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

Arsenic, lead found in fruit juices


Fruits are healthy to eat, experts agree, but new research by a consumer group shows some fruit juices - a staple in children's diets - contain toxic arsenic or lead.

There are no federal limits now on either contaminant in fruit juices.  But according to Consumer Reports, about 10 percent of the juices it sampled from five different brands had total arsenic levels exceeding federal drinking-water standards.

One in four samples checked also had lead levels higher than the Food and Drug Administration's limit for bottled water of 5 parts per billion.

While the FDA has dismissed previous reports of arsenic in apple juice by saying the contaminant was a harmless organic form of the chemical, Consumer Reports says most of the arsenic it found was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is calling on the FDA to set arsenic and lead limits for apple and grape juices, which are frequently consumed by children.

It's not clear how the contaminants got into the fruit juices, but environmental activists point out that one source may be coal-burning power plants which emit arsenic and other toxic pollutants into the air.  They contend this is another reason for the Obama administration to move forward with new power-plant pollution regulations drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency

Some power companies and their supporters in Congress oppose the rules, contending the costs of compliance will be too high, forcing the shutdown of some power plants and jeopardizing electrical reliability.  Others point to the health benefits and say the fears of brownouts are overstated, noting that some power companies such as Baltimore-based Constellation Energy support the rule because they have already upgraded their plants' pollution controls to reduce toxic emissions.

For a list of brands tested and results, go here.

(Above: Student sipping apple juice at Mt. Washington Elementary School. 2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Kenrick Brinson)


Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:17 AM | | Comments (0)

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)

A pause for PlanMaryland?

Under pressure from conservative lawmakers, state planners have agreed to delay their disputed blueprint for Maryland growth until after they get a little more feedback on it in Annapolis.

Planning Secretary Richard E. Hall confirmed a report in The Washington Times that he's agreed to hold off delivering PlanMaryland to Gov. Martin O'Malley until after he's met with the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Dec. 12.

Hall said his staff has been working for months to generate a third "full draft" of the statewide growth plan that incorporates or responds to the outpouring of comments and criticism of it from rural and suburban officials.  That's still on track, Hall indicated in an email, but added that a brief postponement to brief lawmakers one more time would be "fine."

Administration officials have said the document is merely the long-delayed fulfillment of a 1974 law calling for a state growth plan, so does not require legislative approval.  They've said it won't usurp local planning authority, just better coordinate state spending on roads and other infrastructure under Maryland's longstanding Smart Growth policies, which call for preserving open space by encouraging development in and around existing communities. 

Local officials contend, though, that PlanMaryland may effectively take away their traditional control over development decisions if the state does deny funding or permits for projects that don't mesh with the plan.  State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican representing the upper Eastern Shore who's accused O'Malley of waging "war" on rural Maryland, has said he'll introduce a bill that would require legislative approval of the plan - though administration officials have insisted they're not waiting for the General Assembly to act before putting the finishing touches on the plan.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:52 AM | | Comments (1)

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 17, 2011

MD joins legal push for tougher soot limits

While government regulations often get branded as "job killers" these days, a group of states - including Maryland - have gone to court to get the government to crank down on fine-particle air pollution, which they contend is a real killer.

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler has joined the top lawyers of  nine other states in asking the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals to force the Environmental Protection Agency to follow the recommendations of health experts, its staff and independent science advisors to tighten the legal limit on fine particulates in the air.  To read it, go here.

Fine particulates, more commonly called soot, are emitted by diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and other fuel-burning equipment. PM2.5, as fine particles are known, are so tiny they're 1/30th the width of a human hair. They've been linked in study after study with increased rates of breathing impairments, cardiovascular disease and premature death. 

Continue reading "MD joins legal push for tougher soot limits" »

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

November 16, 2011

Obama calls for cars to get 54.5 mpg


The Obama administration has upped the ante on federal fuel economy standards, calling for cars and light trucks to get up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson joined Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to announce the administration's proposal to set stronger fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas pollution standards for cars and light trucks made between 2017 and 2025.

Administration officials contend the higher mileage standards will reduce oil consumption by 4 billion barrels and cut 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution over the lifetimes of the vehicles sold in those years.  But they said it also should save Americans $6,600 in fuel costs over the lifetime of a 2025 model year vehicle, or a net savigns of $4,400 after factoring in projected higher costs for more fuel-efficient vehicles.  For more, go here.

The announcement, which builds on the administration's earlier push to get the nation's vehicle fleet to 35.5 mpg by 2016, drew cheers from environmentalists and raspberries from auto dealers.

Sarah Bucci of Environment Maryland, for instance, predicted that in Maryland alone, the fuel-economy standards would save each family $365 on average, and nationally would create nearly 500,000 new jobs.

The National Auto Dealers Association, meanwhile, warned that the rule could add more than $3,200 to the cost of a new vehicle, which could depress sales and slow fleet turnover, thereby delaying the environmental gains forecast. The group also argued that the regulation would most discourage sales of the industry's most popular, if least fuel-efficient vehicles, such as SUVs and other trucks and vans.

Cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks account for nearly 60 percent of transportation-related petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA.

(Traffic in Baltimore, 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Aberdeen Proving Ground trying out fuel cells

The Army, which has been on a green offensive lately, is putting fuel cells in as backup power supplies for three buildings at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

The cells, which use hydrogen as a fuel, are more efficient than internal combustion engines and much quieter and cleaner, with little or no greenhouse gas emissions..

The three going in at APG's building operations command center, the snow removal center in the Edgewood area and the Test Center Range Control are among 24 fuel cells being installed at nine federal sites across the country.  A ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled today at APG to mark the project.

The $2.5 million installation is a joint venture of the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Energy.  The Army Corps has been trying out wind, solar, geothermal, biogas, biofuel and waste-to-energy as part of a push by the Department of Defense to develop alternative energy sources to support military operations.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)

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

Regional climate action pays off, study finds


Maryland and other Northeastern states have helped rather than hurt their economies with “cap-and-trade” regulation of their power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions, a new study finds.

In the past three years, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative produced a combined economic gain for the 10 participating states of more than $1.6 billion, or about $33 for every person living in the region, according to a report by the economic consulting firm Analysis Group. The ripple effects of making power plants buy permits to release carbon dioxide also created a total of 16,000 jobs, the consultants estimate.

“The program’s working,” said Paul J. Hibbard, a lead author of the study, which tracked the impacts of the carbon auctions through the economy. The research was funded by four foundations.

Consumers across the region are expected to save nearly $1.3 billion on their energy bills over the next decade, the study projects, through government-subsidized investments in home weatherization, energy-efficient appliances and other measures that should reduce demand for power below what it otherwise would be.

Continue reading "Regional climate action pays off, study finds" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Air Pollution, Climate change, News

Critters flock, hop & swim through road culverts

Raccoons, deer, cats, birds, turtles, even humans - all will make tracks under busy highways when they can, or must.

That's the upshot of a fun but practical new study from the Appalachian laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Researchers spent more than two years capturing critters on infra-red cameras as they moved through 265 different road and highway culverts around the state. They tallied up 57 different species using the underground structures, many of them put in when the road was built merely to channel a stream from one side to the other.

“I was surprised at the sheer number of species using these culverts, from birds to reptiles to mammals,” study author Ed Gates said in a release

The critter caught most frequently by far on the cameras was the northern raccoon, followed by common house cats and then white-tailed deer.  But barn swallows, mallards and great blue heron were up there, too. So were humans, oddly or naturally enough.

The study was done for the State Highway Administration so they can figure out how to get more animals to use the culverts. It enables wildlife to move about in habitat increasingly carved up by pavement and avoid becoming roadkill - or worse, killing or maiming motorists.

I wrote about this effort a year ago in the Baltimore Sun.  You can read that story here.  And to see some more "wildlife candid camera," check out UMCES on Facebook.

(Photos courtesy University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: News

November 10, 2011

Study faults testing of imported seafood


Seafood is getting increasing scrutiny these days, and it's not reassuring.

Researchers with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that testing of imported seafood by the U S. Food and Drug Administration isn't good enough to say it's safe or to identify whether there are any health risks to consumers.  That's a big deal, because about 85 percent of seafood consumed in the United States comes from other countries.

Based on a review of government data, David Love and others at the center found that the FDA only tests about 2 percent of all seafood imported into the US.  The European Union, by comparison checks 50 percent; Japan 18 percent and Canada 15 percent.

One reason to test: farmed fish and shellfish, a growing share of all seafood, may contain residues of veterinary drugs. Those drugs, given to prevent and treat diseases in the fish, could be harmful to humans at high enough concentrations, or they could cause other unintended consequences, such as antibiotic resistance.

The study found that inspectors detected more drug residues in imported seafood the more they inspected. Drugs showed up more often in Asian farm-raised shrimp and prawns, catfish, crab, tilapia and Chilean salmon than in other seafood products,  according to researchers. Imports from Vietnam had the greatest number of veterinary drug violations among exporting countries, they noted.

The US and the other countries tested all have set limits on the acceptable levels of drug residues in seafood.  But the US, besides checking a smaller percentage of its seafood imports, also tests for fewer different drugs than the EU, Japan and Canada, researchers point out.

In the end, the researchers concluded that the amount of data publicly available from the FDA isn't sufficient to tell whether consumers face any health risks from eating imported seafood.  FDA records, for instance, don't show when fish pass inspection or whether the samples tested were chosen at random or targeted for some reason.

(2007 Baltimore Sun file photo)

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

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

MD's 2nd wind project feted; wildlife concerns linger

State officials and developers gathered Tuesday atop Maryland's highest mountain near Oakland to celebrate the recent completion of the state's second commercial wind power project, even as controversy continues about such ridgetop facilities' impacts on birds and bats. 

With 20 2.5-megawatt turbines strung along Backbone Mountain, the Roth Rock wind "farm" is expected to generate enough electricity to power all the homes in Garrett County, according to the Maryland Energy Administration.   It began operating in August, with Delmarva Power buying 80 percent of its output and the University System of Maryland and the state Department of General Services purchasing the rest.  The state's first wind farm owned by Constellation Energy, built nearby on the same mountain, began producing power last winter.

The Roth Rock project, developed by Synergics of Annapolis, has had a long and controversial history.  Its ridgetop siting was fought by conservationists worried that the turbines would kill migratory songbirds and bats, some of them already endangered.  At wind developers' behest, the General Assembly then limited state regulators review of wind projects' environmental impacts, prompting conservationists to cry foul. 

State environmental regulators did temporarily halt work on the project at one point last year over sediment and erosion problems at the construction site.  Synergics last year sold the project to Gestamp Wind North America, part of a European multinational corporation. 

Wind developers contend there are few birds and bats harmed by the towering turbines. But wildlife concerns about this wind project and others linger.  The American Bird Conservancy contends there have been sizable bird kills over the past eight years at wind projects in neighboring West Virginia. Nearly 500 were killed last month alone at one facility, the group said recenltly, not from being hit by the spinning turbine blades but from lights left on overnight at the facility's mountaintop electrical substation.  Lighting can be a fatal attraction for birds at night, advocates say, leading them to fly into the illuminated structure or to circle it in confusion until they drop from exhaustion.

Conservationists threatened last year to sue to stop the Roth Rock project over concerns its turbines would kill rare Indiana and Virginia big-eared bats.  The company denied its turbines posed a threat to bats, and no legal action was taken. Conservationists did sue Constellation over the impac ton bats of its turbines; federal court records indicate that case is on hold for now as the parties discuss a settlement.

(Roth Rock turbines, photo courtesy Frank Maisano)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)

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" »

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November 7, 2011

Feds scrutinizing another biodiesel firm

It appears the recent criminal fraud case brought against a Baltimore biodiesel business owner for allegedly peddling phony renewable fuel credits is not an isolated one.

Federal investigators raided another biodiesel firm in Lubbock, Texas, a couple weeks ago, the Avalanche-Journal reported.  In a story last week, the newspaper quoted from unsealed search-warrant affidavits that authorities contend the company, Absolute Fuel, sold $40 million worth of renewable fuel credits without producing the 36 million gallons of biodiesel they were supposed to represent. 

The owner has not been charged, but federal agents seized records and $4.5 million in cash and property, including a Gulfstream jet, luxury cars and jewelry, the paper reported.   Authorities identified another $5 million in real estate held by the business owner.

The Texas case echoes the wire fraud, money laundering and air pollution charges brought by the U.S attorney in Baltimore a month ago against Rodney R. Hailey, president of Clean Green Fuel.  Hailey, 33, of Perry Hall stands accused of generating "renewable identification numbers," as the fuel credits are known, for 21 million gallons of fuel his company never produced.  Hailey's firm made $9 million on the sale of RINs for nonexistent fuel, according to the charges, and spent much of it on a fleet of luxury cars and jewelry, plus a new home.

Agents seized the cars and froze Hailey's bank accounts, but a prosecutor said they'd only been able to account for about a third of the allegedly fraudulent proceeds. Authorites now are seeking to sell Hailey's home, the cars and other property.  He backed out at the last moment last month on a plea agreement and is now scheduled to be tried Dec. 19.

Shortly after that case broke, I reported in The Baltimore Sun that it appeared to be the beginning of a crackdown by federal officials on the lucrative - and until recently, loosely regulated - market in RINs.  Industry insiders said they'd grown increasingly concerned that lax federal oversight of trading in the credits encouraged scams.  An industry group even set up a link on its website for members to report suspicious activity.  It appears that the Texas firm came to authorties' attention through a tip from a suspicious broker. 

The Environmental Protection Agency did move last year to tighten its record-keeping and reporting requirements for the renewable credits. Some in the industry, however, still question whether the feds have done enough.

(Locked office of Clean Green Fuel and related business.  Baltimore Sun photo by Tim Wheeler)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:24 PM | | Comments (0)

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

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 2, 2011

UM study finds MD climate law no drag on economy

Maryland's effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by the end of the decade shouldn't cost the state any jobs, and may actually trigger new "green" employment, a pair of new studies say.

The two reports by the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Environmental Research were commissioned by the state Department of the Environment, which is required under the 2009 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act to produce a draft plan by the end of this year for how to curb climate-altering carbon dioxide and other gases.

The legislature, in approving the law nearly three years ago, ordered the administration to show through independent studies that the effort wouldn't hurt the reliability of the state's electricity supply or hurt manufacturing.  Since then, the economy has tanked, Congress balked at adopting any climate-change legislation, and federal regulatory efforts to deal with greenhouse gases have slowed under fire from those who contend they'll hurt an already slumping economy.

The two UM reports conclude that in Maryland, at least, the effort to cut back climate-harming emissions would improve the availability of power, if anything, and that there would be no significant harm done to manufacturing or to the economy in general.

"We've tried really hard to find all kinds of ways in which, especially during this downturn in the economy, we could take a serious look at this and say, 'Where can it hurt us?'" said Matthias Ruth, director of the UM center.  "And we couldn't find it."

Continue reading "UM study finds MD climate law no drag on economy" »

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

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)

Trick or treat: 7 billion and counting

The world's population has hit 7 billion, according to the United Nations, which coincidentally (or not) chose today, Halloween, as the date when that mark would be reached.

The number of humans inhabiting the Earth has more than doubled in the past 50 years, and though the rate of increase has slowed, we're still adding 1 billion people every 12 years.  I'm # 2,658,582,904, according to a nifty calculator published by the BBC.  Enter your birthdate and see what number you are.

But this milestone "is not about sheer numbers," says Geoff Dabelko, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change & Security Program.  "Demographic trends will significatnly impact the planet's resouces and people's security.

"Growing populations stress dwindling natural resources supplies while high levels of consumption in both developed countries and emerging economies drive up carbon emissions and deplete the planet's resources," Dabelko adds.  "And neglected 'youth bulges' could bolster extremism in fragile states like Somalia and destabilize nascent democracies like Egypt."

For a primer on how we got to 7 billion, check out this brief video from the Population Reference Bureau.  If you want to delve deeper, I recommend the special year-long series by the National Geographic on the world's growing population and what it will mean.

To bring the discussion closer to home, it's worth pointing out that as of last year, an estimated 17.2 million people lived in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed, up from 16.9 million in 2008, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  It's projected that number will hit 20 million by 2030.  For an analysis of how that growing human population works against restoring the bay, check out writer Tom Horton's 2008 report for the Abell Foundation.

(Photos: Top, Beach in China, 2007 AFP/Getty; Above, Commuters in Hanoi, 2011, Reuters)

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

October 28, 2011

State growth plan riles rural pols

Halloween's approaching so plan on hearing some scary stuff about "PlanMaryland," the state's blueprint for encouraging development in and around existing cities, towns and villages.

Some rural politicians are hopping mad about the 188-page tome, which state planners have been laboring over for three years. The planners say it's intended to carry out the state's longstanding Smart Growth policies, which aim to preserve Maryland's vanishing farmland and natural areas while also reducing pollution.  An added benefit, proponents say, is that more compact development should save taxpayers money, reducing expenditures on roads, utilities and other public services for ever-expanding suburbia. 

State officials have held dozens of meetings around the state to explain the plan and take public comments. They also tweaked it recently in a vain attempt to mollify critics, repeatedly saying that local officials would still be free to allow development wherever they choose, just the state will no longer provide funds to subsidize sprawl.  But criticis have decried it as part of a "war on rural Maryland" being waged by the O'Malley administration, choking off any prospects for economic development or growth outside of cities.  Some have called it communistic and part of an insidious move for global government under the United Nations.

As reported by Nicole Fuller in The Baltimore Sun, one of the hotbeds of hostility to the state growth plan is Carroll County, where predominantly conservative politicians have clashed with Democratic state executives over growth and transporation in years past.  Its commissioners have ponied up $10,000 to sponsor a forum in Pikesville on Monday afternoon to air criticisms of what they see as flawed premises of the plan, including concerns about the impacts of climate change and of suburban sprawl.

"We are on a mission to get at the truth about these underlying premises," Commissioner Richard Rothschild told me in a recent interview. "Do automobiles detract from our economy?" he asked.  "Do greenhouse gases threaten the safety and security of our state?"

Continue reading "State growth plan riles rural pols" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:55 AM | | Comments (1)

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" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:25 AM | | Comments (0)

October 27, 2011

Clean energy confab blows into B'more


The second annual Clean Energy Summit blows into B'more today, rescheduled and relocated here after the earthquake in August damaged the Bethesda hotel where it was supposed to be held.  That 'quake may have been an omen.

There'll be a lot of talk at the Hilton Inner Harbor on Friday about solar and wind power, electric vehicles, biofuels, public policy and more.  There's lots happening on those fronts, but plenty of uncertainty and uproar, too. 

Construction is under way on Maryland's first utility-scale solar array in Emmitsburg, for instance, and the state was recently recognized as one of the top 10 states in promoting energy efficiency.  But in Washington, cost-cutting pressures cast a shadow over funding for clean energy, and there's even talk among at least some Republican lawmakers of cutting off tax incentives for virutally all forms of energy, including solar and wind, nuclear and even at least some breaks for oil and gas. 

Despite the federal policy turmoil, more and more businesses and homeowners are looking for clean energy, installing more efficient lighting and solar arrays, among other things.  To help stoke that interest, the summit winds up Saturday with a free consumer show.

From 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the public has a chance to drive a Chevy Volt and learn more about solar hot water and photovoltaics, geothermal heating and cooling, the new generation of cleaner woodstoves and - perhaps most important of all - how to go about financing the upfront costs that can ultimately lead to lower utility bills.

For more info, go here.

(Wind turbines on Backbone Mountain near Oakland MD.  2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:37 PM | | Comments (0)

October 26, 2011

Scientists tie fungus to deadly bat disease

Scientists have confirmed a fungus is causing deadly white-nosed syndrome in bats across much of North America, including western Maryland.

In an article today in the journal Nature, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and other researchers identified Geomyces destructans as the cause of the rapidly spreading syndrome, which has been blamed for severe declines in bat populations in the Northeast.

Researchers found that 100 percent of healthy little brown bats exposed to G. destructans while hibernating in captivity developed white-nosed syndrome.  They also demonstrated that the fungus spreads through contact between individual bats.

More than 200 bats with the characteristic white fungus were found hibernating in an Allegany County cave near Cumberland in 2010, along with several dead animals, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.   Bats with suspected white-nose syndrome also have turned up in Garrett and Washington counties, according to the USGS. To see a map showing where the disease has been spotted, go here.

(Hibernating brown bat with white muzzle typical of white-nose syndrome.  USGS photo via Reuters)

Continue reading "Scientists tie fungus to deadly bat disease" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:39 PM | | Comments (0)

EV chargers debut in B'more city garages


Electric vehicle owners, you have some new places to plug in in downtown Baltimore. The city just made it easier to get around without worrying about running out of juice, unveiling nine new EV charging stations in municipal parking garages.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake arrived at a ribbon-cutting in the Baltimore Street garage near City Hall driving a candy-apple red Chevrolet Volt, which she rated "a nice ride."  With cameras trained on her, she plugged the charging cable into the car without a hitch.

Declaring that Baltimore aims to support the budding electric-vehicle industry, Rawlings-Blake said  the city plans to acquire 50 more charging stations in the coming year to make it even easier for commuters and residents to have EVs in the city without fear of running out of power.

The nine chargers, each capable of handling two vehicles simultaneously, were installed with a $134,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration. The city is providing the electricity for free - about $1.50 per 10-hour charge, according to Ted Atwood, director of General Services - but drivers still have to pay to park.

"The people most likely to use these would be commuters worried about running out of juice before they get home," said Tiffany James of the city parking authority.  But she noted that they also make it possible for residents who don't have off-street parking to own an EV. 

The chargers were made by Coulomb Technologies and are part of the ChargePoint Network.  EV owners can locate available charging stations in city garages and elsewhere by consulting the online network. A ChargePoint card is needed to plug in, but those without one can call a number listed on the station to get signed up and connected on the spot.

Atwood said city workers are test-driving a pair of Volts to see if it makes sense to add EVs to the municipal vehicle fleet. The city is looking for ways to trim its fuel bill, he said, which runs upwards of $15 million a year.

Following is a list of city garages with EV chargers:

Continue reading "EV chargers debut in B'more city garages" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:39 AM | | Comments (0)

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?" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

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" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:31 AM | | Comments (2)

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" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:44 PM | | Comments (0)

October 17, 2011

EPA belatedly enforcing old smog standard

The Obama administration may have buckled under political pressure from tightening smog air pollution limits, but the Environmental Protection Agency is belatedly holding Baltimore accountable for meeting an old cap on harmful ozone levels.

The EPA announced recently that it had settled a lawsuit with the Sierra Club over the agency's failure to determine if six major metro areas with severe smog problems, including Baltimore, had met a pollution standard set in 1979. 

The agency agreed to determine if each has come into attainment with the old standard, which deemed it unhealthful if ozone levels in the air reached 125 parts per billion for one hour.  If any cities are not in compliance, they could be required to adopt new pollution control measures.

EPA has changed the ozone pollution standard twice since then, based on advice from health officials and scientists, and now considers 75 parts per billion ozone over an eight-hour period unhealthful to breathe.

The Sierra Club elected to sue EPA after realizing that the federal government never closed the loop with the old standard and determined whether all metro areas had come into attainment, as the law requires.

"That's a mandatory duty," said Robert Ukeiley, Sierra's lawyer in the case.  "EPA has to make that finding (but) EPA didn't make it."

So now EPA is pledging to determine whether Baltimore and the other metro areas - Houston-Galveston-Brazoria (TX), New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, Springfield (Western Massachusetts), Greater Connecticut, and Boston-Lawrence-Worcester (MA-NH) - have met the old 1-hour ozone standard. 

Continue reading "EPA belatedly enforcing old smog standard" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)

October 14, 2011

Greens aim to repeal MD waste-energy law

With three waste-to-energy projects in various stages of planning now in Maryland,  environmentalists are taking aim at a new state law that sweetened the incentives for building such facilities.

The Environmental Integrity Project this week released a report asserting that waste-to-energy plants generate more pollution than coal-fired power plants.  Activists who joined EIP in releasing the report say they're going to try to convince lawmakers to repeal the law when the General Assembly meets in January.l

The report contends that Maryland's two largest existing waste-to-energy incinerators release more air pollution per hour of energy produced than do the state's four largest coal plants. Toxic mercury and lead, carbon monoxide, the pollutants that form smog and climate-warming greenhouse gases - the report says all are coming out of the incinerators stacks at a higher rate per kilowatt-hour of power generated than they are from coal plants.

With Gov. Martin O'Malley's backing, the General Assembly approved a measure this year that awards lucrative top-tier renewable energy credits to plants producing power by burning municipal solid waste.  Waste burners had been classififed as Tier 2 renewable energy sources before, and the law upgraded them to Tier 1, on par with wind and solar energy facilities.  The bill's passage surprised and angered environmentalists, who unsuccessfully petitioned O'Malley to veto it.

O'Malley administration officials contend that trash is a legitimate renewable energy source, and the state could use the help in meeting its ambitious goal of getting 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2022. Proponents of the plants say their facilities will meet or exceed all state pollution-control requirements.

Mike Tidwell, head of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said activists hope to persuade O'Malley he's mistaken to back waste-to-energy, and they're angling to introduce a bill to repeal the new law.  And in the meantime, he said, "environmentalists intend to challenge the permits of every waste to energy plant in the pipeline until we defeat them."

The three projects in the offing include the new Energy Answers plant in the Curtis Bay section of Baltimore, a new incinerator in Frederick County and a proposed expansion of Harford County's resource-recovery facility. Energy Answers already has all - or nearly all - the permits it needs to start construction.

(Photo: Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Co.(BRESCO) plant, 2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 12:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Air Pollution, News

October 13, 2011

States, industry seek to block EPA air pollution rules

The pushback against environmental regulation grows, this time against new federal air pollution rules that would help Marylanders breathe easier, according to a state spokesman.

Attorneys general for 24 states (not including the Free State) plus the governor of Iowa have joined with the coal industry in asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to extend a Nov. 16 deadline for the Environmental Protection Agency to impose a rule requiring reductions in emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants.  EPA is bound to act by that date under the terms of a consent decree approved by the court.

In asking the court for a year's delay, the states point to an industry-financed study saying that the mercury regulation along with another EPA rule clamping down on cross-state air pollution would increase electricity costs, eliminate jobs and could lead to power shortages.

Similar efforts to delay or block the EPA's power plant rules are being made in Congress, as some power plant operators have warned they'll shut down their coal burners rather than comply because they say it would be too expensive to put on the needed pollution controls.

But according to Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, almost all the coal-fired power plants in the state, including all the largest ones, will comply with the federal rule other states are objecting to.  They've already been required to reduce mercury emissions on par with the federal rule under the state's Healthy Air Act, adopted in 2006 and signed by the governor then, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Maryland's law is "ahead of the curve," points out Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.  The state's law required an 80 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2010 and will ratchet up to requiring 90 percent reduction by 2013 - compared with a 91 percent curb by 2014 or 2015 under the federal rule. 

Indeed, the MDE spokesman says that the federal rule for mercury, as well as EPA's cross-state air pollution rule requiring reductions in smog-forming power plant emissions, "will begin to level the playing field" for Maryland power plants. 

That could be why Constellation Energy, which installed scrubbers on its Maryland coal plants to comply, supports the federal rule along with some other power companies, including Exelon, suitor to merge with Constellation. Critics of the EPA rule say those power companies that support it just don't have as many coal plants to upgrade.

Whatever the case, much of the mercury, smog and health-threatening fine-particle pollution in Maryland's air blows in here from out of state, Apperson notes.  Officials estimate that up to 70 percent of the ozone-forming emissions in Maryland's air, for instance, waft in from elsewhere.

Environmentalists have rallied to EPA's side, releasing a nationwide survey that found strong public support for the disputed air pollution rules.  Two-thirds, 67 percent, oppose any delay in the cross-state pollution rule, and 77 percent object to delaying the clampdown on toxic mercury, according to the poll. Nearly 90 percent of Democrats and even 58 percent of Republicans surveyed opposed congressional action to stop EPA from adopting the rules. 

(Pollution scrubber emits steam cloud at Constellation's Brandon Shores power plant south of Baltimore.  2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

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

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)

Offshore wind blows into town, with eye on DC

Advocates of developing offshore wind power have come to Baltimore this week with optimism that they're creeping closer to putting the first turbines off the Atlantic coast, but worried that Washington could pull the plug on the fledgling industry just as it gets started.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are scheduled to open a three-day conference put on by the American Wind Energy Association.  For details on the affair, go here.

Chris Long, the association's manager of offshore policy, said several federal and state government actions have buoyed the industry and sent positive signals to investors. But liftoff still has not occurred, and there are signs some may be cooling on offshore's wind potential.

On the plus side, the gears of the federal bureaucracy are creaking forward.  In February, the Departments of Interior and Energy released a promised joint strategy for cutting the costs of offshore wind projects and speeding up their regulatory approval.

Then in March, Interior offered its first commercial lease of turbine sites off the Delaware coast, and in April approved a construction and operations plan for what could be the first offshore wind farm, the much-debated Cape Wind project off Nantucket's coast in Massachusetts.

Finally, last July, Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement released a mostly favorable draft environmental impact assessment for issuing offshore wind leases along the entire mid-Atlantic coast, including Maryland.

State actions also have encouraged the industry, such as O'Malley's so-far unsuccessful push to make utilities sign long-term power purchasing agreements with offsore wind developers.

But offshore wind is running into some resistance as well. The New York Power Authority voted recently to drop its plan to develop a 150-megawatt wind farm in the Great Lakes amid anxiety about the costs and the weak economy.  Estimates of how much ratepayers would need to pay to subsidize the project ranged from $60 million to $100 million a year.

Meanwhile, federal subsidies for any type of "clean" energy are drawing more critical scrutiny these days on the heels of the collapse of Solyndra, the California solar manufacturer that received more than $500 million in loan guarantees.

Continue reading "Offshore wind blows into town, with eye on DC" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:40 AM | | 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)

October 7, 2011

MD high court stands up for citizens in permit fights


Maryland's highest court has upheld the rights of environmental organizations and citizens in general to challenge government actions that they believe will harm the state's air, water or land.

In the first test of a two-year-old state law expanding citizens' standing to sue in environmental disputes, the Court of Appeals ruled, in a 5 to 2 decision, that the Patuxent Riverkeeper should have been allowed to pursue a lawsuit opposing a permit allowing a road to be built across a stream near the Washington Beltway.

Courts have granted citizens and groups broad rights to go to court to enforce environmental laws when they believe someone is polluting, but this case was about challenging prospective harm - preventing it before it occurs.  Maryland's General Assembly had passed legislation in 2009 broadening citizens' rights to sue over permit decisions, the product of a compromise between environmentalists and business interests, in which activists gave up some rights to challenge permits administratively.

But a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge tossed the riverkeeper's case, declaring that the watchdog organization had no legal standing to challenge the permit issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which allowed 3/4 acre of nontidal wetlands to be destroyed for a road serving Woodmore Towne Centre. 

The court said that the nutrient runoff and other pollution the riverkeeper contended would be caused by the wetland loss on Western Branch, a tributary of the Patuxent, was merely "conjectural or hypothetical," and the resident on whose behalf the group had sued was too far downstream - 8.5 miles - to be affected in any case.

But Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, writing for the majority, said the resident had "reasonable concern" that the development would harm the health of the Western Branch, and thus diminish his ability to use and enjoy the waters downstream, where he frequently paddled.  Scientific studies have shown stream degradation resulting from roads built over headwaters and wetlands, the majority noted.

Two appellate judges dissented, with Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. contending that the law only allows citizens to challenge permit decisions if they can show some particular harm to themselves personally, not just a general degradation of the environment.

Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman hailed the decision, saying in an email that "Marylanders need to know that if they want to challenge a state permit they no longer need to jump through (a) developer created gauntlet of harassment and inquisition into the nature of their presumed economic stakeholder interest and whether ... they can first prove they have been injured by a project or permit — all in advance of their fair day in court."

The ruling comes too late, however, to do anything about the wetland destruction challenged in this case. Tutman said the developer has already built the road over the stream.

To read the decision and dissent, go here.

(Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman prepares to launch, 2005. Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:04 AM | | Comments (1)

October 6, 2011

MD's bottled water curb "disappointing" to industry

In the unsurprising news category, the bottled water industry finds it "disappointing" that the O'Malley administration is trying to get state workers to drink tap water instead of its products.

The International Bottled Water Association released a statement late Wednesday reacting to news from late last week that the state's Green Purchasing Committee voted to stop buying bottled water for state buildings and facilities where tap water is available.   Bottled water would still be provided in places where tap water isn't available, and agencies could decide for themselves whether to have it stocked in vending machines on site.

The move came at the behest of environmental groups, who argued that the state could save money and show support to struggling public water systems by cutting back on bottled water purchases.  Maryland spent $200,000 on Deer Park water in fiscal 2010, according to one official.

In its statement, the association contends that eliminating workers' access to bottled water will increase consumption of unhealthful soft drinks or other calorie-containing beverages.  And it argues that the cutback is a slap at an industry that employs 2,260 people in the state and spends $92 million on wages and benefits.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)

Chiming in with solar in the city

Every week or so seems to bring news of another solar installation in Maryland. The latest is a big one, and it's in a place that hasn't seen that much sun power yet - Baltimore city.

Chimes International, which provides job training and other services for people with disabilities, has blanketed a chunk of its 12-acre campus in northwest Baltimore with 3,000 solar panels, said to be the largest in the city.  The system, which features an unusual mix of ground-mounted and three rooftop arrays, is capable of generating up to 670 kilowatts - enough, according to Chimes, to furnish 60 to 70 percent of the nonprofit's electricity.

Washington Gas Energy Service, based in Herndon, VA will own and operate the system, which was designed and built by BITHENERGY, a Baltimore-based energy services firm.  Chimes inked a 20-year contract to buy the sun-generated power.

As if that wasn't enough, the installation includes independent solar powered outdoor lighting and an electric-vehicle charging station.  It isn't the first green project Chimes has undertaken either - its executives say through they've been able to trim $80,000 a year in energy costs at their locations in Maryland, the mid-Atlantic and Israel by weatherizing buildings, installing energy-efficient lighting and appliances and instilling conservation practices among employees.

(Photo by Corey Culbreath for BITHENERGY courtesy of Chimes)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:41 AM | | Comments (0)

September 29, 2011

MD's largest solar project under construction


Constellation Energy announced today that it's begun work on a 16.1-megawatt solar power plant at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg that when finished will be Maryland's largest single generator of electricity from the sun - at least for now.

Earth movers recently began clearing and grading the site for the $60 million project, which is expected to be completed next year.

Constellation plans to place 220,000 thin-film photovoltaic panels on 100 acres it is leasing from the Catholic institution, capable of generating more than 22 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.  The facility will be owned and operated by the Baltimore-based energy company.

Burning coal to produce the same amount of energy would release 15,170 metric tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide - roughly equivalent to what 2,975 cars and trucks spew from their tailpipes annually, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

The project was made possible by a 20-year power purchase agreement with the state and the University System of Maryland.  The state will be paying a fixed rate of 22.25 cents per kilowatt-hour, well above the current cost to generate power from burning fossil fuels.  But Kevin Lucas of the Maryland Energy Administration says that higher cost is offset by the marketable solar renewable energy credits the state also gets, which are now selling for about 17.5 cents/kwh.

The panels were made by First Solar, an Arizona-based company with manufacturing plants in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia.  The construction is expected to employ 75 people on average, and up to 150 at its peak, according to Constellation.  Once finished, the company says it will be run and maintained by two workers.

The Emmitsburg facility is one of four large-scale renewable energy projects being pushed by the O'Malley administration by offering long-term power purchasing agreements.  While the largest in the state for now, an even larger, 20-megawatt project is proposed by Easton-based Maryland Solar on 250 acres of farmland at a state prison complex in Hagerstown. 

Constellation plans to build a separate 1.3-megawatt solar array to generate power for Mount St. Mary's.

(Photo: Aerial view of solar plant construction site, by Something in the Sky for Constellation Energy) 

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:16 AM | | Comments (8)

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

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" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Chesapeake Bay, News, Urban Issues

"Park(ing) Day" turns pavement into mini-parks


Happy Park(ing) Day! For those not familiar with it, this is a day when artists, activists and creative business people transform curbside parking spaces into mini-parks and spaces for exhibiting art and socializing.

It was begun in 2005 in San Francisco by Rebar, an art and design studio there, but has gone global since. Last year, there were  more than 800 conversions in more than 180 cities in 30 countries on six continents. It's meant to get people thinking about "re-imagining the possibilities of the urban landscape," as Rebar's Matthew Passmore has been quoted.

Some Baltimore groups and businesses are getting in on the act. The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council is converting teachers' parking spaces at John Eager Howard Elementary School into a "composting kitchen," where students can learn how to build real and edible compost boxes. That's at 2100 Brookfield Ave. from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The city's landscape architecture and design firms seem to seizing the opportunity to strut their stuff - or just to engage in a little Friday whimsy. They include:

Ayers Saint Gross, which will unveil a temporary "sculptural shade structure" made almost entirely from plastic bottles collected from the harbor and around the city. It'll be in a pair of adjoining parking spaces at the corner of Broadway and Thames Street in Fells Point. It'll be up from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

EDSA, Inc., which plans an exhibit exploring how society might adapt to apocalyptic events like earthquakes and hurricanes. Its spot will be on Commerce Street just north of Pratt Street, across from the Baltimore World Trade Center.

Floura Teeter, which will convert three spaces in front of its downtown office at 306 W. Franklin Street into an "urban garden designed to showcase sustainable food preparation using local, seasonal ingredients." This will be Floura Teeter's third Park(ing) Day observance.

Mahan Rykiel Associates, which is making two parking spaces in Hampden on the Avenue (832-836 West 36th Street) into a "pop-up, outdoor, dog friendly café." That'll be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more on Park(ing) Day, go here.

(Shannon Early blows bubbles into passing traffic while relaxing in Floura Teeter's greened parking spaces downtown. 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)

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 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)

Solar power goes to college

Solar power's catching on bigtime on campus.

The University of Maryland College Park has one of the largest solar arrays in the Baltimore-Washington region, with more than 2,600 photovoltaic panels on the roof of its Severn Building. 

It's expected to generate about 792 MWh of electricity in the first year.  That's enough to power 872 homes for one month, and avoids 408 tons of CO2 emissions that would come from burning fossil fuels to get the same amount of juice.

The array is owned by Washington Gas Energy Services, which spent $2 million on the facility installed by Standard Solar.  The project was underwritten in part with a $630,000 state grant, and the university contracted to buy the electricity.

It's one of 16 solar projects supported by the Maryland Energy Administration under its Project Sunburst grant program. Officials say nine of those have been completed so far, providing 5.2 megawatts' worth of solar generating capacity.

(Photo courtesy Maryland Energy Administration)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:06 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Climate change, Going Green, News

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 22, 2011

Maryland to study reintroduction of elk


State officials announced today they will join with hunting groups to take a look at the feasibility of reintroducing elk in mountainous western Maryland after a three century absence.

The Department of Natural Resources is working with the Maryland Legislative Sportsmen’s Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to review the biological, social and economic feasibility of returning the species to land that hasn't seen any elk since the 1700s.

Elk once were found from New York to Georgia in the East, but were hunted out over a century ago. The animals have been restored in some spots, notably Tennessee, Kentucky in the Great Smoky Mountains.  Pennsylvania also has gradually conserved enough land to sustain a modest-sized herd, on which it allows limited hunting.

While the return of elk to Maryland could be a bonanza for hunting interests in the state, they're not universally welcomed. The animals tend to roam, causing crop damage and even more mayhem than a deer if hit by car or truck while crossing a road. And some worry about the potential for elk to contract and spread illnesses like wasting disease, which also affects deer.

So a key factor in the study, expected to take at least 12 months, will be gauging public opinion toward the move, particularly among farmers and other property owners whose land may attract herds of elk.

“Far Western Maryland offers ideal habitat for elk, but we all agree that citizens must be supportive,” David Allen, President and CEO of the Montana -based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said in a statement released by DNR. The Maryland sportsmen's foundation aims to hire a consultant to conduct polling, under the oversight of state officials.

“As with all of our ecological programs, science and informed public input will be our guide,” said Natural Resources Secretary John W. Griffin. “Consensus from our experts and all impacted stakeholders will be a prerequisite to this decision.”

Baltimore Sun file photo of bull elk in Yellowstone by Jerry Jackson

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:57 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: News

MD activists arrested in DC pipeline protest



More than 20 Washington-area environmental activists - including some from Maryland - were arrested outside the White House today as protests continued against building a 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to carry oil wrested from the tar sands of Alberta.

The arrests came on the third day of a series of protests planned through Sept. 3 urging the Obama administration to reject the $13 billion project. TransCanada Corp. is seeking US approval to complete the 36-inch Keystone XL pipeline, which it says will boost American energy security by linking Canadian crude oil with US refineries and sea lanes.

But activists contend the project will lead to oil spills, and that extracting oil from the tar sands will devastate vast forested Canadian habitat and greatly increase climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions. Protestors sported signs supporting development of more wind energy instead.

Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, was arrested Saturday along with about 60 others. Among the protest's leaders is Gus Speth, a Vermont Law School professor who ran the  United Nations Development Programme in the 1990s and was President Jimmy Carter's top environmental adviser.

(Photo courtesy Chesapeake Climate Action Network)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:00 PM | | Comments (3)

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" »

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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)

Royal Farms goes green


How convenient is it to go green? Ask Royal Farms, the Baltimore-based convenience store chain.

The comany's 5,000-square-foot store in Dover, PA is the first Royal Farms to earn LEED certification, the vanguard of a corporate pledge to certify all of their eligible stores under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Company officials celebrated the certification earlier this week.

From the outside, the Dover store, pictured above, doesn't appear any different than a traditional building.  Yet for what Royal Farms' consultant described as a "nominal" cost, the Dover store's designed and built to achieve 21 percent energy savings and use 42 percent less water, among other advantages. Any extra costs to go green were primarily for obtaining the LEED rating and should be easily made up by the operational savings, says Neal Fiorelli, managing partner of Lorax Partnerships of Columbia, the chain's consultant. 

Royal Farms says it has 20 stores that have applied for LEED certification, including a store on Charles Street in Baltimore expected to open later this year. Meanwhile, visitors to the Dover, PA store can pick up a brochure and maybe even get a quick tour to learn about its green features.

(Photo provided by Lorax Partnerships)  

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:00 AM | | 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 4, 2011

Grand Prix tree tempest rages on

The "tempest in a tree pit" over the Baltimore Grand Prix continues.

A vocal critic of the tree-cutting for the three-day downtown event met with the race's CEO today, but says his demands were rebuffed. David Troy, a software entrepreneur who launched a petition drive against the tree removal, says he didn't got to court today to block any further tree removals, but says he's still weighing that option. UPDATE: Troy posted a "press alert" that he's filing a petition for an injunction this morning (8/5). 

Troy, whose online petition has collected more than 1,500 signers, said he asked to see the memorandum of understanding between the city and the race. He also wanted the Grand Prix to provide a legally binding guarantee that it will plant and care for the nearly 200 trees it has promised to put in downtown in return for the city's blessing to remove 50 from to accommodate grandstands for race spectators.

Jay Davidson, chief executive officer for the racing organization, refused both requests, Troy said. Davidson did not respond to an email inquiring about his meeting with Troy.  UPDATE: Davidson confirmed that he would not provide the $1 million letter of credit Troy asked for.  He said the race is already paying for the trees, and has pledged to pay for an additional 5,000 saplings at a nursery to be used within the city.

"They just weren't able to offer any assurance one way or another," Troy said by telephone, adding that he was "just really disappointed" by the refusals. Although race officials had signed the agreement with the city on tree cutting and planting earlier this week, city officials refuse to release it until it has been reviewed by city attorneys and signed by the mayor.

Davidson had estimated yesterday that the tree planting would cost the race about $100,000. He pointed out that the Grand Prix already has posted a $750,000 performance bond guaranteeing to reimburse the city for its expenses in accommodating the Labor Day weekend event, which promoters hope will draw up to 100,000 spectators.

But Troy said he had no confidence that that bond would be enough to pay for the tree plantings along with all the other financial obligations the race would have should it be a bust and go bankrupt.

He also said he was shocked to see as he bicycled to the racing headquarters today another five trees had been removed by the Convention Center. Someone had carved the inititals BGP into one stump, he said, providing a photograph seen here.

Troy had vowed to file a lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court today seeking an injunction to block further tree removal, but after the meeting he said he had not done so yet and intended to consult his lawyer.

Continue reading "Grand Prix tree tempest rages on" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:28 PM | | Comments (9)

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)

City: Grand Prix to plant many more trees than it cuts

Update: Full story can be found here. 

A city official is defending allowing the Baltimore Grand Prix to cut down trees along the Inner Harbor race course, saying organizers have agreed to replace those trees nearly four times over, more than tripling the downtown's tree canopy in the process.

Beth Strommen, director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability says she negotiated a deal with organizers of the Labor Day weekend street race, in which they got to cut down fewer than half the trees they originally wanted to remove to improve spectators' views of the racing.

Only 50 trees are to be cut down along the race course on West Pratt and Light streets, said Strommen - not the 136 that Lonnie Fisher, assistant Grand Prix general manager had told The Baltimore Sun on Monday.  Strommen, who spoke by telephone while vacationing in New Jersey, said she could not explain the discrepancy, but said she had confirmed the city's agreement with the race by phone Tuesday.

News of the tree cutting has upset some residents, who contend that it violates the city's forest conservation code (Article 7, Natural Resources) and is at odds with the city's sustainability plan, which calls for doubling Baltimore's tree canopy by 2037.  

Critics have begun circulating an online petition calling for a halt to any more race-related tree cutting until the plan is fully aired and each tree to be removed identified, as required by city code. Petition drafter Dave Troy contended in an email that the plan for cutting and replacing trees because of the race was "haphazard" and "shoved down the throat of the public without due process."

Strommen said the deal she'd negotiated with race organizers hasn't been announced yet because it has yet to be finalized, reviewed by city lawyers and signed.   But it calls for planting 59 replacement trees in the race corridor, she said, and another 135 trees are to be planted in already empty sidewalk "pits" for trees elsewhere in downtown. 

Continue reading "City: Grand Prix to plant many more trees than it cuts " »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:30 AM | | Comments (38)

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

Trees cut downtown to give race fans better view

More than 100 trees are coming down in downtown Baltimore so spectators at the Grand Prix race on Labor Day weekend can get better views of cars speeding through the streets.  (UPDATE: City official says no more than 50 trees to be removed, with nearly 200 to be planted in compensation.  See later post here.)

The Baltimore Sun reports that trees are being removed along West Pratt Street, at the Inner Harbor and near Camden Yards. The first few fell to chainsaws Monday across from the Convention Center.

A total of 136 trees are to be cut down, but race organizers plan to replant them (plus three extras, apparently) - a cycle they'll evidently repeat every year for the next four, under the deal the city has to host the Grand Prix through 2015.

Baltimore Racing Development, the company running the three-day event, worked out the tree removal and replacement plan with the city's Office of Sustainability, the Downtown Partnership and the Waterfront Partnership, according to the Sun. 

For what it's worth, the city's sustainability plan calls for doubling Baltimore's meager tree canopy, from 20 percent of the urban landscape to 40 percent by 2037.  Guess this won't exactly be backsliding if the whacked trees get replaced every year, but not exactly progress, either. 

(Trees being removed across from Convention Center.  Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:58 PM | | Comments (17)

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)

July 28, 2011

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 21, 2011

Snot otters, Solar Decathlon, artificial reef and more

Timothy Wheeler is at the beach this week -- vacation, not assignment. But here are a few recent articles worth pointing out in case you missed them:

  • Endangered Hellbenders -- aka snot otters -- get new exhibit at Maryland Zoo. Are

 Baltimore Sun photo of a Hellbender by Karl Merton Ferron


Posted by Kim Walker at 6:30 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: News

July 14, 2011

"No Child" environmental ed bill returns


Legislation seeking to reconnect kids nationwide with nature and educate them more about the environment has resurfaced in Washington - this time with at least a trace of bipartisanship.

Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) announced they are introducing the "No Child Left Inside Act," which would provide federal assistance to states to develop and carry out environmental literacy plans. Cosponsors include Maryland's two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin.

Companion legislation is being reintroduced in the House, where the bill's champion, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-MD, had tried in vain to get it passed in the last Congress.

The announcement comes shortly after Maryland's state Board of Education decided to make environmental literacy a high school graduation requirement.

A coalition of more than 2,000 environmental and other groups has thrown its support behind getting national legislation, but a lack of Republican support has stalled it so far.

“Research shows that hands-on, outdoor environmental education has a measurably positive impact not only on student achievement in science, but also in reading, math, and social studies,” Sarbanes said in a statement. He said federal help is needed because many schools have been forced by budget shortages to scale back or eliminate environmental education programs.

“This will help the American K-12 education system foster innovation and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (the ‘STEM’ fields), which is crucial to keep our workforce competitive in rapidly emerging world markets,” said Kevin Coyle, vice president for education and training at the National Wildlife Federation.

For more on the bill, go here.

(Baltimore Sun photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:51 PM | | Comments (0)

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 13, 2011

Report finds B'more's green jobs growth lagging


A study released today estimates there are 22,600 "clean" jobs in the Baltmore area, but the growth here of employment in green energy, conservation and environmental services is trailing the nation as a whole.

The Brookings Institution reports that the region's "clean economy" jobs grew by 2.6 percent annually from 2003 to last year, ranking Baltimore 76th among the nation's 100 largest metro areas. Maryland overall fared somewhat better, with a 3.1 percent growth that ranked it 29th among states.

Report co-author Mark Muro told The Baltimore Sun's Jamie Smith Hopkins that the Baltimore area clean economy is dominated by slower-growing, mature industries such as waste management - which actually lost jobs in recent years, according to the report - and has fewer jobs in clean technology, which is showing rapid growth nationwide.

The Washington think tank contends that the clean economy offers great prospects for boosting employment and income without needing additional years of higher education, but that it won't realize its potential without a more focused national effort.

To see the report and more, go here.

(Workers insulating pipes to reduce home energy use. Baltimore Sun photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:49 AM | | Comments (0)

July 11, 2011

Bmore due for "Code red" unhealthy air today


It's not just the heat, or the humidity - it's the bad air. Experts are forecasting "code red," or seriously unhealthy, levels of smog or ozone pollution today in the Baltimore area.

Air quality is expected to be bad enough today to cause even healthy people to experience shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, nausea, chest pain, and eye and throat irritation if exercising or working outdoors.  People jogging, biking or making any other sort of exertion may feel pain in their chest when taking deep breaths.   And people with asthma or cardiac or respiratory conditions are likely to have more severe reactions to such high ozone levels.

Authorities recommend that people avoid outdoor exercise when ozone levels are expected to hit red levels. And Clean Air Partners, a nonprofit group that attempts to educate the public about air quality, recommends that people take steps to reduce the pollution that forms ozone, by reducing driving, turning off lights and reducing electricity use and by not operating gasoline-powered lawn equipment.

If ozone does reach forecasted "red" levels, it would be the fifth time this year in the Baltimore area, compared with just two "code red" days in the region by this time last summer.

Ozone levels are forecast to reach "code orange" levels in the Washington area, with air quality still bad enough to cause discomfort and health problems for sensitive individuals. The DC area has had six "code red" days so far this year.

Continue reading "Bmore due for "Code red" unhealthy air today" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:24 AM | | Comments (0)

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)

Chemical plant security focus of B'more summit

Chemical plant security is getting the once-over in a summit that starts today in downtown Baltimore.

Nearly 700 industry and government experts are expected for the two-day conference at the Baltimore Hilton Hotel, which is co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Chemical Sector Coordinating Council, an industry group.

Thousands of plants and other facilities that make or store hazardous chemicals have undergone safety and security upgrades since the terrorist attacks in 2001, and the industry has cooperated with the federal government in a new round of screening with an eye to improving safeguards even more, according to Larry Sloan, CEO and president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affliiates. He said industry is currently awaiting the go-ahead from the federal government to act on improvements proposed at facilities that have been screened under the latest review. "We're concerned about the slowness of the pace," Sloan said, of the government's response.

"They want to get moving on it, they want to get their systems implemented," added Ryan Loughlin director of chemical and energy solutions at ADT Security, a panel moderator at the summit.

The importance of staying on top of chemical security was emphasized earlier this year when a 20-year-old Saudi attending community college in Texas was arrested and accused of plotting terrorist attacks. According to The New York Times, he came to the attention of federal authorites after a North Carolina chemical plant reported the student had placed suspicious orders for materials that could be used to make a bomb.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:21 AM | | 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

"Weeds" sprout as bus shelter art

Weeds as art? Never underestimate the ingenuity of artists!

Starting Monday, bush bus shelters on North Avenue will feature large-scale photographs of some of the oft-overlooked and usually unwanted plants growing in the cracks in the sidewalk, in the gutters and storm drains throughout the city.

The bus shelter ads are part of a public art project called Uncultivated, offering what it calls "a virtual and physical tour of Baltimore's wild plant life."

Whle many might dismiss the green growth as weeds, the artists behind this project want people to look at them in a different light, as "tiny pockets of wildness within the urban environment."

"Often these tenacious plants are referred to as invasive, as if the blame for their presence lay with the plant itself," according to the  release from Lynn Cazabon, the project's director and photographer. 

"In reality, these plant species have simply evolved to thrive in the extremely harsh environment of the city, which is perpetually effected by human-caused disruption."

The release goes on to say that "these plants communicate something very important to us, telling how the landscape of Baltimore is evolving over time due to the effects of global climate change."

The photos are linked to a website, , which provides information on the plants in the pictures, plus a map showing where they were found in the city.  Others involved with the project are horticulturist Christa Partain and Amanda Barrett and Patterson Clark, who provided web site and logo design.

Look for the posters throughout July on North Ave. shelters between Howard and Charles streets and on St. Paul Street outside of Penn Station.  Maybe this will give all the critics of the "Male/Female" sculpture at Penn Station something else to look at and talk about.

(Photo courtesy Uncultivated)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:03 AM | | Comments (9)

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 23, 2011

NASA buzzing Bmore to check on air pollution

NASA's known for space flight, but next week one of its airplanes is going to start buzzing low over central Maryland, dipping down to 1,000 feet off the ground at times.

The series of overflights beginning Monday are part of a monthlong mission to sample the region's air pollution. Federal, state and university scientists hope the data gathered will help them design new air monitoring satellites and ground stations.

For more on the flights and the region's air quality, read my colleague Frank Roylance's story in

(P-3B Orion turboprop based at NASA's Wallops Island flight facility. NASA photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:56 PM | | Comments (1)

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 17, 2011

Coastal bays' health slips a notch


The health of Maryland's coastal bays near Ocean City worsened slightly last year, according to the latest ecological report card. Driven by declines in the northernmost bays and in the southernmost bay reaching down into Virginia, the overall condition of the 175-square-mile watershed slipped from a C-plus in 2009 to a C in 2010, which advocates say needs improvement.

The annual report, produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, provides a status check for the shallow embayments separating Assateague Island from the Worcester County mainland. Summer beachgoers flock there to boat and fish, and portions of the watershed have seen heavy development pressure over the years for vacation and retirement homes.  Their waters are a vital nursery area for summer flounder and other species.

Levels of dissolved oxygen in the water - needed for fish to breathe - were rated "generally moderate" except in Newport Bay, where declining water quality earned it a D-plus, the worst score of the five bays and river analyzed.  Nutrient pollution from farm runoff, development and septic leakage varied, with nitrogen levels relatively low in three bays and phosphorus readings moderate to poor in all but one.  Nutrient levels in the streams feeding into the bays were all relatively high, with phosphorus levels especially bad in the St. Martin's River and Newport Bay.

Sea grass growth and hard clam abundance on the bay bottoms were judged moderate to very poor everywhere but Sinepuxent Bay, which with a B grade was deemed the healthiest of the bays.

Dave Wilson, executive director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, said he thinks the northern bays are essentially "holding their own," despite what the report card characterizes as "slight" declines in some ecological indicators.  He attributes the dips in phosphorus in Assowoman Bay and the drop in hard clams in Isle of Wight Bay to unusually rainy weather washing more pollutants into the water.

More worrisome is the worsening condition of the southernmost bay, until lately considered one of the most pristine. Its health grade dropped to a C, from a B-minus in 2009.

"We're just continuing (to see) the decline of Chincoteague Bay, the jewel of our watershed," Wilson said. The reasons aren't clear, he added, because many of the farmers in that bay's watershed are practicing conservation.  But seagrass beds there have failed to rebound from a 2005 die-off, he noted, which may be a contributing factor.

This marks the 15th year of the coastal bays program, a partnership of local, state and federal governments aiming to preserve and restore the water bodies.   For more on the report card and the bays, go here.   

(Wild ponies on the shore of Sinepuxent Bay, 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:40 AM | | Comments (0)

June 16, 2011

Ash tree pest reaches outskirts of B'more

The emerald ash borer, an invasive pest from Asia that's been wreaking havoc in ash trees in southern Maryland and up and down the East Coast, has now been spotted in Howard County - the first detection in the Baltimore area.

My colleague Frank Roylance reports in today's Baltimore Sun that borers were positively identified earlier this month in three locations in Howard - in the mostly rural northwestern part of the county, in Jessup and in Columbia.

University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp called it "a watershed event," as the insects have been spreading much faster than expected. Experts last year updated their predictions for when borers would reach Baltimore from 2052 to 2022, but it now seems they could reach the city even before that.

The bright green borers first turned up in 2002 in a Michigan tree nursery. They've since been detected in southern Maryland and 14 other states. Shipments of infested trees and of ash firewood apparently have been among the chief means of spread. They're devastating to ash trees, which have been a popular shade and landscape tree in this area.  Experts estimate there are upwards of 600,000 in the city and near suburbs. 

Adult borers just nibble on leaves, but their larvae burrow beneath the bark and cut off the flow of nutrients, causing the trees to wither from the top down and ultimately die.  As reported in B'more Green recently, the state has stepped up efforts to detect the pests, hanging thousands of purple traps in ash trees to catch the adult borers.

Officials have been removing infested trees in an attempt to control the spread, but with so many ash trees in the area, they're seeking alternatives An insecticide is available that works, but it's costly. Experts have had early success with "bio-control", importing a tiny wasp that feeds on the borer larvae. But it'll be a few years yet, at least, before there are enough of the counter-pests to tell whether they're truly effective at halting the borers' spread.

For more on emerald ash borers and what to do to protect your trees, go here and here.

(Photos: Emerald ash borer, Michigan State University via AP; Ash borer trap, Nate Pesce of Patuxent Publishing)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:55 PM | | Comments (0)

June 10, 2011

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 8, 2011

Poultry industry going 'cool turkey' on arsenic


The poultry industry is rapidly phasing out use of arsenic in chicken feed after the Food and Drug Administration announced a "voluntary suspension" of the arsenic-laced drug because tests found elevated levels of the known carcinogen in birds fed the substance.

The announcement Wednesday (6/8) comes after years of controversy over the widespread poultry industry practice of giving chicks arsenic-laced feed to combat infection and give their flesh a pinker hue. Scientists and environmentalists have pressed state and federal governments to ban it, raising concerns about food safety and the environmental impact of arsenic in poultry waste getting into soil and streams.

Roxarsone has been fed to chickens since the 1940s, for what the industry calls "growth promotion, feed efficiency and improved pigmentation in chickens." The drug contained the less harmful organic form of arsenic, but scientific studies found that the organic arsenic in roxarsone switched to more harmful inorganic form, which is known to cause cancer.

FDA did tests of its own on 100 broiler chickens fed roxarsone and found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic in the chickens' livers. FDA and industry spokesmen stressed that though arsenic is carcinogenic, the levels detected in the chickens were very low and there's no health risk for people to continue eating roxarsone-treated poultry for the next month or so.

Alpharma, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., said it would voluntarily suspend sales of the animal drug, which it markets under the name 3-Nitro. All sales of the drug will be ended in the next 30 days, according to the company.

The FDA's action was praised by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who'd joined with other state attorneys general to press for a federal ban after state legislation to ban roxarsone twice failed to pass in Annapolis. Lobbyists for the state's poultry industry, which is concentrated on the Eastern Shore, had complained that a ban was unwarranted and would put Maryland chicken farmers and processors at a competitive disadvantage.

"It's absolutely the effect we've been trying to get all along," said Gansler. "It’s going to take time for people to realize the chicken they’re buying in the supermarket that’s not as pink (as it is now) is not only as fresh but better for you."

Continue reading "Poultry industry going 'cool turkey' on arsenic" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:58 PM | | Comments (3)

Heat wave bringing more smog to MD - get used to it?


Another heat wave is oppressing Maryland, and air-quality experts are warning today (6/8) could be another "Code Orange" day for all but the western end of the state. Children and adults with breathing or heart conditions should limit their time outdoors because of rising levels of smog, or ozone pollution.

Ozone forms in the air when emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources "bake" under hot, sunny skies. It can irritate the lungs, triggering coughing and wheezing, and aggravate asthma and other respiratory and heart problems.

Last summer was the hottest on record in these parts, and Clean Air Watch, a blog by Washington-based clean-air lobbyist Frank O'Donnell, points out that there've been fewer days of unhealthy smog levels so far this year nationwide, with national health standards for ozone breached 445 times through May 31, compared with 575 such "exceedances" by the same time last year.

But according to federal data, Maryland and 21 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have already experienced more bad air days in 2011 to date than in the same period the year before, he notes.

While Maryland and other states have made progress in recent years in reducing smog levels, climate experts have warned that global warming is likely to undercut those gains as unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other so-called greenhouse gases raise the earth's average temperature. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that climate change-induced ozone increases in Maryland could result in about 69,000 additional cases of serious respiratory illnesses, with the health-related impacts of worsening air pollution costing the state more than $133 million in 2020 alone.

Meanwhile, a political tug-of-war continues in Washington over whether to tighten limits on ozone-forming emissions.  Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to lower the acceptable level of ozone in the air, pointing to research indicating some health effects at concentrations below the current standard, which was set during the Bush administration.  The agency has yet to finalize that proposal, as industry groups have objected, complaining that the costs of reducing pollution levels are unwarranted and a drag on the economy.

(Hazy summer skyline from Federal Hill; 2002 Baltimore Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbush)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 10:27 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)

Study: Climate change indoor threat, too


Could weatherizing your home to fight climate change actually be harmful to your health?  Possibly, according to a new study, which warns that indoor environments could be impaired by global warming and some of the measures taken to combat it.

Most research on climate change has focused on its impacts on weather and external ecosystems, but the report today (6/7) by the Institute of Medicine warns people could suffer more from indoor dampness, poor ventilation and emissions from building materials and equipment used to counter the outdoor conditions. Some of the culprits may be the very things done to our homes and workplaces to mitigate climate change by reducing energy consumption, it says.

"America is in the midst of a large experiment in which weatherization efforts, retrofits and other initiatives that affect air exchange between the indoor and outdoor environments are taking place," said Professor John D. Spengler of the Harvard School of Public Health, and the study's lead author. "And new building materials and consumer products are being introduced indoors with relatively little consideration as to how they might affect the health of the occupants. Experience suggests that some of the effects could be negative."

The study, commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, calls on the federal agency to address those concerns as building codes, ventilation standards and other regulatiosn are adopted or revised to cope with climate change.  For more, go here.

(Worker weatherizing Howard County home, 2010 Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:30 AM | | Comments (1)

June 1, 2011

More unhealthy air in MD

The smog wave continues for a second day. As of noon Wednesday, ozone readings in the air in Fairhill in Cecil County and in Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County reached "orange" levels, meaning they're a risk for adults and children with heart or respiratory conditions.

For more, go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:32 PM | | Comments (0)

May 31, 2011

Heat wave brings unhealthy smog in MD


The heat wave gripping Maryland is cooking up unhealthy levels of ozone air pollution, or smog.

With the thermometer hitting another record high of 97 degrees at BWI Tuesday, air monitors reported ozone levels that pose health risks for people with heart or breathing problems in hte Baltimore and Washington areas, but also in western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. Individuals in those sensitive groups could experience health problems and are urged to limit their time outdoors.

Air quality reached "orange" levels, meaning a risk for sensitive groups, in Northeast Baltimore and in Davidsonville, Edgewood and Essex in the Baltimore area. Other areas registering sensitive air quality were Frederick County, Hagerstown in Washington County, Millington in Kent County and Beltsville in Prince George's County.  Ozone actually hit "red" levels, meaning a risk of causing discomfort and breathing problems even for healthy people exercising outdoors, in northern Virginia.  Southern Maryland and Montgomery County, it seems, enjoyed moderate to good air quality.  

Tuesday was the third time ozone pollution has gotten to orange levels this month, but the most extensive worsening of air quality. The other two times orange levels were reached Thursday in Padonia north of Baltimore and on Monday in Calvert County.  In May of 2010, by comparison, there were four days when ozone hit orange levels.

The stifling heat's forecast to hang around for at least another day, and air-quality forecasters are warning of another "Code Orange" day on Wednesday, a risk for sensitive individuals. 

Smog or ozone pollution forms when emissions from cars and trucks, power plants and other sources "bake" in sunny, windless skies.  Officials urge people to cut back on driving, using power mowers and painting, among other things, to reduce emissions when bad air days are predicted.

To learn more and stay up on the latest air-quality forecasts and readings, go here

(Worker laying asphalt in West Baltimore towels off perspiration. Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:41 PM | | Comments (0)

Greens say MD lagging on climate curbs

As if it wasn't hot enough already, some green groups and their business allies turned up the heat today on the O'Malley administration and state lawmakers, issuing a report saying Maryland's efforts to reduce climate-warming pollution are falling short and warning of more flooding like that pictured above.

Only one of the top 10 programs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state's 2008 Climate Action Plan is on track, according to the report by Environment Maryland, a statewide green group.  Five have shown mixed results, the report says, while the state has made "minimal progress" in one area and no progress at all in three others.

"We've made some progress, but not enough," said Tommy Landers, campaign director for Environment Maryland. To illustrate the need for climate action to avoid rising sea level, he and the others released the report at a press conference on the waterfront in Fells Point, where they displayed a photo of the area under water in the wake of Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003.

The state's participation with other northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which caps carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, is the only program that's essentially on track, Landers said.  Even that, though, needs to be tightened to have more impact, he said, and the tens of millions of dollars raised by making utilities buy pollution "allowances" should be spent more on promoting energy efficiency and renewables. 

The decision announced last week that New Jersey would withdraw from the regional greenhouse-gas effort complicates matters, but doesn't mean it still can't benefit Maryland, the activists say. 

The state has been slow to get started and has underfunded programs to help homeowners and businesses improve their energy efficiency, the report says.  Peter Van Buren, head of Terra Logos Energy Group, a Baltimore energy improvement firm, said nearly 500 homeowners have taken advantage of the rebates offered by the Maryland Energy Administration for home efficiency investments, but those funds are about to run out.

Continue reading "Greens say MD lagging on climate curbs" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:31 PM | | Comments (2)

May 26, 2011

NJ pulls out of regional greenhouse gas effort

New Jersey's governor is pulling out of a 10-state regional greenhouse gas reduction effort, saying it's ineffective at combatting climate change.  Maryland's Gov. Martin O'Malley has taken his counterpart to task, saying he's "simply wrong."

“The whole system is not working as it was intended to work. It is a failure,” New Jersey's Chris Christie said, according to the Associated Press.  Christie, a Republican, voiced doubts in November about the causes of climate change, but today said he believes it's real and caused at least in part by human activity.

Conservatives have been pressing governors in the Northeast to give up on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which requires fossil-fuel power plants in those states to buy allowrances for their emission of carbon dioxide, the leading gas blamed for warming the earth's climate.  Critics have pointed out that the caps on carbon-dioxide emissions are too loose to require any real reductions.

Maryland is one of the 10 states participating in RGGI. O'Malley, a Democrat, issued a statement saying he was disappointed by Christie's decision and disputing his claim the initiiative is ineffective.

"RGGI represents an important multi-state effort to address climate change at a time when consensus eludes Congress," O'Malley said.  The initiative has avoided carbon-dioxide emissions in Maryland equivalent to taking nearly 3,500 cars off the road, he said.

The auctions have raised $162.4 million in revenues for Maryland as well.  The funds are used to promote energy efficiency and alternative energy, but much of the money has been diverted to lower electric bills for low-income households.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 2:37 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Air Pollution, Climate change, News

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 13, 2011

Weekend roundup - Native plants, ECO-fest & herp search

It's spring, so there's something green to do every weekend, if not every day. Here are just a few:

BALTIMORE CITY - Roland Park is staging Seven Generations, its second annual weekend-long celebration of sustainability. On Saturday, May 14, there'll be a native plant sale, green expo and garden tour, among other things. Sunday features a "ciclovia" of pedaling, jogging or strolling down Roland Avenue from Northern Parkway to Cold Spring Lane.  Events start around 8 a.m. each day, and last into afternoon. Go here for more.

TOWSON - The Rotary Club of Towsontowne is staging an ECO-fest, a rain barrel and compost bin sale, on Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Towson United Methodist Church, 501 Hampton Lane.  Looks like it's going to rain, so better get a rain barrel while supplies last.  For more info, go here.

EASTERN SHORE - The 11th annual Great Worcester Herp Search needs volunteers Saturday to help scour the woods and fields for turtles, snakes, frogs and salamanders. Last year, searchers tallied 204 reptiles and amphibians, including box and snapping turtles and five-lined skinks.  The search kicks off 9 a.m. at Furnacetown off Route 12 near Snow Hill with a pre-hunt training session. Pack a lunch, sunscreen and rain gear, of course.  For directions, go here.

(Guiliana Cascio holds a box turtle found near Showell.  Photo courtesy Maryland Coastal Bays Program)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:58 PM | | Comments (0)

May 12, 2011

Throwaway bag fee spreads to DC 'burbs

Montgomery County's leaders have now done what Baltimore city's and Maryland's have balked at doing - impose a nickel tax on throwaway retail bags to fight litter. 

On Wednesday (May 11) County Executive Ike Leggett signed the bag-charge bill passed recently by the County Council, saying he hoped the new law would make shoppers more environmentally conscious rather than raise a lot of revenue.

It's modeled on the nickel-bag tax that took effect in 2010 in the District of Columbia, which has been credited with substantially reducing disposable bag use and litter there.

The Montgomery law, which takes effect Jan. 1, would levy a five-cent tax on almost every paper or plastic carryout bag provided by retail establishments in the county. Exceptions include bags for prescription drugs, newspapers, goods sold at farmers markets and other seasonal vendors' stands and prepared foods or drinks taken from restaurants. Merchants would get a penny back on every bag to help cover their administrative costs.

Officials estimate the bag tax will raise about $1.5 million in revenues its first year, which would be dedicated to help pay for controlling storm-water polllution, restoring streams and cleaning up litter. Plastic bags are one of the top four items found littering stream banks and clogging storm drains in the county.  Officials figure they spent about $3 million in 2009 on litter prevention and cleanup.

"This is good for the environment, and I expect many people who are not already doing this to adjust," Leggett said in a news release. “ As I have said before, we do not see this as a source of revenue. The more people who use reusable bags, the less revenue to the County and that is just fine.”

In Baltimore, where tons of floating trash and debris wash into the Inner Harbor every month, City Council mulled a heftier 25-cent bag tax or even banning disposable sacks altogether, as San Francisco did. But retailers and bag manufacturers protested, and after a protracted debate the council opted instead to require retailers just to promote recycling of plastic bags, or switch to paper.

Legislation that would tax non-reusable bags statewide has gone nowhere in Annapolis the past two years, despite support from environmental groups.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:30 AM | | Comments (0)

May 10, 2011

'Code Green' on construction in MD


Maryland has become the first state in the nation to embrace a green construction code, which green building advocates hope will pave the way (so to speak) for much more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly structures.

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law legislation passed this year by the General Assembly authorizing the application of the International Green Construction Code on all commercial buildings and residential buildings more than three stories high.

HB972, sponsored by Del. Dana Stein, D-Baltimore County, authorizes the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to adopt the code, and it enables local governments to do so as well.

In a year when lawmakers chose to study rather than act on most major environmental issues, the construction code measure is hailed by Stuart Kaplow, chairman of the US Green Building Council Maryland, as "the most significant environmental legislation adopted in Maryland this year." He called it "pro-business and pro-environment"

Proponents say the green construction code is likely to expand energy-efficient and environmentally friendly building practices.  It is faster, cheaper and easier to follow, they say, than the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, which puts off some developers because of the costs and delays in getting third-party certification of the green features in a building's design and construction.

Why do green buildings matter?  According to the USGBC, buildings account for 40% of US energy consumption, 39% of CO2 emissions and 13% water consumption. Building them greener can reduce energy use by up to 50%, CO2 emissions by as much as 39% and potable water use 40%.

(Construction cranes, 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:37 AM | | Comments (8)

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)

April 29, 2011

Bottled water bans: Needed or a diversion?

Students at the University of Maryland have jumped on a nationwide bandwagon to ban bottled water sales on campus, it seems.

The Washington Post reports that student government groups on the College Park campus have yielded to the pressure and now serve tapwater in pitchers at their meetings and events.    Other schools around the country also are cutting out on the bottled beverage. According to the Post, Goucher College in Baltimore apparently has gone halfway, removing bottles from dining halls and other campus eateries while still offering them at the bookstore and in vending machines.

The rap against bottled water is waste - that Americans are burning up resources and generating mountains of plastic debris for a drink they could easily get from a faucet or fountain somewhere. Of course, the bottles can be recycled, but many aren't, and there's still the energy consumed producing and transporting them.

But some are suggesting it's not an open-and-shut case.  Bottled water helps fight obesity, some say, by offering youthful consumers a more healthful choice than sugar-laden soft drinks in vending machines and at snack bars. That's certainly how the International Bottled Water Association sees it, with a spokesman calling its members' beverage "a healthy, legal product."

There's also the convenience factor - could it be there aren't as many water fountains as there used to be?  And some activists worry that making a fuss about bottled water could alienate the public and lose goodwill for action on other environmental issues arguably of greater importance.

What's your take? Time to dump the throwaway drinks, or is this a diversion from bigger problems? Do you drink bottled water, or carry your own?

(Bottled water on sale in Florida supermarket.  Photo by Tina Russell, Orlando Sentinel)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:30 PM | | Comments (14)

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 15, 2011

EV chargers set to spark across B'more


If you're an electric-car owner, it can be a bit daunting to find a public place to plug in and recharge in Baltimore right now. That's due to change soon, though.

The Maryland Energy Administration is working with the city and Baltimore Electric Vehicle Initiative to install 65 stations across the Baltimore-Washington area this spring, the first of which already has gone in at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. SemaConnect of Annapolis, meanwhile, was first out of the gate, placing a few of its stations in parking lots and garages around the area. It hopes to have 50 out there soon. 

Now Coulomb Technologies of California has announced it'll be placing charging stations in Baltimore, too, as part of a $37 million expansion of its ChargePoint America program. The company's Scott Miller emailed me that it expects to install 50 to 100 in the metro area, though timing is still to be determined.

In addition, there'll soon be a new tax break for EV owners and others to help with the cost of installing a charging station at home or elsewhere. The General Assembly approved an O'Malley administration bill, HB163, to provide a credit covering up to 20 percent of the cost of EV charging equipment.

All that apparently has been enough for Ford Motor Co. to put Baltimore on its list of the 25 most EV-ready cities in the country.

So we'll have to see if the spreading network of charging stations will spark sales of electric cars, as the lack of such infrastructure has been cited as a drag on their consumer appeal.  And maybe higher gas prices won't hurt, either.

(Mahi Reddy of SemaConnect recharges at station in Fitzgerald apartments parking garage in Mount Vernon. Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:56 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: 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 7, 2011

MD offshore wind bill going to summer school


Legislation aimed at boosting offshore wind development in Maryland has been tabled for further study amid lawmakers' concerns about the cost to consumers, according to Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O'Malley's press secretary.

O'Malley's spokesman said the setback was "not unexpected," given the debate and persistent questions being raised about the governor's bill, HB1054/SB861, which would have required Maryland utilities sign long-term contracts to buy power from offshore wind projects.

With just five days to go, the measure had yet to clear committees in either chamber of the General Assembly. The House Economic Matters committee had been scheduled to vote on it today, and the Senate Finance Committee just recently formed a work group to study the bill.

Adamec said the governor realized when he introduced the bill that offshore wind energy is such a new and complicated concept that it may take more than one year for legislators to endorse subsidizing it. The governor is committed to working with lawmakers on the study, his spokesman said.

This is the second major environmental initiative of the governor's to get sidetracked. Legislation he requested to limit rural development based on septic systems also was set aside for summer study. But O'Malley kept pressing for the offshore wind measure, offering an amendment just last week to cap the potential cost to Maryland households at no more than $2 per month.

Legislative leaders had welcomed the proposed price cap, but some lawmakers remained unsurre, and Republicans continued to attack the legislation, arguing that Maryland consumers could be forced to pay much higher electric bills to cover the costs of the turbines. 

The governor and wind supporters stressed the potential for construction and manufacturing jobs associated with building huge industrial-scale wind turbines 12 miles or more off Ocean City, and he repeatedly pointed to similar clean-energy efforts under way in other Atlantic coast states.

"The hope was that we could pass it this year to be a leader in this race for innovation off our coast," Adamec said. "There very well may be other states that beat us to that, but we will continue to lead this effort and hopefully next year can begin the process of getting those windmills spinning."

(Offshore turbines, China, AP photo)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 4:42 PM | | Comments (4)

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 31, 2011

Report: Maryland lagging on energy savings

Maryland is lagging badly in meeting its goal of reducing energy consumption 15 percent by 2015, and a consumer group is blaming the state's Public Service Commission for the lack of progress.

Three years after Gov. Martin O'Malley got lawmakers to adopt his Empower Maryland energy conservation goal, the state's effort to get consumption down is so far behind it won't even get halfway there by the 2015 deadline, according to the latest report by Maryland PIRG.

That's unfortunate, because while there's debate about the merits and drawbacks of producing power from coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind or even solar, experts seem to agree wholeheartedly on the merits of stretching existing sources of energy by increasing the efficiency with which we consume it.  It can be done quickly and with relatively little upfront cost, compared with building new power plants - if done right. 

According to my colleague Liz Kay's reporting in today's Baltimore Sun, Johanna Neumann, the group's state director, faults the PSC for "mismanagement" of the development of energy-efficiency programs by the state's utilities.  PSC chairman Douglas Nazarian wouldn't comment on the criticism, because energy-savings programs are under continuing consideration by the commission.  O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec, though, said consumers still have benefited through reduced energy spending even if the effort's well short of its goal.

Continue reading "Report: Maryland lagging on energy savings" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:45 AM | | Comments (1)

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)

Green bills wilting in Annapolis?

This year's General Assembly still has two weeks to go, but it looks like several high-profile environmental bills are in trouble.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's bid to boost development of industrial-scale wind projects off Maryland's Atlantic coast hasn't moved in either the House or Senate so far. The governor and environmentalists keep pressing for HB1054/SB861, but legislators appear wary of how much it will increase electricty rates. Meanwhile, a related administration bill, HB1227, to provide economic incentives for wind turbine manufacturers to locate in Maryland has been withdrawn.

Another gubernatorial priority - to limit development relying on septic systems - has effectively been sidetracked, with HB1107 earmarked for summer study by Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee. 

A couple non-administration bills that are priorities of green groups are faring better, but more remain in doubt. 

On the budget, it appears the threat has been averted that lawmakers might permanently divert funding for buying parkland and playgrounds.

A bill that would delay drilling for natural gas in Maryland's Marcellus shale deposits for up to two years for more study passed the House. HB852 now awaits action in the Senate, which has already turned aside a bid by western Maryland's Sen. George Edwards to require the state Department of the Environment to complete its reivew of issues around hydraulic fracturing by the end of this year.

Legislation that would levy a nickel fee on throwaway plastic and paper store bags, HB1034, remains in committee, though.  And a bill that would ban arsenic in chicken feed, HB754, was killed by the House Environmental Matters panel.

One other "green" bill does seem to sprouting legs.  The House passed the Fertlizer Use Act of 2011, HB573, which would regulate the contents and application of lawn food.  It now awaits action in the Senate. 

(State House, 2008 Baltimore Sun photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 7:17 AM | | Comments (0)

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 9, 2011

EPA targets MD site for cleanup, proposes another

A former explosives factory near Elkton has been added to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup list, and the federal agency has proposed adding a former dump in Dundalk now owned by a hunting club.

EPA put a site it calls the Dwyer Property on its National Priorities List for remedial action because there are two plumes of trichloroethene, or TCE, in ground water that's heavily used for drinking water.  Widely used as a cleaning solvent, TCE is considered a probable human carcinogen, as lab tests with mice and rats suggest it may cause liver, kidney and lung cancer. Drinking small amounts also may impair immune systems or fetal development in pregnant women.

The Dwyer property just north of Elkton was once part of the Triumph Explosives plant, which made incendiary bombs, land mines, shells and grenades from the 1930s through the end of World War II.  Subsequent owners made carbon batteries, fireworks and flares there until the early 1970s.  The land is now abandoned and overgrown, according to EPA.  There are residential and municipal wells in the area, and there's a risk vapors from the TCE plumes could seep into nearby homes, the agency said.

EPA also proposed adding a former dump in Dundalk to its Superfund cleanup list.   Once a marsh, the 2.48-acre tract bordering a cove off Back River was filled in and used from the 1960s to 1980s to dispose of drums, storage tanks, scrap metal, empty tanks, abandoned trucks and trailers, heavy construction equipment and junked cars.  Sampling has found high levels of semivolatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, metals and pesticides in the soil and sediment.

The site, which EPA calls the Sauer Dump, is owned by the Wittstadt Hunting Club and has been used lately for duck hunting and vehicle maintenance, according to the agency.  All-terrain vehicles have caused erosion and exposed contaminated soils, but the site has been fenced off in recent years and the eroding shoreline stabilized. 

For a list of all of Maryland's Superfund cleanup sites, go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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 3, 2011

Offshore wind - a question of costs

A crucial element of Gov. Martin O'Malley's push to build wind turbines off Maryland's coast gets a hearing in Annapolis today (March 3), as the House Economic Matters Committee takes up an administration bill that would subsidize their construction by raising nearly every resident's electric bill, at least in the near term.

The administration has proposed legislation, HB1054, that would require utilities in the state to enter into long-term contracts with wind energy developers to buy the electricity the turbines would generate. Wind industry officials say such power purchase agreements are needed to securing the financing needed to go forward.

The bill has the backing of environmentalists eager to see the development of more clean, renewable energy in Maryland, and of unions anticipating the massive turbine projects will yield a bonanza of construction and even manufacturing jobs. But as The Washington Post points out in a story today, a key question for lawmakers is just how much electricity rates have to go up to underwrite this push to put Maryland in the vanguard of developing some of the nation's first offshore wind energy projects.

Producing electricity from wind energy is likely to be more expensive than power from conventional coal- or gas-burning plants at the start, advocates say, because of the high costs of building the turbines off shore and getting their power to land. But they argue that the renewable source will become relatively cheaper over time as the costs of extracting and burning (and offsetting the pollution from) fossil fuels goes up.

If the power deals inked in Maryland are anything like the one struck in neighboring Delaware for an offshore project pursued by NRG Bluewater Wind, legislative analysts say residents could be paying an extra $2 a month, or $24 a year, on their electric bills in 2016, with the surcharge anticipated to gradually decline to half that over the next 20 years.

But the Post story notes that the US Energy Information Administration recently projected the costs of electricity generated by conventional fossil-fuel power plants over the next 20 years actually would drop, at least partly as a result of an anticipated boost in natural gas production from vast reserves in Marcellus shale deposits underlying Appalachia, including western Maryland, and from elsewhere in the US. Based on the federal energy cost forecasts, legislative analysts note that the wind surcharge could be more like $3.61 a month, or $43.35 a year by 2016 and would still be $2 a month or more 20 years later.

Advocates would say even the higher cost projections are small price to pay for getting clean power that won't worsen climate change. But Maryland lawmakers are wary of raising their constituents' power bills after the uproar that ensued when electric deregulation sent rates skyrocketing several years ago.   The question of what wind will cost, and who pays, could be key.

(Wind turbines off England, AFP/Getty images)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 8:50 AM | | Comments (4)

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" »

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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 24, 2011

Marcellus shale gas "dirtier" than coal?

The push to tap natural gas reserves locked in Marcellus shale formations beneath western Maryland and the rest of Appalachia is generating lots of debate over the risks to drinking water and streams posed by the extraction method, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Now comes a new criticism: Some researchers say all the shale gas wells being drilled may do more harm to the earth's warming climate than a comparable amount of coal mined via mountaintop removal.

That's a big switch if so, as natural gas generally emits half the climate-warming carbon dioxide coal does when burned.  Many have touted gas as a clean alternative to coal, and a suitable "transition" fossil fuel until more renewable energy sources can be developed.  Even those Maryland lawmakers most worried about the environmental and health impacts of "fracking" seem to accept that tapping shale gas is preferable to mining more coal or drilling for more oil offshore.

But researchers at Cornell University have projected that greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas production over the next 20 years could actually be higher than from surface-mined coal, possibly even twice as high. The researchers say they've submitted their findings for publication in a scientific journal, but have posted a summary here

The reason shale gas is worse for the climate, they say, is that methane in the gas is getting into the atmosphere from vents and leaks during hydraulic fracturing - and afterward, as the gas is being pumped out. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, with 25 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide. 

The Cornell scientists estimate that 3.6 to 7.9 percent of the methane in shale gas is leaking into the air, up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.  Buttressing their findings is a November 2010 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, which reviewed the greenhouse gas emissions of various fuels and determined that natural gas, particularly shale gas, is higher than previously believed.

"Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is 1.2- to 2.1-fold greater on the 20-year time frame and is comparable when compared over 100 years," concludes Robert W. Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology.

Jeffrey McManus with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network warned lawmakers about this new evidence that shale gas is a "serious threat" to the climate during a hearing Wednesday in Annapolis on bills that would require tighter regulation or a two-year study of "fracking."   No one asked him any questions, or even seemed to pay much heed.

(Well being drilled near Pittsburgh.  2005 Baltimore Sun photo by Doug Kapustin)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 3:20 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" »

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February 22, 2011

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

Local author tries fiction to make climate change real

Some skeptics think climate change is nothing but fiction.  But a Baltimore author has penned a novel about rising temperatures, coastal flooding and social upheaval in hopes of making the harsh consequences of global warming more real to people.

Dana M. Stein says he wrote Fire in the Wind to “dramatize the way climate change will affect daily life,” though he confesses, “It was a big leap for me to do it.”

That’s because it’s a first novel for Stein. He’s executive director of Civic Works, a Baltimore nonprofit that runs what it calls an “urban service corps,” enlisting young adults and teens in community service, greening and education projects. He also happens to be a lawyer and a member of the House of Delegates representing northwest Baltimore County.

“This is the first time I’ve written anything except an op-ed for a local paper,” he says. But he was moved to write, he says, because as he spoke with young people about climate change, he found many of them had a hard time caring about the issue, in part because they just couldn’t imagine how it might affect them personally.

"When I"ve discussed climate change at schools," he told me in an email, "some student say that its impact is too far off for them to visualize what might happen."

Continue reading "Local author tries fiction to make climate change real" »

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:42 AM | | Comments (2)

February 16, 2011

Backyard bird count tracks avian ups, downs


Remember when thousands of blackbirds mysteriously dropped from the sky in Arkansas on New Year's Eve? Here's a chance to help scientists understand what's happening with those and all the other birds across North America: join the annual Great Backyard Bird Count this week.

For four days starting Friday, Feb. 18, thousands of volunteers across the United States and Canada tally and report the birds they see and hear in the wild, in neighborhood parks or in their own backyards. The collective observations give ornithologists a "snapshot" of what's happening with bird populations.

Now in its 14th year, the count has detected ups and downs in some species.  For instance, American crows, once regularly among the top four or five most frequently reported species, have become less common since 2003, when West Nile virus spread across the US.  Scientists noted 50-75 percent drops in crow populations in states after the mosquito-borne disease hit.

Last year, nearly 100,000 reports were submitted toting up more than 11 million birds of 603 species.  American robins topped the list, at 1.8 million sighted.  The Canada goose was second, at around 750,000, with Snow goose, American crow and European starling rounding out the most commonly seen birds.  Joining the list for the first time last year was the Red-billed tropicbird, spied by some adventurous birders off the Pacific coast near San Diego.

Here in Maryland, citizen scientists spotted 220,539 birds of 138 different species.  Canada goose and Snow goose beat the robin hands down, with the Common grackle and Dark-eyed junco coming in third and fourth. In my backyard, I often spy a Northern cardinal or two, like the one pictured here.

It's easy to participate in the count, requiring as little as 15 minutes in a day.  And as the name suggests, you don't even have to leave the warmth of your house, just look out in your backyard.  The count is coordinated by the  Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada.

To join in, or to learn more about previous bird counts, go here.

(Top, Canada geese take flight near Rappahannock River, 2009.  Baltimore Sun photo by Jerry Jackson. Middle, students watching for birds in Patterson Park, 2006, Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam.  Bottom, Northern cardinal, taken by Heather Taylor of Maryland, courtesy Great Backyard Bird Count)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 9:00 AM | | Comments (1)

Bright idea: devices "track" sun for more power

Solar panels work best when pointed at the sun, but that orb shifts its location in the sky as the world turns. With the state's help, a Columbia-based firm has come up with a sun "tracking" device that it contends will boost the power solar panels can produce by as much as 30 percent.

Advanced Technology & Research Corp. is making what it calls a Solar Pole Tracker.  It uses a GPS-based controller to follow the sun across the sky, so that solar panels can maximize the energy they absorb.  The company hopes to market the devices for mounting on utility or light poles "in parking lots at shopping malls, business parks, train stations and park-and-rides."

The technology company -- perhaps not coincidentally located on Eli Whitney Drive in Howard County -- received a $1.1 million grant last year from the Maryland Energy Administration to produce 1,200 of its trackers. by March 2012. The state's "clean energy" economic development initiative is underwritten with federal economic stimulus funds.

ATR says it's now seeking government agencies or private businesses to try out its devices.  The gadgets cost $700 to $1760 each, it seems, but the company contends they should pay for themselves in five years' time, with income from renewable energy credits and selling power back to the electric grid.  They also could garner a little extra revenue as mini-billboards, the company points out, with advertising mounted on them, as the above image depicts.

Time will tell if they catch on. Meanwhile, the company says it's working on other solar-tracking devices, a DIY version for homeowners, and one that would be used to mount solar panels on giant industrial wind turbines.  (CORRECTION 2/17 - the solar panel tracker would go on smaller wind turbines, as seen in photo above of one placed on Tilghman Island on the Eastern Shore.) The firm says it's already made one sale, for a solar-powered electric vehicle charging station to be installed in Bethesda this spring.

(Image courtesy ATR)


Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:44 AM | | Comments (0)

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 14, 2011

Terps climbing on the solar bandwagon

The University of Maryland is going solar, installing more than 2,600 photovoltaic panels on one of its buildings near the College Park campus.

The 631-kilowatt system is to be placed on the roof of the Severn building, a multi-purpose structure less than a mile from the campus.  It will be installed by Standard Solar Inc. of Rockville, and owned and operated by Washington Gas Energy Services. UM has agreed to buy the electricity generated by the solar panels - about 792 megawatt-hours annually - under a 20-year contract.

University officials say it will be one of the biggest solar installations in the state, though it's dwarfed by the 2.1-megawatt solar "farm" being built at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.  Spice maker McCormick & Co. already has 1 megawatts' worth of solar panels on two of its buildings in Hunt Valley, and poultry producer Perdue announced recently it was putting 5,000 solar panels capable of generating up to 1.1 megawatts of electricity at its Salisbury headquarters.

Even if it's not so huge after all, the solar panels at College Park should reduce the campus carbon footprint by more than 600 tons a year, university officials estimate, or about as many greenhouse gas emissions as you'd get from burning 64,000 gallons of gasoline annually.

The College Park project was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Energy Administration. Under Project Sunburst, MEA provided grants to subsidize 18 different solar installations on school, university and government buildings. Funding for the grants, which provide rebates of $1,000 per kilowatt-DC of photovoltaic capacity installed, came from federal stimulus funds.

State officials said when announcing the grants last year that the 9.9 megawatts' capacity from those projects would roughly triple the solar generating capacity on Maryland's electric grid. Other big Sunburst projects to come include 750-kilowatt systems atop Baltimore's Convention Center and at Anne Arundel Community College.

(Solar panels atop McCormick manufacturing plant in Hunt Valley, 2010. Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 1:07 PM | | Comments (1)

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)