drilling wastewater are getting into the Susquehanna River and other Pennsylvania waterways because sewage treatment plants there are incapable of removing the contaminants.

The Times report is the latest to highlight risks to public health and the environment from the boom in drilling going on in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for large reserves of natural gas locked deep underground in Marcellus shale formations. High levels of radioactivity have been detected in the wastewater from rigs tapping gas using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking - or just plain fracking.

The Susquehanna is just one of three rivers mentioned in the Times report where radioactive wastewater may be going.  But it's the main tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, and a backup source of drinking water for the Baltimore region.

The Times report says drillers trucked at least half their wastewater to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009, while some also was shipped out of state to New York and West Virginia. The sewage plants are incapable of removing enough of the radioactive contaminants to meet drinking water standards, the Times reports.

That's a potential problem because some sewage plant discharges are upriver from other communities' drinking-water intakes. Yet neither the state nor the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring testing for radioactivity at most of the the plants taking the drilling wastewater, the paper reports. 

Maryland has yet to issue any permits for fracking for gas in the Marcellus shale deposits in Garrett and Allegany counties. Legislation is pending that would tighten state regulations for such drilling, or would delay any permits for up to two years so more study could be done of the risks and how to prevent harm to ground water or surface waters.

(Drilling rig in Pennsylvnia, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:25 PM | | Comments (5)

February 23, 2011

Builders offer to support weakened septic requirement

Overshadowed by the debate over Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid to curtail rural and suburban development on septic systems, jockeying has been taking place in Annapolis around a less sweeping but nonetheless significant proposal to require all new homes built on septic in Maryland to use advanced pollution removal technology.  Not everything is as it seems, though, with the proffer of support from the state's builders. 

HB 177 and its companion bill, SB160, would extend virtually statewide the law enacted two years ago that bars installation of conventional septic systems on land near the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coastal bays.  Similar statewide legislation was introduced in 2009, but its scope was whittled down to apply just to the 1,000 strip of waterfront known as the "Critical Area" around the bays and their tidal tributaries.

Environmentalists are backing this new statewide legislation, possibly as a fallback should the measure backed by O'Malley, HB1107 and SB846, not pass.  That bill would bar any development of five homes or more on septic systems and require less polluting advanced septics whenever individual homes or smaller projects are built beyond the reach of sewer lines.

Advocates point out that conventional septic systems leak nitrogen into ground water and streams, which contributes to the fouling of water quality in the bays.  Officials estimate there are 420,000 homes on septic systems in Maryland already, contributing 8 percent of the nitrogen responsible for algae blooms and the formation of a sprawling "dead zone" every summer in the Chesapeake.  A household on a conventional septic system releases up to 10 times as much nitrogen into the water as one where waste is piped to a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, state officials say.

Advanced septic systems can cut the nitrogen leakage in half, but they cost around $10,000 to $13,000 to install, thousands more than a conventional system.  For that reason, Realtors have come out against expanding the requirement for them, arguing that the added cost would deter some rural and suburban home sales in a still-weakened real estate market.

The Maryland State Builders Association, though, raised some eyebrows last week by offering to support the advanced septic requirement if it was amended to their liking.  The builders group opposes outright the more sweeping measure backed by Gov. O'Malley, so its backing of another major septic mandate would be noteworthy.  On closer inspection, however, one of the amendments the group proposes to the advanced septic requirement would carve out a massive loophole, severely limiting the reach of the new pollution control measure.

Continue reading "Builders offer to support weakened septic requirement" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:45 AM | | Comments (1)

February 22, 2011

Builders dispute case for limiting septic systems

The Maryland State Builders Association is taking a stand against the bill being pushed by the O'Malley administration that would limit future development in the state on septic systems.  Not exactly man bites dog, but they're joining rural lawmakers and Realtors against any significant change in where or how growth occurs. 

 They're calling the administration-backed bill, titled "The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2011,"  the "Anti-Growth and State Control Over Local Land Use Act”.   They argue that the bill, which has enthusiastic backing from environmental groups, would lead to "significantly heightened unemployment and massive damage to local tax bases."

"This bill is being justified as a measure to address Water Quality issues related to septic systems, when in fact, the focus of the bill is restriction of land use in rural areas of Maryland as an indirect means to force Smart Growth development,'' writes D. Stephen Seawright, the president of the builders group.  "By restricting the types and number of septic systems that can be used in rural areas, this measure provides the Maryland Department of Environment and Maryland Department of Planning with veto power over local land use decisions."

They question the state's projections that 145,000 more homes could be built on septic systems over the next 20 years, and contend that the impact of septic systems on bay water quality is overblown. 

"Over each of the past two years roughly 9,000 permits per year have been issued statewide for construction of single family homes," Seawright says, "with the State estimating that 20% of those permits are issued for homes in 'unplanned sewer service areas.' This means the 20 year projection is approximately 36,000 homes, not 145,000."

Of course, home construction has declined precipitously since the recession began.  The state's projection is based on the rate of home building before the market crashed.  But the builders' president argues that even if the pace of building recovers to double what it is now, that would produce only half the number of homes on septics that the state projects. 

The builders group also argues that not all of the nitrogen in household waste gets out of septic drain fields and into the bay.  State officials estimate that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent does make it to surface waters, depending on soil type, the depth of the water table and the distance to water.   State officials also say that a household using a conventional septic system releases up to 10 times as much nitrogen as one hooked up to state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant.

Continue reading "Builders dispute case for limiting septic systems" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:33 AM | | Comments (3)

Rural lawmaker tilts at metro areas' sewage sludge


If it's bad for the Chesapeake Bay to spread poultry manure and other feritilizer on farm fields in winter, why is it okay to do the same with sewage sludge?

That's the question being posed by Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader, with a bill he's introduced in Annapolis.  His bill, HB24, would require the Maryland Department of Agriculture to limit the application of sewage sludge in winter in the same way the spreading of animal manure is curtailed in cold-weather months.

The bill, which O'Donnell has put in before, has the backing of agricultural interests, who contend it's unfair to make farmers store their animals' manure in winter while allowing sewage sludge to be spread without the same restrictions.

But it's run into the usual buzzsaw of opposition from the county and municipal agencies that operate wastewater treatment plants.  They argue that they have no place to store the accumulating sludge during winter, and that building storage faciilities or else putting the stuff in landfills for 3 1/2 months would jack up utility customers' water and sewer bills.

"The opposition seems to be concerned with costs of the landfill alternative, and therefore would rather apply it to potentially frozen ground," O'Donnell wrote in an email. "This is akin to potentially dumping this stuff directly into the bay."

O'Donnell, who represents Calvert and St. Mary's County, is not known as a green legislator.  He has just an 18 percent lifetime score (out of 100) with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, though his votes last year earned him a 38 percent rating.

On this issue, though, he's managed to get at least one environmental group - the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - on his side.  

"This practice does not protect water quality," the Annapolis-based group said in its printed testimony submitted during the hearing on O'Donnell's bill earlier this month.  While cities, towns and counties might have to invest in building sludge storage facilities, CBF says it's necessary to keep excess nutrients from treated sewage out of ground water, streams and the bay.

Continue reading "Rural lawmaker tilts at metro areas' sewage sludge" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)

February 21, 2011

Septic limits a "war" on rural Maryland?

Is Gov. Martin O'Malley waging "war on rural Maryland" by calling for curbs on building new homes on  septic systems?  That's what a pair of Eastern Shore legislators contend.  Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, and Del. Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil, have accused him of trying a "power grab" to wrest control over land use from local offiicals.  They've even set up a website to that effect.

Rural folks being picked on by city dwellers and suburbanites: That's a familiar rallying cry in the seemingly endless struggle in this state over cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and over how - or even whether - to curb sprawl.

But in this case, where are the most septic tanks in Maryland?  The Baltimore metropolitan area, it seems. According to data supplied by the Maryland Department of Planning, the four counties with the highest number of homes on septic are: Anne Arundel, with 43,733; followed by Baltimore County, with 37,772; Carroll, with 31,061 and Harford, with 28,070.

In a way, that's not terribly surprising, since the metro areas are where the most people are, and there are portions of every county in the state not served by public water or sewer.

Of course, if you look at which counties have the highest percentage of homes on septic, it is mostly - but not exclusively - rural. Calvert County is tops, with a whopping 84 percent, according to state planning data, followed by St. Mary's County, with 70 percent, and then the Eastern Shore counties of Caroline and Wicomico (both 68 percent), Cecil (61 percent) and Carroll (59 percent).   But in some rural counties, like Allegany, Washington, Kent, Talbot and Worcester, homes with septic are in the minority.  Not such a clear divide.

To see all the data and map for yourself, go here.  Click on the + or - buttons at the bottom of the frame to zoom in so you can read the numbers and county names.

(One oddball footnote:  The state's map shows no septic tanks in Baltimore city, but in a followup email, planners report that there are about 5,000 there serving homes and nonresidential properties.  City public works officials say that only heavily industrial Hawkins Point isn't served by public sewer, and they couldn't confirm the state's figure or where those septic tanks might be.)

Of course, the bills in Annapolis are about limiting or changing the use of septics in future growth.  So where are the most homes on septic likely to be built in years to come?   Based on current zoning and planned sewer service, Carroll and Frederick are expected to add the most - 10,000 or more homes on septics each - by 2035, state planners project.   Next, they foresee 5,000 to 10,000 septic-served homes each going up in Washington, Harford, Cecil, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Prince George's, Charles and St. Mary's.

Somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 new homes on septic are forecast for each of these counties - Garrett, Howard, Baltimore, Calvert, Queen Anne's, Caroline, Wicomico and Worcester.  Lastly, Allegany, Kent, Talbot, Dorchester and Somerset counties - and almost entirely sewered Baltimore city - are expected to add the fewest septic systems, somewhere between none and 1,500 each over the next 25 years.

So when it comes to talking about changing or limiting development on septic systems, it's not so clear that rural counties would be most affected.  Maybe the Shore legislators want to amend the title of their website to: The War on Suburban and some of Rural Maryland?

(Map: Maryland Department of Planning.Baltimore Sun photo: Septic tank going in at Baltimore County home site, by Kim Hairston.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:00 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News

February 19, 2011

Bay 'diet' funding cut by House

The House has voted to block federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay "pollution diet," casting a cloud over the Obama administration's two-year-old effort to accelerate the long-delayed cleanup of the nation's largest estuary.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who sought the spending ban, hailed the vote late Friday night as "an important step in stopping the EPA’s regulatory power grab." He had introduced an amendment earlier this week barring EPA spending on the bay "total maximum daily load" as the Republican-led House prepared to order more than $60 billion in spending cuts across a wide array of health, environmental and social programs over the next seven months.

"These overzealous regulations will affect everyone who lives, works, and farms in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed," Goodlatte said in a statement reported by the Roanoke Times, "and the cost of complying with these requirements will be devastating during our current economic downturn, result in many billions of dollars in economic losses to states, cities and towns, farms and other businesses large and small.....I believe that each individual state, and the localities in each state, know better how to manage a state’s water quality goals than the bureaucrats at the EPA."

The 230-195 vote on Goodlatte's amendment split largely along party lines, with only eight Democrats joining Republicans in seeking to block the EPA's bay diet. Fifteen GOP members voted against the spending.

Maryland's two Republican congressmen, Andy Harris and Roscoe Bartlett, voted with the majority to block funding for the federal polution-reduction plan, which was finalized six weeks ago after more than two years of back-and-forth negotiations with Maryland and the other five states that drain into the bay.  The state's Democratic members opposed the blockage.

Continue reading "Bay 'diet' funding cut by House" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:54 PM | | Comments (0)

February 18, 2011

Eaglets on the way at Blackwater


Friends of Blackwater, the volunteer group supporting Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore, are atwitter over the imminent hatching of as many as three baby bald eagles there. 

You can join their vigil, via the group's Eagle Cam, which gives onlookers a bird's eye view of the nest.  The group has been watching the nest for a bit, and earlier recorded three eggs in it. They're expecting the first hatch any time now, though no obvious cracking has been spotted yet.  It'll take the chicks up to 24 hours to work their way out of the shell, so you can check in and out.  The cam gives new snapshots every 15 seconds.

The Friends have cameras tracking eagles and ospreys at the sprawling refuge, and they've got a neat blog explaining what's been happening and what to expect.  There's also video, which you can catch on YouTube.   Watch the male eagle bringing food to the female as she sits on the eggs, and other action around the refuge.

For those who can't get enough of our national bird, the refuge is having an Eagle Festival March 12.  Check it out here.

(Photos courtesy Friends of Blackwater)



Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:09 AM | | Comments (1)

February 15, 2011

Obama, House at odds over Bay funding


The Obama administration and the House Republican leadership appear set to tussle over federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort - along with almost every other environmental program.

While proposing to trim overall funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, the president's budget for fiscal 2012 requests $67.4 million for EPA's Chesapeake Bay program - $4.4 million more than he proposed for this year and $17 million above what the agency actually received in fiscal 2010. 

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, his spending plan also included an increase in federal funding for upgrading Washington's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant, the bay's largest, from $20 million last year to $25 million next year.  Though not specifically for the bay, overall federal conservation program funding - a portion of which would go to this region - would increase to $3.6 billion, up from $2.9 billion in 2010.

The Republican-dominated House, though, has other ideas, bidding to cut this year's bay funding along with the rest of EPA's budget.   (With Congress unable to agree on a budget for the current year, the federal government has been operating under a continuing funding resolution.)

Under cuts proposed by the House Appropriations Committee, EPA's Bay program would dip 20 percent to $40 million, while Blue Plains funding would be halved.   Other environmental and conservation programs, in which this region would share, also would get pared back.  Most notably, EPA's clean-water revolving fund, which helps states and communities finance upgrades to sewage treatment plants, would be cut by two-thirds, from $2.1 billion last year to $690 million.   The president proposed about a 30 percent reduction, to $1.55 billion.

Not surprisingly, the Annapolis-based bay foundation favors the Obama administration's plan to increase spending on the Chesapeake restoration effort over the "devastating cuts" the House would make not just in bay cleanup funding but in all clean-water programs. 

(News cameras record workers on Capitol Hill stacking Obama administration's 2012 budget.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:24 AM | | Comments (4)

February 11, 2011

In MD's "boomtown," Smart Growth still pollutes

The explosive, albeit planned development of Clarksburg in the Washington suburbs is testing whether Smart Growth and storm-water pollution laws really can prevent degradation of nearby streams. So far the results are not encouraging.

Clarksburg is the fastest growing place in Maryland, according to Census data released this week, with a population that skyrocketed 650 percent over the past decade to nearly 14,000. The growth there was planned - Montgomery County approved it as far back as 1994.  And though there are McMansions on large lots in outlying neighborhoods there, the detached and town homes clustered in Clarksburg's core certainly would qualify as Smart Growth.

So far, something like 2,700 homes and a half million square feet of offices and stores have been built or permitted, mostly on the eastern side of Interstate 270, with 8,900 homes and 3.7 million square feet of shopping and work space planned in the first three phases of this huge community.

But the project has not gone exactly as planned. As reported today in The Baltimore Sun, residents are still waiting for the shopping and other walk-to amenities that were promised as part of the massive development. Many neighborhood streets and roads are not complete.

Something else that was promised when the county decided to plant a community there has not gone as planned, either. Ten-Mile Creek, one of Montgomery County's last trout streams, was supposed to be shielded from harm, even though it flows past Clarksburg's town center.

"It's the most sensitive, most high-quality stream we have in Montgomery County," says Diane Cameron, conservation programs director for the Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Chevy Chase.  It also drains into Little Seneca Lake, a backup drinking-water supply for the county.

The county took what, at the time, seemed like extra precautions to protect this fragile stream.  It limited the amount of pavement and rooftops to 15 percent in the areas where most of the offices, stores and other businesses were planned.  It limited housing density in nearly two-thirds of the stream's watershed, required wider "conservation areas" along stream valleys east of the highway and designated the creek watershed a "special protection area."

But the "boomtown" effect of Clarksburg's rapid growth has apparently taken its toll, before the community is even half built out.  Overall, Ten-Mile Creek's health ranged from good to excellent, based on stream monitoring done by the county since 1994.  But since development began in the "special protection area," conditions in a portion of the headwaters east of I-270 have declined to just "fair," according to a 2009 county report

Continue reading "In MD's "boomtown," Smart Growth still pollutes" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:23 PM | | Comments (0)

February 9, 2011

Baltimore harbor's woes begin in suburbs

The trash and pollution that get into Baltimore's Inner Harbor tend to stay there because there's relatively little fresh-water flow to flush them out into the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay.

But contrary to what a lot of people may think, the harbor's degraded condition isn't solely the result of littering and poor housekeeping by the city's residents and businesses.

In fact, according to data presented last weekend at the Waterfront Partnership's conference on the state of the harbor, a lot of the trash in the water comes from far upstream -- in the suburbs.

More than 400 pounds of detritus has been collected in a single day at various points in the Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls in Baltimore County, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which is preparing a report card assessing the harbor's condition.

That's why Baltimore County residents as well as city dwellers are going to be put on the spot by state environmental regulators to help clean up the harbor.   The Maryland Department of the Environment is expected to issue orders next year to the city and county to get - and keep - the debris out of the water. 

And another order is in the works to reduce unsafe levels of bacteria in the water, believed to be primarily from sewage leaks and pet waste washing into streams and storm drains in both the city and the county. As with trash, bacteria levels in the streams that flow into the harbor are often so high that anyone coming in contact with the water risks illness or infection.

The Waterfront Partnsership is working on a plan for making the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.  To learn more about it, go here.  Do you think it's do-able?  What would you like to see done?  And what would you be willing to do?

(Image courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:56 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News, Urban Issues

Dueling polls: 'Stick to jobs,' or 'save the Bay'?

Do Marylanders want their government to focus for now on creating jobs over cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay? Or do they think water pollution is a serious problem that will need more government regulation - and maybe some more of taxpayers' money - to reduce?

Those are the seemingly conflicting messages that emerge from a pair of public opinion surveys done in recent weeks - one at the behest of the state's builders, the other at the bidding of a state-funded environmental grant-making group.

More than four out of five Maryland voters want the O'Malley administration to put a higher priority on creating jobs than on restoring the bay, according to the poll done in January by Gonzales Research & Marketing Inc. of Annapolis for the Maryland State Builders Association.

According to the same telephone survey of 802 registered voters, more than half - 57 percent - say economic growth should be the state's main focus, even if it means the environment suffers in the process.  And a slim majority - 53 percent - say they're not willing to pay a penny more for bay cleanup and restoration.

On the other hand, in a late December telephone poll of 1,005 Marylanders, 64 percent rated water pollution in rivers, streams and the bay as a very serious problem.  The survey was done by OpinionWorks, also of Annapolis, on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In that poll, nearly three-quarters, or 71 percent, said they think government regulation will be needed to address it.   Seventy-three percent back the concept, at least, of the "pollution diet" that the Environmental Protection Agency has imposed on bay states.

Continue reading "Dueling polls: 'Stick to jobs,' or 'save the Bay'?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:06 AM | | Comments (4)

February 8, 2011

Maryland aging infrastucture gets poor marks


Maryland's state and local governments are not spending enough money to control storm-water pollution and aren't doing enough either to keep up public water and wastewater systems, according to a new report card.

The Maryland section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the whole state a D for its generally anemic storm-water cleanup efforts, a C-minus to the Baltimore area for inadequate drinking-water reservoirs and aging water distribution pipes, and a C for the region's aging, leaking and overflowing sewer system.

Harsh as those grades seem, each of them was at least a little better than the average grade the engineers' group gave for the nation as a whole. The report card rated all kinds of infrastructure, including transit, roads, bridges and dams. Overall, the state got a C-minus.

(Man on porch watches flooding of Baltimore's Argonne Drive from broken 42-inch water main.  2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:17 PM | | Comments (2)

February 4, 2011

Poaching triggers shutdown of rockfish season

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is pulling the plug on gill-netting for rockfish, The Sun's outdoors writer Candy Thomson reports, after finding 10 tons of the prized fish in illegally set nets off Kent Island this week. 

The state's also offering a reward of at least $6,000 for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the poachers who set the nets, Candy reports.

Natural Resources police have recovered a series of untended, anchored nets, which are illegal, in the past few days.  Properly set gill nets must float and be marked and monitored by fishermen.

The early shutdown of the commercial gill-net season, which was supposed to run all month, was supported by Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. Candy quotes him saying it's "the safest thing to do" to ensure that the illegal haul of rockfish doesn't put the state over the limit on how many can be caught sustainably.

(Natural Resources police unloading illegally caught rockfish.  DNR photo)


Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:08 PM | | Comments (1)

February 2, 2011

Maryland farmers set cover crop record - with an asterisk

Maryland farmers planted a record amount of pollution-absorbing cover crops last fall, state officials announced this week, sowing nearly 400,000 acres with rye, barley, wheat and other grains.  While it's indisputably good news for the Chesapeake Bay that so many fields got covered, official ballyhoo about the planting surpassing the state's bay cleanup goal needs needs a little perspective.

The state, it must be remembered, reduced its target for cover crop plantings last year after a disappointing response by farmers in fall 2009 to efforts by the state to get them to sign up for the government-funded, voluntary pollution control effort.

Runoff from farm fields is one of the major sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus that spur algae blooms every spring in the bay, forming a vast "dead zone" on the bottom where fish and crabs can't enough oxygen from the water to survive long.   Research has found that planting "cover crops" in the fall after harvesting corn and soybeans is one of the most effective things farmers can do to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields.  So the state offers to pay farmers to put in crops that will overwinter, and consume those leftover plant nutrients in the soil. 

Officials originally had set their sights on getting 460,000 acres covered by this fall, nearly double what farmers had put in in 2008 and roughly half of all the state's croplands.  But plantings actually declined in the fall of 2009, a drop attributed mainly to rainy weather keeping farmers out of their fields until it was too late to get cover crops in the ground before winter.

Continue reading "Maryland farmers set cover crop record - with an asterisk" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:22 PM | | Comments (2)

January 30, 2011

Healing the harbor - 'the time is now'

After decades - no, centuries - of abuse and neglect, Baltimore's ailing harbor may finally be getting the attention it needs.

Concerned citizens, scientists and community and business leaders have come together to take a hard look at how to heal the northwest and middle branches of the Patapsco River, the most degraded tributary in the Chesapeake Bay.

It won't be easy. As I report in today's Baltimore Sun, the harbor is continually assaulted by torrents of trash, sewage leaks, pet manure and other pollution washing off streets and parking lots whenever it rains. Its sediments also are contaminated in many places, largely a legacy of the city's industrial and shipping past.

There's still plenty of life in the water - crabs, rockfish, white perch, even a roving Florida manatee apparently camped out here last summer. It's just not that hospitable to people, littered with flotsam and jetsam and with "shockingly high" levels of potentially disease-causing bacteria, particularly after heavy rains but nearly all the time in some places.   To see where the harbor's funy (and relatively clean), check out this interactive map.  People also are warned to limit their consumption of crabs and certain fish caught there because they may harbor low levels of toxic contaminants. 

The stuff fouling the water didn't get there overnight, and it didn't just come from waterfront neighborhoods. It's washing into the harbor from the Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls, which drain most of the city and much of suburban Baltimore County as well. Those streams are degraded as well, and the city has even posted some signs along them warning folks not to touch the water.

Watershed activists have been working for years to repair the Gwynns and Jones falls, and Herring Run as well, which drains northeast Baltimore into Back River - another of the bay's sickest tributaries, for much of the same reasons. They've made some progress, and in the past year have merged to form a new, unified watershed group, Blue Water Baltimore, that aims to be an even stronger force for cleaning and greening the area.

They've been joined by business leaders, in the form of the Waterfront Partnership, who've drawn new attention to the harbor's ills and launched a campaign to make it swimmable and fishable by 2020.  The partnership is working on a plan for achieving that, and it's holding a one-day conference on the state of the harbor Saturday (full to capacity, as of late last week - another sign of public engagement)

Given the magnitude of what needs fixing, advocates acknowledge it's ambitious, and probably overly optimistic to think all the harbor could ever be safe to swim in, much less in a decade.  But even if it's a stretch, it's clear there's some momentum now for restoring Baltimore's watery heart that wasn't there before. Partnership chairman Michael Hankin says "the time is now to do this."

What do you think? What'll it take to make the harbor swimmable and fishable?  What are you doing to help? What would you be willing to do?

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:28 AM | | Comments (3)

January 26, 2011

Green hopes in Annapolis ride on offshore wind

Hundreds of environmental activists rallied in Annapolis yesterday evening to show their support for green legislative action in the General Assembly.  There'll be plenty of bills to keep them busy, from boosting offshore wind to clamping down on lawn fertilizer, banning arsenic in chicken feed and taxing plastic shopping bags. But a key legislative leader suggested out of activists' hearing that the "big ticket" - and most contentious - measures likely will have to wait until next year.

Enhancing offshore wind energy prospects, requiring communities to address polluted runoff and protecting state environmental programs from budget cuts are the top priorities of the state's green groups.  Buoyed by yesterday's turnout - and the presence of green-leaning elected leaders in the governor's office and General Assembly - activists vowed to make their voices heard.

"We are the faces no longer of tomorrow. We are the faces of today," Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker said.  Politicians who ignore envirionmentalists "do so at their peril,"  he concluded, to applause.

Adding to the greens' sense of optimism was the appearance before them of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who's promoted recycling, renewable energy and other environmental programs in his affluent, suburban county.  Ulman is  president this year of the Maryland Association of Counties, a group that's often opposed environmentalists  in Annapolis, especially in their push for tougher "smart growth" legislation to curb suburban sprawl.  Ulman told the group he personally supports their goals, though he can't guarantee that most other county officials will go along with him.

"You have a friend," he told the activists. But he cautioned, "you don't have a miracle worker."  

Continue reading "Green hopes in Annapolis ride on offshore wind" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:00 AM | | Comments (1)

January 24, 2011

Shell game: Study finds oysters could help clean Bay


As farmers sue and local officials complain (so far) over what's being asked of them to help finally restore the Chesapeake Bay, we keep hearing the refrain that the "real" answer to cleaning up the bay is getting more oysters back in it to filter out the nutrients causing water-quality problems.

Instead of squeezing more pollution reductions out of farmers, developers and municipalities, it is asked, why not do more to promote oyster aquaculture? Could oyster farming be the answer to a cleaner bay?  Now comes a federally funded study that puts the idea in perspective.

It's well-established that oysters are good filter feeders. Scientists have estimated that in their heyday more than a century ago, the bay's bivalves were so abundent they could process all the water in the Chesapeake in a matter of days.  The bay has lost 99 percent of its native oyster population, however, to overharvesting, habitat loss and disease. 

Biologists at Virginia Commonwealth University took up the question.  They measured the nutrient removal capacity of the native Eastern oyster at two aquaculture facilities raising the bivalves in floating rafts. In their study, published in the current issue of Journal of Environmental Quality, researchers calculate that eight large-scale oyster farms, each harvesting one million oysters three inches in diameter, could remove one ton of nitrogen from the bay.  The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"In terms of nutrients removed per unit area," the study abstract concludes, "oyster harvest is an effective means of nutrient removal compared with other nonpoint source reduction strategies." 

Perhaps, but there's a certain matter of scale.  The EPA estimates that to improve the bay's water quality, Maryland and all the other bay watershed states need to reduce the amounts of nitrogen getting into the bay from their sewage plants, farms, lawns and streets by some 63 million pounds annually.  That's 31,500 tons, if my math is correct.  Eight large-scale oyster farms per ton means we need more than 240,000 of them to do the trick.

Continue reading "Shell game: Study finds oysters could help clean Bay" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:30 AM | | Comments (12)

January 21, 2011

How wasteful are we, really?


Is Baltimore a throwaway community?   There's a ranking out of the least wasteful cities in the US of A, and good ol' Baltimore comes in 16th. We're behind the usually crunchy places like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, but also trailing New York and Pittsburgh, even Dallas and Orlando.

The ranking - which I saw on Mother Nature Network - is the second done by Nalgene, the reusable drink bottle maker, and Baltimore actually dropped four places since 2009, when we were judged 12th least wasteful.  Guess we're getting worse.

Or rather, should I say, when we judged ourselves - because the rankings are based on a survey in which about 150 residents from each of the 25 cities rated were asked to score themselves on 23 different behaviors and practices that are either wasteful or frugal.

Here's some of the things our city's participants in the survey say we don't do:

- hanging clothes out to dry when possible

- limiting showers to five minutes

- composting fruit and veggie scraps

- turning off the water when brushing teeth.

Of course, some of the top cities have a head start on establishing social norms around some of these behaviors.  San Francisco, for instance, has the nation's strictest recycling law, it seems, which has sparked a big jump in residents composting their food scraps.

Continue reading "How wasteful are we, really?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:28 PM | | Comments (5)

January 20, 2011

Perdue going solar

Perdue plans to harness the sun to help run its Delmarva-based poultry and grain empire.

The company announced Wednesday that it would install more than 11,000 solar panels - covering the equivalent of 10 football fields - at its corporate headquarters in Salisbury and at its feed mill in Bridgeville, Del.

The company, one of the largest in the chicken business, says its solar play will be one of the biggest on the East Coast.

The panels, made by Standard Solar based in Rockville, will actually be owned and operated by Washington Gas Energy Services Inc.

Perdue signed a 15-year agreement to buy the electricity produced by the panels - 3,700 megawatt hours of electricity a year, on average, the company says, which it estimates is roughly what it takes to power 340 homes. Of course, since the sun doesn't shine all the time, the amount generated at any one time will vary.

Steve Schwalb, Perdue’s vice president of environmental sustainability, estimated the electricity from the solar panels will reduce Perdue’s carbon footprint by 3,000 tons per year. 

(Stock photo, Standard Solar) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:23 AM | | Comments (2)

January 14, 2011

State backtracking on environmental education?

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is crying foul over a new state regulation supposedly requiring all Maryland high school students to learn about the environment.

The Annapolis-based environmental group says the state Department of Education has left a "giant loophole" in the rule it proposed earlier this month that would allow school districts to avoid doing anything more or different to educate their students about the environment.

"In September, the Maryland State Board of Education voted unanimously to make environmental literacy part of the curriculum," my colleague Liz Bowie reported today in The Baltimore Sun. "However, it is not clear whether the vote made it a graduation requirement."

The board's vote, which came at the urging of a task force appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, left it up to local public school systems to decide how to make sure their students learn about environmental science and policy, but required each district to report on what it's doing every five years.  

The new regulation, published Jan. 3, says students can fulfill the environmental literacy requirement by taking social studies or science courses or an AP Environmental Science course.  Or, it says, they could take a locally developed environmental science course. It does not specifically state that environmental topics must be included in the social studies or science courses.

Continue reading "State backtracking on environmental education?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:20 PM | | Comments (1)

Van Hollen: Bay bill might get pared down

Maryland's congressional delegation intends to take another run at getting new federal legislation to strengthen the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, said this week, but he cautions that advocates may have to settle for smaller "short-term" gains in Congress instead of the controversial measure that died there last year.

Speaking to the Choose Clean Water conference in Washington on Tuesday night, Van Hollen, co-chairman of the congressional Chesapeake Bay Watershed Task Force , said, "We know it's going to be a big fight" and acknowledged that with Republicans seizing the majority in the House in the November elections, "the fight got a little harder."

The bay bill introduced by Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin cleared the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last summer.  But despite compromises Cardin agreed to to win over Republican critics of expanding federal authority over water quality - changes that some environmentalists contended weakened the measure - farming lobbies continued to oppose it, and it never came to the Senate floor for a debate and vote.  A similar House bill spearheaded by Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings never got out of committee. 

Cardin has already said he intends to reintroduce the legislation and still hopes for its ultimate passage.  But Van Hollen told activists at the clean-water conference that if resistance by Republicans and even some Democrats to last year's bay bill remains unabated, a "short-term" approach may be to push for some elements of the original measure, such as the portion meant to encourage farmers to participate in programs states are setting up to trade nutrient pollution credits.


Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:35 AM | | Comments (2)

January 13, 2011

Report finds immigration at heart of Bay's woes

Environmentalists often get uncomfortable when asked if people - and their growing numbers - aren't the underlying problem in the Chesapeake Bay's decline.

Now comes a report that'll make everyone even more skittish, because it calculates that immigrants and their children accounted for two-thirds of the population growth in the bay's six-state watershed in the past decade.  And in Maryland, they represented 98 percent - nearly all - of the state's increase in residents.

"The leading environmental groups dedicated (to) cleaning up the Bay recognize the harmful effects of population growth on the Bay but do not acknowledge that immigration is driving population growth in the watershed," says the report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The Washington-based group says it's drawing a bead on the Chesapeake because the Bay's woes are "symptomatic of the impact that immigration-driven population growth is having across the United States. The difference is that the population in the Bay's watershed has already grown beyond the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. 

"The question is not whether the Bay is going to suffer the consequences of excessive growth," it goes on.  "The question is whether the Bay can recover from the immense damage already inflicted upon it."

There's no question that people - and their demands for food, energy, housing and transportation - are at the heart of the Bay's woes.  The chemical fertilizer and manure fouling the waters are produced by or for people.  The bay cleanup effort to date has managed to make only patchy gains in the face of an ever-increasing population - 17 million now, with 150,000 more every year. Longtime author and journalist Tom Horton has written an Abell Foundation report looking at the impact growth has had on the Bay.

FAIR is using the Bay to push its national advocacy for a stricter crackdown on illegal immigration, and for reduced levels of legal immigration as well. It's an emotional issue, because many American families can trace their lineage to foreign shores, and the United States has a long tradition of drawing people here from other countries in search of greater freedom or economic opportunity.

Environmental activists, while acknowledging population's impact, often say there are other things, more in the control of the region's residents, for reducing the impacts the current and future residents that could be done before tackling the thorny issue of immigration reform.  Such as Smart growth, for example, getting everyone to reduce their individual environmental footprint.

What do you think?  Is immigration a problem for the Bay, much less THE problem?  Would limiting entry to this country, legally or illegally, help repair the Chesapeake?  Even if you think it might, would wading into the political minefield of national immigration policy tear apart the already fragile coalition of people and groups working on the current cleanup effort?

(Chesapeake Bay Bridge walk, 2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Jerry Jackson)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:03 PM | | Comments (12)

Conference coming on 'State of Harbor'

Hoping to do something about arguably the most degraded water body in the Chesapeake Bay, a coalition of waterfront businesses, environmental activists and others is holding a conference Feb. 5 on the state of Baltimore's harbor and what's needed to make it swimmable and fishable.

Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, will be the keynote speaker for the day-long session. Other luminaries expected include Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-MD.

But the published agenda indicates the session will go beyond glitz to plumb the reasons for the dismal condition of the lower Patapsco River and hear about efforts to restore other urban waters, in places like Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. There'll also be discussions of what it'll take to reduce trash and pollution here, and how to pay for it.

The conference is hosted by the Waterfront Partnership, which along with the National Aquarium put tiny floating wetlands in the Inner Harbor last summer to see if they can help restore fish habitat and water quality. The man-made marsh was the first tangible, if token, step in a campaign the partnership announced in the spring to make Baltimore's harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020.

It's no understatement to say it will be a huge challenge. The Patapsco and Back rivers earned a failing grade in the latest report card on the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.  The harbor itself is trash strewn and often unsanitary, with long-standing warnings against eating bottom-feeding fish caught there because of toxic contaminants in the muck on the harbor floor.  But undaunted advocates hope to change all that.

The conference runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Legg Mason building in Harbor East. It's open to the public, though advance registration is required. Go here to do that or for more info.

(Ducks swim amid floating trash near Canton, 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:08 PM | | Comments (1)

January 12, 2011

Greens plan State House 'swarm' for offshore wind

Today's the opening day of Maryland's General Assembly, and supporters of developing offshore wind power plan to "swarm" the State House to press legislators to make it a priority, even as they are preoccupied with closing a massive budget gap.   Lawmakers gather at noon to launch the 90-day session.

Environmental activists and union leaders have joined forces this year to seek legislation that would require power companies to sign long-term contracts with developers of offshore wind projects. They contend that's needed to overcome the financing hurdles the fledgling industry faces.

Winds off the Atlantic coast are much stronger and more reliable than they are over land, where all industrial wind turbines have been placed so far.   Not everyone agrees, though, that offshore wind deserves another push from government.

Professor Benjamin F. Hobbs, director of the Environment, Energy, Sustainability & Health Institute at Johns Hopkins University, contends that mandating development of offshore wind in that way would do little for the environment while boosting energy costs consumers must pay.   Better, he says, to let the market decide which forms of renewable energy are the most economical.

"Offshore wind power plants are slightly more productive than onshore wind plants but not enough to make up for the much greater construction and transmission costs (as much as double onshore costs)," Hobbs wrote in a letter published last week in The Baltimore Sun. He said he'd concluded that after conducting a study comparing the costs of offshore wind development versus onshore in Great Britain.

(Wind turbines off Germany, AFP/Getty 2010)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:20 AM | | Comments (0)

January 6, 2011

Puzzling bird, fish kills drive some humans batty

Dead fish washing up in the Chesapeake Bay, birds falling from the sky in Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky, plus assorted other wildlife dropping in places like Brazil, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

What in the world is going on?

Maybe nothing more than some unusually nasty weather. But that hasn't stopped some anxious and even alarmed folk from speculating about a wildlife holocaust triggered by, you name it: pesticides ("what are they spraying?" one emailer asked), lingering poisons from the Gulf oil spill or "the end," as in of time.

The dead blackbirds and grackles really are puzzling to me, though wildlife biologists have suggested fierce night-time storms, lightning and possibly even some New Year's Eve fireworks or gunfire - or a combination of those and other factors - might've led to their demise.

That probably wouldn't explain the dead fish reported in Arkansas, but authorities there are investigating the possibility of disease - again, not an unknown phenomenon.

As for the bay fish kill, turns out it's mainly juvenile spot and some croaker, and biologists suspect the unusually sudden and severe drop in water temperatures in late December did them in. It's not unheard of - there've been other, even bigger winter fish kills in the bay in similar circumstances. And there's been no immediate indication of any pollution or other water-quality problem that might've put the fish in harm's way.

Authorities are investigating, though they caution that the bay fish may be too decomposed to really determine what killed them.

Is there anything connecting these disparate events? I kind of like my colleague Frank Roylance's suggestion, made on his weather blog, that the Internet's to blame.  Not for the wildlife deaths, but for enabling folks to rapidly connect so many disparate dots and see an alarming pattern.

As journalists, we're in the business of connecting dots, so I understand the tendency. We live for unmasking previously unnoticed, slowly developing trends and hidden, nefarious plots. But sometimes, a series of similar events is just a coincidence, not conspiracy.

We may - or may not - ultimately find out what killed these critters. I'll be waiting for the final reports. Meanwhile, I'm not ready to stock up just yet, on food, ammo or even toilet paper.

(Dead fish in Northwest Creek, MD Dept of Environment; dead birds in Pointe Coupee Parish, La.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:10 AM | | Comments (27)

January 4, 2011

MD threatens lawsuits over coal ash pollution


The Maryland Department of the Environment has formally threatened to sue the operator of three coal-fired power plants in the state for allegedly polluting ground and surface water with coal ash it's dumping in two unlined landfills.

MDE issued notices of intent to sue Mirant Mid-Atlantic, LLC and Mirant Maryland Ash Management, LLC in federal court over ash disposal at Westland or Dickerson in Montgomery County and Faulkner in Charles County.

The action comes after a federal lawsuit filed by the state last year against Mirant over ash disposal at a third landfill in Brandywine in Prince George's County. The agency also has a pending lawsuit in state court over the Faulkner ash landfill, but said in a news release it now plans to consolidate all the cases in federal court.

The state contends that the company continues to dump its coal combustion byproducts in unlined landfills, despite 2008 state regulations requiring liners for ash disposal facilities.   State officcials said toxic substances in the ash are leaching into ground water and nearby surface waters, though they add that levels of contamination so far seem to pose no health risk to nearby residents.

Atlanta-based Mirant merged last year with GenOn Energy, a Houston power company. Spokeswoman Misty Allen emailed that the company disagrees with MDE's interpretation of the federal Clean Water Act and would litigate the matter if the state does file suit.  GenOn has proposed a new ash recycling plant in Charles County to replace its landfills, though regulators have yet to approve it.

Continue reading "MD threatens lawsuits over coal ash pollution" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:06 PM | | Comments (1)

January 3, 2011

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." 

Continue reading "Looking back - and ahead" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:19 PM | | Comments (0)

December 30, 2010

Bay goes on a diet - will it stick?


Just in time for New Year's -- the time when many of us resolve to give up bad habits -- the Environmental Protection Agency has put the Chesaepeake Bay on a "pollution diet."  Will this resolution stick better than most of our morning-after vows?

This massive reducing plan - 200 pages, 800 pages of appendices and 3,100 pages of responses to public comments - calls for Maryland, the District of Columbia and the other five states in the bay's 64,000-mile watershed to cut back by 20 to 25 percent on the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment getting into the water.  

Though they're often called pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus are really nutrients, essential for plants to grow and thrive.  The bay would be practically lifeless if it was totally devoid of any nutrients.  But like a person who eats too much, a water body gorging on nutrients gets out of whack, with massive algae blooms and "dead zones" in the water where oxygen levels have dropped below what fish and shellfish need to survive. 

Ergo, the diet.  EPA gives the states 15 years to do what's needed to make those reductions, though Maryland, vowing to lead the way, has pledged to do its share by 2020.

A decade or more may seem like a long lead time, but these pollution reductions won't be easy, because they'll require costly upgrades of sewage treatment plants, replacement of household septic systems and determined efforts to cut back on the amounts of animal manure and fertilizer washing into local streams, rivers and ultimately the bay.  Maryland alone estimates it could be required to spend upwards of $10 billion more over the next decade.

Even with the long lead time, the task seems daunting, unrealistic, even preposterous to some.  Farmers, developers and some local and state officials are restive, particularly in upstream states far from the bay.  Members of New York's congressional delegation, many of them Democrats, had appealed to EPA to hold off on requiring pollution reductions their constituents weren't sold on.

But this day has been a long time coming.  Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, reminded me that the state, local and federal "partners" in the long-running bay cleanup effort agreed more than a decade ago to go with a legally enforceable EPA-imposed pollution diet if their mostly voluntary and cooperative efforts to that point failed to reduce nutrients enough by this year.  They didn't come close, just as most goals and deadlines have been missed since the bay restoration effort began 27 years ago.

Continue reading "Bay goes on a diet - will it stick?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:20 PM | | Comments (1)

December 28, 2010

Report says Bay improving, but still ailing

With its crab population rebounding and water quality slightly better, the Chesapeake Bay is showing signs of improvement, the region's leading environmental group says, but the estuary remains seriously impaired and needs a strict pollution "diet" to ensure its restoration.

The Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation upped the estuary's overall health score by three points in its latest "state of the bay" report, while warning that it remains in critical condtion, barely above a failing grade.

"That the bay is getting better is a huge development, but sadly not the whole story," William C. Baker, the foundation's president, said in a release accompanying the report. "Dead zones, fish kills and water contact advisories are constant reminders of how far we still must go."

The report comes as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to release its final "pollution diet" for the bay, requiring Maryland and the rest of the six-state region to curtail the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment getting into the water from sewage plants, farms and urban and suburban lands. The EPA's draft "total maximum daily load," as the diet is known, has stirred anxiety and anger among farmers, developers and some state and local officials, who fear the costs of cleanup may stifle growth.

The foundation's report says the EPA's action occurs at a watershed, as eight of 13 indicators of the bay's health have improved since 2008, with the dramatic recovery of the Chesapeake's blue crab population leading the way. Other significant gains came in planting of trees along water ways to buffer pollution, and in the continued flourishing of underwater grasses, vital habitat for fish and crabs.

Water clarity, dissolved oxygen and oysters also improved slightly, but remained marginal at best, the foundation's report notes.

"We are at a tipping point," the foundation's Baker said.  "If EPA stands firm, and the states deliver on their commitments, the bay will become resilient and beautiful."

(Aerial view of Chesapeake tidal marsh, creek, forest and farmlands. Photo by Jane Hawkey, IAN Image Library

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

December 23, 2010

Feds to be forced to pay for storm-water pollution

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin may have lost one big fish - his Chesapeake Bay cleanup bill - amid partisan wrangling as Congress wraps up for the year. But he did succeed with another, less sweeping environmental measure he sponsored that will require the federal government to pay local fees for controlling storm-water pollution.

The bill, which now heads to the president's desk, was prompted by recent legal decisions that failed to require federal agencies to pay for efforts to reduce pollution washing off the roofs and pavement of their facilities.   Courts have routinely held that federal property is exempt from state and local taxation.

But Cardin noted that communities across the country are being stuck with the costs of treating pollution from civilian and military federal buildings and land.   The biggest dispute is in Washington, D.C., seat of the federal government, where unpaid local storm-water fees have piled up to $2.4 million.

The Maryland Democrat's bill drew bipartisan support, and one of its cosponsors was Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-OK, with whom Cardin had sparred early on over his Chesapeake bill.  In this case, though, Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to agree.

"At stake has been a fundamental issue of equity," Cardin said in a statement, which went on. "polluters should be financialy responsible for the pollution that they cause, including the federal government."

(Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:00 PM | | Comments (1)

December 22, 2010

Bay bill falters in lame-duck Senate

The Chesapeake Bay bill supported by environmentalists and opposed by farmers and developers apparently has missed its last chance of passage this year - and maybe for some time, if ever.

Bay Daily blogger Tom Pelton reports that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has given up on seeking a vote on an omnibus lands and waterways bill that included the Chesapeake legislation pushed by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md. An aide to Reid told Pelton that the measure failed to garner the 60 votes needed to override a threatened filibuster by Republican senators.

The measure would have held bay states legally accountable for their cleanup plans and offered more federal money to control storm-water pollution. It had the ardent support of some environmental groups, notably Pelton's Chesapeake Bay Foundation, though other activists contended the bill had been watered down to appease opponents.

Agriculture interests were not mollilfied, however, and lobbied hard to block the measure, warning senators from other regions that the bay measure would expand federal regulatory power and impose economic hardship on their states' farmers.

UPDATE:  Cardin said in a telephone interview that he intends to try again next year, though he acknowledges the Republican takeover of the House makes it much less likely any legislation will pass boosting the federal government's regulatory authority.

Continue reading "Bay bill falters in lame-duck Senate" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:40 AM | | Comments (1)

Study confirms that old Bay sinking feeling

Talk about good news-bad news: A new study finds that sea level isn't rising in the Chesapeake Bay as fast as it is elsewhere, but the region's land is sinking so rapidly it more than makes up for it.

After reviewing satellite measurements and tide gauge data, researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science concluded that absolute sea level is rising only about 1.8 millimeters a year in the bay - less than a tenth of an inch. That's just a little more than half the annual average sea-level rise of 3.1 millimeters that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change figured is happening globally.

But tide gauges from Baltimore to Norfolk show relative sea-level rise of 2.9 to 5.8 millimeters a year - more than is seen anywhere else along the East Coast. The difference must reflect local land subsidence, the VIMS scientists say. The bay region is gradually sinking because of shifts in land resulting from the melting of polar ice caps after the last Ice Age, a comet striking near the mouth of the bay millions of years ago, recent local ground-water withdrawals and other factors.

Overall, the study confirms what scientists have been saying for some time, that land subsidence accounts for about half the sea level rise seen in the Chesapeake.   The research, lead by VIMS' John Boon, was underwritten by the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District and reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and by the Maryland Geological Survey.

The scientists say from the data they analyzed they couldn't tell for sure whether sea level rise in the bay is accelerating, as global-warming models predict it will worldwide. But the bad news, they note, is that the bay's already rapid relative sea-level rise shows no signs of letting up.

(Bay Bridge from Sandy Point State Park.  2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:21 AM | | Comments (0)

December 14, 2010

Got questions about environmental justice?


Ever wonder where's the justice in how environmental protections are applied?  Here's your chance to ask.  Obama administration officials and environmental leaders plan to convene the first-ever White House forum on environmental justice Wednesday, and the public is invited to tune in and participate online.

"Green" jobs, "clean" energy and adaptation to climate change will be among the topics covered at the day-long session, which will generally focus on ensuring a clean, healthy environment for all, including poor communities.  Top administration officials slated to speak include Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Attorney General Eric Holder.

The proceedings will be streamed online live at  And there'll be a live question-and-answer session at 12:50 p.m. EST. Members of the public can pose queries via the White House Facebook page,

For more on environmental justice, in Maryland and elsewhere, go here.

(EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announcing her agency's finding that climate-altering greenhouse gases are a threat to human health, December 2009.  AFP photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:00 PM | | Comments (0)

December 13, 2010

What price MD's energy future?

As giant wind turbines start generating power atop the highest ridge in western Maryland, they raise questions anew about what price we're paying, environmentally, for our energy choices.

The towering windmills, visible for miles around, represent "green," renewable energy of the future to many.  But they've become lightning rods for debate about their impact on wildlife and on scenic mountain vistas.

Increasingly visible, too, is the extraction of coal, one of Appalachia's oldest energy sources. We get half or more of our electricity from coal-burning power plants, but the fossil fuel is a major contributor to climate change, and the ash left over from burning it poses disposal challenges.  Though mining is down from historic levels in western Maryland, surface mines have grown in the past decade and crept closer to towns such as Frostburg.   A new underground mine near Grantsville also prepares to tunnel under the Casselman River, home to such remarkable but rare species as the hellbender salamander.  Many of the region's streams still suffer from acidic water draining from old abandoned mines.

The biggest buzz these days, though, is coming over prospects for tapping previously unexploited natural gas reserves locked in Marcellus shale deposits underlying Garrett and western Allegany counties.  Hoping to cash in on a boom that's already under way in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia, landowners in Garrett have leased or sold rights to drill beneath 124,000 acres, more than a quarter of the county.

But the extraction method, called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," has proven controversial, with critics saying it's responsible for gas leaking into nearby residents' wells and for contaminating streams and ground water. Industry officials say problems have been overblown but they've tightened up operations anyway.

Regulators say they're seeing to it that current mining operations aren't adding to the region's water quality woes, and they vow to require "state of the art" environmental controls on drilling for for gas in Maryland's Marcellus shale - if any at all is permitted. 

That's not enough for some, who want legislation to ban any shale gas drilling until the state overhauls its regulations to impose safeguards.  Some also want to put a hold on any more utility-scale wind projects in Garrett - a third is in planning - until the county establishes some requirements there for buffering them from homes and decommissioning them when they're shut down. 

Read more about the state's conflicted energy frontier in The Baltimore Sun.  And check out the video of the wind turbines, some of them already spinning.

(Constellation Energy's Criterion wind project in Garrett County, Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston; aerial photo western Maryland surface mine by Jim Dougherty for Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:15 AM | | Comments (5)

December 10, 2010

Composting takes root in West B'more

By now, it seems, a lot of workplaces have gotten into recycling, at least of paper. One office in West Baltimore, though, has taken the plunge into composting - turning coffee grounds, food scraps, paper and other biodegradable refuse into plant food.

A handfull of workers at the Bon Secours of Maryland Foundation started this summer by collecting office paper and old grounds from their West Fulton Street building and combining them with grass clippings and leaves in a compost bin at a nearby community garden run by Operation Reachout-Southwest, a resident-led grassroots organization.

But before long, the initiative of the "Clean and Green" crew spread.  Other staffers began bringing in scraps from the previous night's dinner, old produce and paper and other refuse from home.   Some say they're now composting at home as well.

"Co-workers who at first thought we were crazy started saying, 'I didn't know it was that easy,'" says Erika McClammy, the foundation's director of housing and neighborhood revitalization and head of the effort to raise employees' green awareness.

"I was surprised at how man things we use can go back to the earth,'' says Latera Wallace, a Bon Secours employee.  "I spend so much money every year buying topsoil and mulch for my mother who gardens, when I could have saved money by creating compost just from things around the house."

Continue reading "Composting takes root in West B'more" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:30 PM | | Comments (4)

December 9, 2010

Series chronicles Bay's pioneering oyster farmers

For those who love oysters - and if we want to save the Chesapeake Bay, we should all care about these shellfish with their gooey grey insides - the Bay Journal has published a terrific series about the push to bring them back by "farming" them.

Time was when folks the world over associated the Chesapeake with oysters. Watermen in Maryland and Virginia hauled in millions upon millions of bushels of the bivalves every year, and eateries across the nation featured what was then the bay's signature seafood on their menus.

Oysters have fallen on hard times since then, as has the bay. Overharvesting in those seeming days of plenty, habitat loss and now diseases peculiar to the bivalves have ravaged the Chesapeake's population and decimated a once-thriving fishing industry. Their decline has hurt the bay, because oysters filter the water and helped keep it clean.  Many believe replenishing the bay's oysters, with their filtering capacity, is key to restoring the bay.

So now, after a decades-long slump, Maryland is trying to reverse the oyster's fortunes.  Breaking from a longstanding focus on sustaining the state's traditional wild fishery, officials have set aside large areas of the bay and its rivers as sanctuaries, putting them off limits to commercial harvest and replanting them with hatchery-reared oysters.  The hope is they'll survive the lingering diseases and thrive - and help clean up the bay's water quality. 

At the same time, the state is offering to help the state's watermen shift into raising their own bivalves, rather than continuing to rely on the remaining public waters to make a living. Aquaculture is a brave new world for them, fraught with challenges and risks, but not a completely untested path, as neighboring Virginia has long encouraged private oyster cultivation in its portion of the bay.

A handfull of pioneers have taken the plunge, and the Journal series just completed by Rona Kobell recounts the struggles and successes they've had.   To read the first two parts, go here and here.

As someone who lives for eating oysters, I'm grateful she's told their tales - and just a little jealous that she found a way to spend so much time around my favorite food.   Her series is well worth the read, and food for thought, even if oysters are not your idea of a tasty meal.  Perhaps the efforts of hardy individuals like these, when enough follow their lead, can make a difference in bringing back oysters - and the bay.

(Oysters grow in floats at Choptank Oyster Co. in Cambridge.  2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:00 AM | | Comments (1)

December 1, 2010

Do 'new, improved' Bay cleanup plans measure up?


Most of the "final" Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans due from watershed states are in, and one of them already is drawing mixed reviews about whether it's filled the gaping holes seen three months ago in an earlier draft.

Two key states, though, remain to be heard from - Maryland, whose officials claimed they had submitted the best of all the states' draft cleanup plans in September, and New York, whose officials questioned the legal and scientific basis for requiring that state to join in the push to accelerate the bay restoration effort. 

The "watershed implementation plans" due from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia are to be used by the Environmental Protection Agency in setting a "pollution diet" for the bay that's supposed to restore the estuary's degraded waters over the next 15 years or so.  EPA found serious deficiencies in most of the draft plans submitted in September.

Virginia submitted on Monday what its natural resources secretary called a "good, amended plan" for reducing bay pollution that he contended averts the need for a federal crackdown on sewage plants and farms in the Old Dominion.  Secretary Douglas W. Domenech estimated the accelerated cleanup effort would cost more than $7 billion over the next 15 years.

But environmentalists don't think it goes far enough, while farmers and builders are worried it's demanding too much of them.

Virginia's latest plan calls for more reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, but still relies heavily on voluntary incentives for farmers to curb pollution washing off their fields.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it was encouraged by the state's proposal to upgrade sewage treatment in the James River, but said the farm runoff provisions were still weak.

"Unlike the clear commitments to reductions from the wastewater sector, Virginia has not provided the same reasonable assurances from the agriculture sector," Ann F. Jennings, the foundation's Virginia executive director, said in a statement.

Continue reading "Do 'new, improved' Bay cleanup plans measure up?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)

November 30, 2010

Green contest yields rain garden blitz


Talk about racing for the green! It seems 83 Ellicott City residents jumped at the chance to win a free rain garden this fall, and 20 lucky winners saw them installed rapid-fire - not in 80 seconds, as the time-lapse video above depicts, but in just 10 days.

As Erica Goldman explains in Chesapeake Quarterly's BayBlog, the "win a rain garden" contest was staged by Howard County as part of a larger effort to demonstrate that doing a lot of stormwater retrofits, bioretention cells (aka rain gardens), and stream restoration projects in one small watershed could have a noticeable effect on water quality. All the entrants lived around Red Hill Branch, which drains into the Patuxent River.

Funding for the contest came from the county and the state's Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund. The rain garden installations were overseen by Amanda Rockler of the Maryland Sea Grant extension program, with help from county engineers and experts from the nonprofit Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City.

Twenty rain gardens are a start, but thousands upon thousands are needed to help the Chesapeake Bay.  It'll be interesting to see if this contest spurs a new suburban lawn ethic, with homeowners vying to outdo each other in putting in the biggest, greenest rain garden on the cul de sac.

Video by Joe King, by permission Maryland Sea Grant.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:36 AM | | Comments (0)

November 29, 2010

MD to be "a few days" late with Bay cleanup plan


So the dog didn't exactly eat Maryland's Chesapeake Bay homework, but he's holding onto it and won't let go just yet. 

As I reported today, state officials have notified the Environmental Protection Agency that they won't be turning in their final bay cleanup plan today, as the federal agency ordered.  They say they need "a few extra days" to mull hundreds of public comments on what the state should do to accelerate its efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution fouling the estuary.

Maryland evidently isn't alone in telling EPA it's blowing the deadline, but EPA's not pointing any fingers. Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia and the District of Columbia also were to submit final plans to EPA today outlining how they expected to increase their bay cleanup efforts. Some of them, though, were struggling amid an outpouring of complaints and criticism from their farmers, developers and others about the costs and fairness of what was being asked of them.

"We’ve heard from some jurisdictions that they may be submitting their plans late,” said David Sternberg, spokesman for EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office. He wouldn't identify any, though. J. Charles Fox, senior EPA advisor on the bay, said some of the ambiguity stems from the fact that federal officials worked through the weekend with their state counterparts, so some may still make the deadline.

There's evidently no penalty if states do miss the deadline, but it puts added pressure on EPA, which only has a month to finalize its "pollution diet" specifying how much each state must reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in its waters.

The agency hopes to rely on the states' plans as the recipe for its own, but had found shortcoming in all the drafts submitted on Sept. 1 and "serious" flaws in all but Maryland's and the District's. Maryland's plan had laid out various pollution control measures for upgrading sewage plants and household septic systems, retrofitting urban storm drains and curbing fertilizer use on farms and lawns. But it did not endorse any, saying state officials would await public comment before choosing among them.

Dawn Stoltzfus, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the state received 113 sets of comments from 750 people on the draft plan it submitted Sept. 1, plus two petitions with 1,000 signatures and 100 emails signed by multiple people. She said the final plan would be ready “definitely by the end of this week.”

Let's hope the state gets it homework back soon from that stubborn dog (neither of them the cheerful looking hounds above.  They're my family's, and they'll gladly bring you the ball to throw, rather than play keepaway or tug-of-war, so don't blame them).

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:21 PM | | Comments (1)

Greens meet to push MD offshore wind

Environmental groups have organized a daylong "Maryland Citizen's Conference" this Saturday (12/4) in Annapolis to press for more rapid development of wind energy projects off the state's Atlantic coast.

Anxious to break what they see as a logjam in developing wind energy in Maryland, activists want the next General Assembly to pass legislation requiring the state's electricity providers to sign long-term contracts agreeing to buy power from offshore projects.  They believe that the lack of such commitments are preventing developers from getting the financing they need to move ahead with putting turbines a dozen or so miles off Ocean City.

The conference comes as two land-based industrial wind projects in western Maryland are about to begin generating electricity.  But most proponents see the Outer Continental Shelf as a much more promising locale for generating significant amounts of electricity from steady offshore winds - not to mention possibly avoiding some of the nagging controversies over the impacts of mountaintop turbines on migratory bats and birds.

The conference is meant to build political pressure on the legislature a month before it convenes.  Scheduled speakers include leading green lawmakers, a wind developer, a union leader and a CEO from the Google-linked partnership that proposes to build transmission lines to bring mid-Atlantic offshore power to land.  Activists plan to march on the State House at the end. 

The session runs from 10 a.m. to 3:30 pm at the Westin Hotel, 100 Westgate Circle, Annapolis.  Admission is $15, $10 for students. For more, go here.

(Wind turbines off northern German island of Borkum, April 2010.  David Hecker/AFP/Getty Images)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:24 AM | | Comments (0)

Report says cleaning Bay can help economy

Accelerating the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay could generate thousands of jobs and yield hundreds of millions of dollars in income, revenue, property values and other benefits, says a new report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"The Chesapeake Bay can be a fertile source of jobs as well as crabs and rockfish," contends Kim Coble, Maryland executive director for the Annapolis-based environmental group.  On the other hand, she adds, the estuary's long decline already has cost the region economically, and could cost still more if left unaddressed.

The report comes on the day that Maryland, the District of Columbia and other bay watershed states are supposed to submit their final plans to the Environmental Protection Agency for boosting their bay cleanup efforts.  The EPA hopes to use those plans in finalizing its "pollution diet" for restoring the Chesapeake's water quality by year's end.

But it also comes amid a chorus of complaints from farmers, developers and local and state officials across the six-state region that increasing bay cleanup efforts will cost untold billions they can ill afford to pay in this recession.  Critics warn the EPA's pollution diet will bust strained budgets, require tax increases and generally cause economic devastation.  Lawsuits challenging federal authority to order states to boost bay cleanup efforts appear likely.

Continue reading "Report says cleaning Bay can help economy" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:16 AM | | Comments (2)

November 24, 2010

Changing of the guard

Maryland's environment secretary, Shari T. Wilson, has announced she is leaving after just shy of four years leading the agency. She said in a brief interview that the decision to depart was her own and that she'd been mulling stepping down for the past year.

It's been a bruising year, filled with controversies over the Maryland Department of the Environment's enforcement diligence, particularly with regard to farm pollution, and over the agency's moves to strengthen controls on polluted runoff from new development.

About this time last year, the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of water-quality watchdogs, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to strip her agency of its authority to regulate water pollution, contending that MDE was lax. Barely a month later, the alliance also publicly accused an Eastern Shore poultry farm of polluting a tributary of the Pocomoke River and got into a testy back-and-forth with MDE over its handling of the case.

As if that wasn't enough, builders and local officials revolted against new regulations MDE had issued earlier in the year that required them to do more to curb polluted runoff from new development and redevelopment projects. With lawmakers threatening to delay or roll back the rules, MDE forged a compromise with opponents that pleased some environmentalists but outraged others.

Wilson's agency also was a target of scorn in the past year from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who vowed to make MDE more helpful to business in his unsuccessful Republican bid to recapture the State House from Democrat Martin O'Malley. 

Still, Wilson said yesterday she thought her tenure at MDE had been productive as well as eventful.  She pointed to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan that she and other O'Malley administration officials crafted this fall that EPA officials deemed the most thorough and realistic of any of the bay state's efforts.

Earlier, her agency also clamped down on disposal of coal ash from power plants after the waste was found to have contaminated drinking-water wells and streams - taking action in that case ahead of the nationwide furor over coal ash. 

And she was instrumental in getting Maryland to take action to fight global climate change by limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the state.  Maryland joined with other Northeast states in a regional auction of carbon emission permits for power plants, and state lawmakers in 2009 also enacted legislation requiring reductions in other carbon-dioxide emissions over time.

Though criticized by some environmentalists as not tough enough, the storm-water regulations are widely seen as more stringent in many aspects than what had been on the books before. 

And though hamstrung by lack of staff and funds that limited its ability to check up on potential polluters, MDE did step up overall enforcement of environmental laws from what it had been in the more business-favorable Ehrlich administration.  The news release announcing Wilson's departure pointed to a $1 million penalty for water pollution resulting from Constellation Energy's fly ash disposal in Gambrills and a $4 million penalty against Exxon for the 2006 spill in Jacksonville, Maryland.

Wilson's own take on the controversies: 

“The best compliment would be to have been judged to be a fair regulator,” she said, but added that “when you’re successful at it, no one’s happy.”

Continue reading "Changing of the guard" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:20 AM | | Comments (1)

November 23, 2010

EPA standing firm on Bay pollution "diet"

Federal environmental officials say they're not backing away from the Chesapeake Bay pollution "diet" they've proposed for Maryland, the District of Columbia and the five other states in the bay watershed, despite being peppered with complaints about it from local and state officials, farmers and developers.

Environmental Protection Agency officials say they've received 7,980 written comments about the plan they floated Sept. 24 for imposing a "total maximum daily load," or TMDL, (aka the pollution diet) on the amount of nutrients and sediment that would be allowed to flow from the six-state region's cities, towns, suburbs and rural areas into the bay.  The vast majority of them were in support, but were form-letter type comments evidently generated by environmental groups supporting a federal bay pollution crackdown.

The agency also received about 700 more detailed complaints from "stakeholder groups," as officials call them, who are likely to be required to pay to upgrade sewage treatment plants, retrofit storm drains and curb runoff from their farms.  Some states, particularly New York and Virginia, and farm and development groups throughout the region have questioned the science and legal authority behind EPA's bay diet, as well as its timing and potential economic impact.

"There are some folks opposed to the TMDL," said Jon Capacasa, chief of the water protection division of EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional office.  "They don't think it's necessary ... they don't want us to complete it."  But Capacasa said the pollution diet is "not optional," that EPA has the responsibility and the legal authority under the Clean Water Act and federal court settlements to do what's needed to restore the Chesapeake's water quality so it might sustain more fish and shellfish.

Officials stressed that whatever cleanup measures EPA winds up requiring will depend on how much the states and DC say they'll do in final pollution-reduction plans to be submitted to the agency on Monday.

Continue reading "EPA standing firm on Bay pollution "diet"" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:31 AM | | Comments (0)

November 19, 2010

Gwynns Falls Trail gets a facelift

Workers for the Parks & People Foundation and volunteers pitched in Thursday to remove invasive vines and brush along Gwynns Falls Trail in Westport.

The shore along the northern edge of the south Baltimore neighborhood has been badly overgrown for years, making it hard to know there's even a stream there, much less get to it. 

This cleanup project is one of a number lately in Westport, where a massive mixed-use development is planned near where the Gwynns Falls empties into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.  Others involved in the project were Enterprise Holdings (the rental car company) and Westport Community Partnerships, an initiative backed in part by Turner Development Group.

(Spoon Smith, 34, left, from Baltimore, and Kevin Alexander, 55, from Brooklyn, members of Parks & People's Green Up, Clean Up team clear out invasive vines along the Gwynns Falls Trail in Westport. Baltimore Sun photo by Gabe Dinsmoor.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:49 PM | | Comments (0)

November 16, 2010

Can we grow without harming the Bay?


Can developers and environmentalists find common ground over how this region can grow without adding to the Chesapeake Bay's woes?

It remains to be seen. Feelings are still raw after last winter's donnybrook in Annapolis over tightening state curbs on runoff from new development and redevelopment. And home builders and environmentalists are at odds over legislation hung up in Congress that would strengthen the federal government's hand in the bay restoration effort.

But the Home Builders Association of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have agreed, at least, to meet in a neutral corner and talk about it. The two are sponsoring a forum Wednesday (Nov. 17) entitled: "Where Do We Grow From Here? Bay Friendly Development in the 21st Century."

The subtitle of the forum promises a "civil but frank discourse on development, environment and the Bay."   One session will look at whether "nutrient neutral" development is possible.  Another talks about how to pay for the pollution controls and public infrastructure needed to encourage "smart" growth.

From the agenda, it looks like this is a session designed to find that common ground and forge agreement on how and where to grow.  I imagine the tone of this will be far different from a population "summit" held recently by Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future.

"The big question is can we truly restore the Chesapeake Bay given the population projections for future growth?" asked Environment Maryland's Brad Heavner.  He said we have the scientific knowledge to do it, but it would take a lot of money and political will to reduce impacts of new development enough to offset the growing number of people.

Tom Horton, longtime bay writer and former Sun colleague, was even less hopeful.  He called it a "tall order" to think people would do what it takes to reduce the environmental impact of 17 million people in the six-state watershed by enough to restore the Chesapeake's water quality to what it was in the 1950s or '60s and to maintain it while the region grows.

Tough questions those, that lack easy answers.  At least folks are talking about them, while the real estate slump eases development pressure some. 

Wednesday's growth forum is from 8:15 a.m .to 3 p.m. at Martin's West, 6817 Dogwood Road.   Registration is $95, though discounts are available.  For more, go here or call 410-265-7400.

(Development along South Branch of the Patapsco River, 200 Baltimore Sun photo by David Hobby)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:54 PM | | Comments (1)

November 15, 2010

Seal sighting in the Patapsco River?

First a manatee, now a seal?  What's going on in the Patapsco River?  An Anne Arundel County resident who lives on Stony Creek reports she saw an animal rolling around on her pier last night that looked for all the world like the critter pictured above.

Mary Sharp, who lives in Orchard Beach, said she saw a "black thing" bobbing back and forth in the light shining on the deck of her pier around 7 p.m. She said she watched the animal through binoculars for about 5 to 10 minutes, and even went outside to the crest of the hill leading down to her dock to get a better look before it apparently went back in the water.  

Unfortunately, she didn't get a picture of the animal, but she said she was sure it wasn't the manatee that was last sighted a few weeks ago in the river near Harbor Hospital.  This was darker, weighed maybe 80 pounds and was out of the water.  Sharp said she initially thought it was a seal or a sea lion; a call to the National Aquarium this morning informed her it was most likely a harbor seal - not unheard of, but not commonly seen this far up the Chesapeake Bay.  

Whatever it was, the animal apparently was able to climb out of the water onto her pier.  She said the steps leading up from the water were wet, and she found a partially eaten fish on the deck where it had been.

"I left that fish that was flopping around on the pier, just in case he came back," Sharp said. 

So far, no luck. But if you spy something in the water that looks like a seal - or the elusive manatee - give a call to the Aquarium's 24-hour pager to report your sighting, 410-373-0083.   Let us know, too, and we'll share it here.

UPDATE (11/16):  Jennifer Dittmar, the aquarium's marine mammal stranding coordinator, emails that based on Mary's description, it sounds like a "healthy seal that happened to stop for a meal."  Most likely it was a harbor or harp seal, she adds, since they're the two species that have been seen around here before.

"It's not unheard of for a seal to travel this far up the bay, but it's also not a common occurrence," Dittmar explains. "In the last 12 years or so, we have at least three documented seal sightings north of the Bay Bridge."

(Harbor seal swimming near Boston Harbor, October 2010, New England Aquarium photo via AP)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:20 AM | | Comments (1)

November 8, 2010

Today's deadline for public comment on Bay plans

Today is the deadline for the public to comment on plans drafted by Maryand, the District of Columbia and the other Chesapeake Bay watershed states for accelerating their efforts to clean up the degraded estuary.  Monday, Nov. 8 is also the last chance to comment on the Environmental Protection Agency's first cut at a baywide "pollution diet," which in many cases goes beyond what the states have pledged