Bay Ecosystem:Tangier Island Recovers from Icy Grip

As temperatures on the Chesapeake Bay dropped as low as 9 degrees early this month, a barricade of ice up to 10 inches thick formed around Tangier Island, preventing boats from bringing groceries, medicine and other supplies to the 722 residents on that speck of Virginia off the Eastern Shore.

Fortunately, a variety of agencies came to the rescue — the U.S. Coast Guard out of Maryland, the Virginia National Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources organized emergency ice-breaking operations to free Tangier Island.

Nearly two weeks after the snowstorm, regular activity on the waters around Tangier resumed Wednesday, and the mail delivery ferry went out to Tangier’s residents for the first time Thursday morning.

“We’re happy to help with what is really life-saving work,” said Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Tangier is located in the Chesapeake Bay and consists of three villages — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island depends on boats for mail and shipments, and single-digit temperatures and thick ice made that impossible.

Tangier Island falls within the Coast Guard’s 5th District, which includes Maryland and Virginia.

“The Coast Guard has a history of providing assistance to Tangier,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges. “The organizations that responded to Tangier Island were based on the availability of assets with ice-breaking capabilities.”

Then the Virginia National Guard flew in from Richmond, making two trips to deliver additional food.

Island officials sought assistance from the Coast Guard, which sent the cutter Chock on Jan. 3. The ship conducted ice breaking and supply delivery until Jan. 5, Hodges said.

“The Chock had to be redirected to break ice in another area, and second request was submitted to the Coast Guard by Tangier for assistance,” Hodges said. “The Coast Guard was unable to facilitate the request, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management took over relief duties.”

According to Bortz, a 100-foot Maryland icebreaker, the J. Millard-Tawes, was brought in from Crisfield, Maryland, 13 1/2 miles from Tangier.

Clearing a path, he said, was “the primary goal.”

The Maryland DNR was called to the island last in 2015. Bortz said the U.S. Coast Guard primarily responds to Tangier while Maryland DNR focuses on helping nearby Smith Island, Maryland.

Capt. Eddie Somers of the J. Millard-Tawes was part of the rescue team that met trucks of supplies at the city docks in Crisfield and took the two-hour journey to Tangier.

Besides the Tawes, the Maryland DNR has three ice-breaking vessels — the John C. Widener in Annapolis, A.V. Sandusky in Kent Narrows and Big Lou on the Choptank River.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge said the island hasn’t experienced ice like this in many years. The community, he added, always pulls together.

“Some 40 years ago, folks would have bonfires and go ice skating,” he said. “This was the closest to an ice storm we’ve had since then.”

By Sophia Belletti and Katie Bashista.

Photos from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources 

Oyster Shell Recycling: Bay to Table and Back Again

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At 7:30 a.m., outside of the Oyster Recovery Partnership office and by the trunk of his 2008 Toyota Corolla, Wayne Witzke traded his slides for a pair of brown rubber boots.

The bearded man hopped into a Ford F-550, fired up the truck — covered with oyster-camouflage — and shifted it into gear. Time to pick up smelly barrels of shells from roughly 30 restaurants in Annapolis.

“Just me individually,” Witzke said, “I pick up 100-150 restaurants” per week.

Witzke works for the Shell Recycling Alliance, an Oyster Recovery Partnership program that collects discarded shell from restaurants and seafood distributors in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and parts of Virginia.

Witzke grew up near Salisbury, Maryland, “always going to tributaries of the bay, specifically the Nanticoke and living near the Wicomico,” he said. “I’ve always gotten to see how life on the bay is.”

He’s also seen the Chesapeake’s condition change.

“We’ve also had moments where we can’t necessarily go swimming in some of those tributaries because of bacteria and other things,” he said. “Loving to fish and crab and even eat some of the seafood that we get from it has opened my eyes to the plight of the bay and how, consequently, there are efforts out there to bring it back.”

While Witzke picks up, transports and unloads shell, he keeps the bigger picture in mind.

“Sure I’m just dumping the shells,” he said, “but each one will become a home for 10 baby oysters.”

He added: “It comes down to believing in the mission.”

Some of the shells are used for the Marylanders Grow Oysters program, which equips willing waterfront households with cages of oysters to hang from their docks.

The effort protects baby oysters in their most vulnerable stages. After a year, the homeowners return the oysters and the bivalves are planted in oyster sanctuaries to improve water quality, among other benefits.

The recycled shell is also used to bolster state and federally sponsored oyster restoration in Chesapeake Bay tributaries on the Eastern Shore of Maryland — the largest oyster restoration project in the country.

The shell Witzke and his colleagues recycle is delivered to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Oyster Hatchery in Cambridge, Maryland.

It is aged for a year “to get rid of any organic material,” washed with high-pressure hoses, and placed in metal cages containers, Hatchery Manager Stephanie Alexander told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

The containers of shell are then added to outdoor setting tanks. The larvae are introduced to the tank and regulated closely by hatchery staff, who take samples to measure how many attached to shells, Alexander said.

“If the numbers look good,” she said, “we’ll go ahead and turn the water on” and then schedule planting. The tanks are connected by an elaborate network of pipes, which pump phytoplankton-rich river water through the cages, providing a food source for the young bivalves.

Ready for deployment, the spat — baby oysters once they’ve attached to shell — are loaded onto a vessel and dumped onto oyster beds in the country’s largest oyster restoration project in and around the Choptank River.

Oyster planting can’t happen without hatchery-grown larvae. And hatchery-grown larvae need shells to survive, which highlights the importance of Witzke and his colleagues’ work.

Shell recycled by the alliance accounts for about a third of hatchery operations’ total demand of approximately 100,000 bushels per year, according to Tom Price, Shell Recycling Alliance operations manager.

The shell recycling program began in 2010 with 22 restaurants. Today, the alliance boasts over 336 members regionwide and counting, Price said.

This year, Price said, the shell alliance is on track to collect 34,000 bushels, with its grand total set to eclipse 140,000 bushels since the program’s inception in 2010.

On Nov. 9 — as he does almost every Thursday — Witzke set off to pick up shell from restaurants on the alliance’s Annapolis route. He’s refined his collection practice down to labeling certain cans with zip ties and has developed a walking route among the downtown restaurants. Each time he picks up a restaurant’s container of shell, he replaces it with a fresh can.

The aroma of a full can of old shucked oyster shells is nauseating. The containers stored inside are bad, the ones stored outside — open to the elements and subject to filling with water — are noxious.

Witzke’s used to it, though, and didn’t skip a beat.

Cans with zip-ties have holes in them to let water drain as they sit outside of restaurants. Witzke knows he can’t use those cans for restaurants that store shell indoors, because the rancid liquid inside would drip out.

As he approached the first, and newest, stop — Azure at the Park Place Plaza — Witzke squeezed the truck beside two moving vans, grabbed a rope he uses to drag full cans and took off into a dark loading dock.

“Let’s see if we can find this can,” he said.

The three-year shell recycling veteran has also noticed trends. Some restaurants, the “dink and dunks” as Witzke calls them, produce little shell, while others, the “heavy hitters”, consistently have multiple cans to recycle.

His downtown Annapolis route, which he does on foot, pulling cans on a dolly, began at the Market House by Ego Alley on the town’s renowned waterfront. He picked up at popular restaurants like Middleton Tavern and McGarvey’s Saloon & Oyster Bar, and then headed toward the State House and Galway Bay Irish Restaurant and Pub on Maryland Avenue.

To get to Galway Bay’s cooler, Witzke had to maneuver through an elaborate and narrow alley system. On this particular Thursday, the Irish pub, which prides itself on reducing waste, produced little more than a bucket of shell.

“It’s our mission to be good stewards of our planet,” said Gary Brown, assistant general manager at Galway Bay. Brown found out about the recycling alliance at a festival. The Recovery Partnership attends many festivals to spread the word about the program.

“I spoke with one of the ladies from the recovery partnership and decided to say, ‘Hey we’re going through all these oysters and there’s no way to recycle them,’” Brown said.

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve,” Brown said, “because they smell.”

If they leave the oysters outside, Brown added, they’ll attract flies, maggots and rodents, “which obviously as a restaurant we don’t want.”

So Galway Bay settled on buckets with a screw-on lid to negate the smell.

It’s not only about environmental stewardship for restaurants. The initiative provides free waste removal — the recycling alliance picks up their shell for free — and a tax break.

Each time they pick up shell from a restaurant, Witzke and the alliance record the amounts. At the end of the year, the alliance totals the amount of bushels each restaurant collected, creates a certificate and delivers it to the restaurant. For up to 150 bushels, the restaurant can earn $5 per bushel against its state income tax.

After loading the shell from the Irish pub onto his dolly, Witzke wheeled the oysters back to the truck.

On to the heavy hitters in the Eastport neighborhood.

Boatyard Bar & Grill recycled the most shell Nov. 9, with over six cans.

“We sell a huge amount of oysters,” said Dick Franyo, the owner of Boatyard, who outlined his restaurant’s “Buck to Shuck” promotion, which offers $1 oysters at happy hour and on Sundays.

Franyo, a self-proclaimed “bay rat,” said he grew up fishing and sailing around the bay. As such, he’s grown to understand the importance of cleaning it — and the oysters’ impact on the estuary.

“If you’re in the Chesapeake Bay region, your business is driven by the health of the bay,” he said. “People come here to eat local” oysters, crabs and rockfish (striped bass).

He added: “So goes the health of the bay, so goes our business.”

To get to the back of Boatyard, Witzke had to reverse the bulky truck down a narrow alley.

“All the other trucks scrape the walls,” Franyo said.

Witzke then retrieved the cans from an outdoor closet attached to the restaurant. The room was packed with full cans stacked on top of each other. He had to heft the heavy cans onto the ground before dragging them to the back of the truck. At the truck, Witzke heaved four cans onto a hydraulic lift,repeating until he’d collected all of them.

By about 1 p.m., Witzke had collected all of his shell. He got back on the road and headed for the Bay Bridge.

“This is the part of the job that drives me nuts,” he said, pointing to the pickup truck in front of him on Eastbound Route 50, “sitting in traffic behind someone that’s just moseying along.”

“I just want to dump or pick up my shell.”

Upon arrival at the Grasonville Solid Waste Transfer Station in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, Witzke steered the truck to the back corner of the facility. He turned and reversed toward the alliance’s mountainous shell piles.

As Witzke exited the truck, the rancid smell of of rotting seafood was startling.

Witze stacked each of the empty cans left at the transfer station from the previous trip. He maintains a rotation, giving the cans a few days to air out before exchanging them for full containers at restaurants.

Witzke swung open the Ford’s rear corral gates and slid containers to the edge of the truck bed before tipping them over, one at a time, pouring the contents onto the shell pile.

It had rained overnight and many of the cans had filled with water. Each time he turned over a container of shells, water splashed up.

And each time the pungent smell of rotten seafood slush pierced the air.

After about an hour, Witzke had cleared the truck bed and switched out the cans. Time to head back to the Annapolis office, a long day of smelly work on the books.

He climbed into the truck, leaving the putrid smell behind, and turned the ignition.

“Does the AC smell weird to you?”

By Alex Mann

Marylanders Deadline to Enroll in ACA Health Coverage Nears

A series of “last chance” events are scheduled for this weekend to help Marylanders enroll in Affordable Care Act health care coverage for 2018 before the Dec 15. deadline.

Free events are planned at 18 locations throughout the state Dec. 8-10. At these events, trained “navigators” will be available to assist people enroll in health coverage.

Despite the growth in ACA health care rates in Maryland in recent years, racial disparities in health coverage remain. The rates of minority groups’ participation still remain below the rates of the general population, according to the the Maryland Health Care for All! Coalition, an advocacy group aiming to educate Marylanders about effective and affordable ways for consumers to access health care.

“It’s a focus for us, the groups that have been underinsured for years. We’re making progress, but there is more to be done,” Andrew Ratner, chief of staff of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Minority enrollments are lagging compared to one year ago: African-American numbers are down 2,745, and Hispanic registration is down by 858, according to Betsy Plunkett, deputy director of marketing and web strategies at the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.

“The NAACP strongly urges Marylanders to go take advantage of these enrollment events this weekend to get health care coverage,” said Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches. “We have all fought very hard to enact and protect the ACA and health care coverage so let’s make it work for everyone.”

“The ACA is really important to us,” Stansbury added. “We need to make sure that all the ministers, churches and pastors make this a priority in their congregations….Get out and do what you can do for your family and your friends.”

According to Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, the Affordable Care Act has already proved successful in the state with over 400,000 Marylanders enrolled.

Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Mike Busch, D-Anne Arundel, a large supporter of “getting health care right in Maryland” and “protecting against rate-shock” to consumers, according to Busch’s website, spoke in favor of these events at the meeting.

“With the Affordable Care Act, the state of Maryland came down to having less than 6 percent of its population with no insurance. When you have more than 95 percent of people of the population insured it brings down everyone’s premiums,” Busch said.

It’s important for Marylanders to understand that they still have time to enroll, added Busch, and the hope is that 100,000 or more people will sign up.

Along with Busch, Michele Eberle, incoming executive director for the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, spoke in support of the initiative.

For help this weekend and in the enrollment process, Eberle advises consumers to visit MarylandHealthConnection.gov or to download the Maryland Health Connection free mobile app.

“It’s a must that you download this app, the neatest feature is that you can click, get help and find the closest-to-you broker, a navigator, a call center, and there is all sorts of free help to help you and your family find your best plan,” Eberle said.

DeMarco said that Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative hopes to propose legislation in the upcoming session to continue support for the ACA.

President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have pushed to repeal and replace the health care law, known as “Obamacare.” One version of a tax bill making its way through Congress would repeal the law’s individual mandate.

“Our message to Washington is simple: The ACA is here to stay in Maryland….For those who are trying to undermine the ACA, despite these threats, enrollment is going up and Maryland is not scared,” DeMarco said.

By Georgia Slater

Proposed MD Legislation Aims to Stop Online Sex Trafficking

Last year, Maryland had the 13th-most sex trafficking cases in the country with 161, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

This year, the hotline reported 61 sex trafficking cases in this the state as of June 30. Half of the incidents involved a minor, and about 84 percent included a female victim.

A House Energy and Commerce hearing Thursday examined legislation that would close loopholes in federal law that critics fear has allowed pervasive online sex trafficking.

Under current law, the Communications Decency Act does not hold online services liable for content that secondary users publish. Sites such as Reddit, Facebook and YouTube are not responsible for vile material that its commenters post in a thread or comment section.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, introduced the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” earlier this year to make it easier for states to prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking. The measure also would give victims the right to sue such sites.

The bipartisan measure has 171 House co-sponsors, including Maryland Reps. Andy Harris, R- Cockeysville, and Anthony Brown, D-Largo.

A member of the committee, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Towson, said in a statement that human trafficking inside and beyond the United States “is a scourge on society that preys on our most vulnerable. We must do everything we can to curb trafficking in all its forms, including sex trafficking online.”

“If Congress establishes a real tool to ensure that businesses cannot commit crimes online that they could never commit offline, fewer businesses will enter the sex trade, and fewer victims will ever be sold and raped,” Wagner said in her testimony.

Yiota Souras, senior vice president for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that over the past five years, 88 percent of the center’s reports concerned online sex trafficking. He said roughly 74 percent of the center’s reports came from Backpage.com, a website that offers advertisements for dating, services and jobs, among other resources.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Michael Doyle of Pennsylvania, citing a Senate report, asserted that Backpage’s owners were aware of the sex trafficking taking place, and even encouraged sex-trafficking advertisers to falsify their postings to hide their true intentions.

Souras added that children online may be seeking attention that they are not receiving at home, and are vulnerable to false promises made by predators online.

“That’s probably how they are lured, they’re seeking the smallest remnant of kindness from someone,” Souras said. Online predators are manipulative and know how to extend that branch of kindness to their victims, she added.

Still, Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, said in his testimony that Wagner’s measure would “reinstate the moderator’s dilemma,” which forces websites to decide whether to exercise full editorial discretion, or none at all.

Goldman added that leaving this discretion to websites could inadvertently increase online sex trafficking because it may be more favorable to leave users’ content entirely unchecked.

Goldman also expressed concern that punishing these sites differently at the federal and state levels could damage the integrity of the Communications Decency Act, which he dubbed “one of the most important policy achievements of the past quarter-century.”

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, said he saw firsthand the lasting impact sex trafficking can have on victims.

While in South Africa, his daughter was rushed by three men – one of whom brandished a pistol – but she was saved when one of the men yanked her backpack from her shoulder instead of grabbing her, he said.

The congressman’s voice quivered as he recounted her experience.

Although she escaped, Olson said, she “has not been the same.”

“(Sex traffickers) are devils, absolute evil devils,” he added. “This has to stop.”

Even if the law is changed, Souras said she knows that an online marketplace for sex trafficking will likely remain. But she said she believes that the issue is rectifiable.

“It’s important that there be a professional approach to this,” Souras said. “Sex trafficking is a multifaceted problem, it requires a multifaceted solution.”

 

By Conner Hoyt And Michael Brice-Saddler

 

Maryland Panel Weighs New School Construction Funding Bill

Today, an estimated 65,297 students in Maryland public schools are in temporary classrooms such as trailers, and there is $23.3 billion in estimated statewide school construction needed through fiscal year 2023, according to the Maryland State Department of Education and local schools.

Maryland Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, discussed a revised version of an earlier bill, the Maryland Overcrowding Reduction Act of 2018, at Tuesday’s meeting of the 21st Century School Facilities Commission in hopes of combatting school overcrowding problems across the state.

The legislation did not pass last spring, however Rosapepe said he is confident in his revisions and efforts for the upcoming session.

“Facilities are one thing — we need them. I don’t see us educating in cornfields. They’re just as important as the programs taught,” said Martin G. Knott Jr., chair of the commission.

Rosapepe explained that this $23 billion construction estimate is unaffordable, and the state and local governments will not significantly boost borrowing for schools in order to pay for all of the projects. All 24 jurisdictions have the ability to build and repair schools at much lower costs, Rosapepe told the commission.

Schools prioritize their money in different ways, he said, and one school might spend more on a building’s upkeep and another on hiring a new math teacher.

According to the state’s Department of Legislative Services, the average cost for a new public school is $46,000 per student, however recent construction costs in Maryland have ranged from $19,000 to $87,000 per student, a large gap that Rosapepe wants to narrow.

The goals of the legislation are to reduce overcrowding, repair old buildings and to end the need for portable classrooms. By designing, approving and building schools faster, reducing costs per student for new schools and incentivizing 21st century construction methods, Rosapepe said, change can be made.

For example, Rosapepe said, there no longer is a need for computer labs in schools now that students can bring their own devices. By cutting out an entire room, this is demonstrating 21st-century development techniques and is just one way that schools can be more cost-effective.

Similarly, old buildings can be converted to save money. Baltimore’s Monarch Academy, which enrolls 990 students, was formerly a Coca Cola Bottling Plant.

According to Rosapepe, with these strategies, the number of school construction projects can increase by 50 percent at no additional cost by just reducing the average cost per student. However, there would be no mandated changes for local school systems and governments who do not opt in to these recommendations, under the bill.

Additional recommendations dealt with setting funding goals and reviewing school designs. Recommendations in discussion included conducting statewide facility assessments and streamlining the review process for projects.

“These recommendations are spot on, they are a great step forward and we support the senator’s recommendations,” Stephen Baldwin, a commission member, said.

Before the final meeting in December, Knott said, the commission will hone their recommendations and are expecting members of the commission and others to weigh in on them.

“If anyone thinks we’re stuck in the past, we’re not. We’re moving forward. We’re taking bold initiatives,” Knott said.

At a meeting Wednesday, Maryland’s Board of Public Works unanimously approved $426 million for Baltimore City public schools’ construction and revitalization — a 21st Century Schools project.

By Georgia Slater with correspondent Julie Depenbrock contributing to this report.

Maryland 3.0: As Medical Cannabis Nears, Bill could boost Minorities’ Stake

After a four-year wait to provide medical cannabis to patients, the drug could be available to Marylanders as early as this month, according to industry stakeholders.

“I think we could see product in November, with increase in December and a steady flow from all operators in the new year,” said Wendy Bronfein, the marketing director for Curio Wellness, a company in Lutherville, Maryland, awarded two licenses to cultivate and process medical marijuana.

However, racial diversity in the state’s medical marijuana industry is wanting, and some lawmakers said they are planning to introduce a bill early next session to grant licenses to African-American business owners.

A disparity study ordered by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in April and due in December focuses on whether minorities who sought a license in the cannabis industry were at a disadvantage.

The study was prompted after the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus raised concerns about the lack of African-American involvement in the industry.

Of the 321 business owners granted preliminary licenses to grow, distribute or process the drug, 208 were white men or women and the remaining 113 identified as a member of a minority group or as multiracial. Of these, 55 — about 17 percent — were black men and women, according to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

“It’s shameful in a state like Maryland where we have one-third of the population of the state, one-third is African American,” said Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

As the General Assembly’s January session approaches, members of the Black Caucus told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service they have begun drafting a bill that would award 10 new licenses for growers and processors specifically targeted at African-Americans interested in the industry.

They will move forward with their legislation regardless of the outcome of a Hogan’s disparity study, Glenn said.

“I will bank on it that we’ll come away from the table with five new licenses for growers and five new licenses for processors that will be awarded based on the results of the disparity study. What does that mean? That means these licenses will go to, in large part, African Americans,” said Glenn.

A weighted scoring system will give businesses an advantage of being awarded a particular license if they have a certain percentage of African-American ownership, Glenn said.

A “compassionate use fund” will be part of the legislation in order to make medical marijuana affordable for patients in Maryland. The fund will be financed based on the fees that licensees in the industry must pay, Glenn said.

“Marijuana is still an illegal drug, according to the federal government. Your insurance will not pay for marijuana even though it is medical marijuana. So what does that mean? That means it becomes a rich man’s struggle. We’re not gonna have that,” said Glenn, whose mother died of cancer and is the commission’s namesake.

Marylanders who are insured through the state’s Medicare and Medicaid programs will not be covered for medical cannabis, said Brittany Fowler, spokeswoman for the Maryland health department.

The legislation has been numbered Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 2, and should gain initial approval as an emergency bill during a joint hearing by the House and the Senate during the first weeks of the session — which is scheduled to start Jan. 10 — Glenn said.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus said they intend to use the upcoming election as leverage for the bill.

“Next year is election year … so timing is everything … I am very, very sure that this is going to be taken care of,” Glenn said.

Cannabis companies have said that the drug is likely to be available to patients this month.

ForwardGro Inc., the first licensed medical marijuana grower, successfully passed the state’s cannabis assessment this year, said Darrell Carrington, the medical cannabis director of Greenwill Consulting Group LLC.

Patients will be able to get cannabis in a variety of forms such as lotion, pills and transdermal patches, said Michael Klein, the chief operating officer of Wellness Solutions in Frederick, Maryland.

The industry has been projected to open toward the end of the year, according to Brian Lopez, the chairman of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

“The industry is starting to move forward,” Lopez said late last month. “We hope we are going to have another 20 to 30 dispensaries by the end of the year and at that point we will have an industry that is starting to receive product consistently around the state. But with that we are going to also, I’m sure, see some growing pains.”

Maryland still faces a wide range of challenges as the industry starts up. The commission has not decided how to regulate how dispensaries will serve out-of-state patients, deal with the green waste from the cannabis, or address fraudulent activity within the industry, said Lopez.

“I’m sure we are going to hit road blocks, but we plan to work through them in a very consistent manner and with diligence,” Lopez said.

Maryland is considered to have one of the slowest medical cannabis rollouts in the nation, hampered by several delays that arose during the four-year process since it was legalized.

Stakeholders in the industry have pointed to the lack of funding of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission in its beginning stages, and to lawsuits filed against the commission, as major stumbling blocks.

In 2016, GTI — Green Thumb Industries — a Bethesda, Maryland-based company that was originally awarded pre-approved licenses as a grower, filed a lawsuit against the commission for retracting its licenses in order to create geographical diversity.

The commission, which as of mid-2017 had 10 new members, made the decision to retract the license from GTI after the Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh stated in 2016 that the commission must ensure geographical diversity when choosing applicants.

GTI attempted to work with the Black Caucus to reverse the decision during the 2017 General Assembly session through legislation, which would have awarded them a license, said Delegate Pamela Queen D-Montgomery, financial secretary for the Black Caucus.

The legislation failed in the last 90 minutes of the session and there were no additional medical marijuana growing licenses given to any companies owned by minorities, Queen said.

The Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year asked Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, and Speaker of the House Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, to reconvene the General Assembly to Annapolis for a one-day session to pass a law expanding the medical marijuana industry. However, the request was denied.

In another lawsuit against the commission, filed in October 2016 by Alternative Medicine Maryland, a predominately African-American owned business, Judge Barry Williams ruled in May that if he finds that the commission unlawfully disregarded racial diversity during the application process for licenses he reserves the right to revoke the licenses of those who were pre-approved.

This could ultimately shut down the industry, according to John Pica, a lobbyist and attorney representing Alternative Medicine Maryland.

Frosh also had said it would be unlawful to seek racial diversity in the application process without there being a history of racial disparities in the nascent cannabis industry.

“While it is still too soon to say for certain when we can expect a final analysis, we are encouraged and grateful to collaborate with these offices as we pursue this important work,” said Medical Cannabis Commission Executive Director Patrick Jameson, who announced his resignation from the commission on Thursday.

Queen said she thinks that a major issue that negatively affected the industry was the poor funding the commission initially received from the state.

When the panel was created as the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Marijuana Commission in 2013, its purpose was to oversee academic medical intuitions in distributing medical marijuana. However, the institutions were unwilling to distribute the drug because it is illegal under federal law.

In 2015, when the commission was recreated as the Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission, they were given a greater responsibility to evaluate and certify businesses to grow, process and distribute the drug.

The commission received $140,795 in fiscal year 2015 and $2,540,331 in fiscal year 2017. The increase of funding over time was used to hire more employees, contractual labor, office spaces that can support the growing staff, travel expenses and to pay Towson University for scoring license applications for the industry, according to Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

By Oluwatomike Adeboyejo

 

Maryland Lawmakers weigh Integrating Services to break Poverty Cycle

To end multi-generational poverty, state and local agencies should integrate services such as early childhood development, temporary cash assistance and mental health programming, a governor-mandated commission told Maryland lawmakers Tuesday.

Two state legislative committees met Tuesday in Annapolis, Maryland, to evaluate the benefits of the two-generational approach, which looks at the needs of a family as a whole, rather than viewing children and parents separately. Proponents of this approach consider early childhood development, economic assets, postsecondary and employment pathways and the importance of health and well-being in evaluating the needs of a family.

“This is a process for working toward benefitting whole families,” Sarah Haight, the associate director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, a think tank that studies and advocates for a multi-generational approach to ending poverty, said Tuesday.

With a two-generation approach, for families with young children who have an annual income of $25,000 or less, a $3,000 annual increase throughout the years of early childhood yields a 17 percent increase in adult earnings for those children, according to data from Ascend.

The institute said it has helped 3.5 million families annually in several states by pushing to integrate programs among agencies, including departments of human services and labor.

In 2016, Connecticut approved $3 million in funding to establish pilot programs in six communities across the state, according to Ascend. Colorado and Tennessee are among other states that have coordinated their resources through leadership and rehabilitation programs to benefit low-income families.

“Recent census data shows that the number of Maryland children living in poverty would fill 2,434 school busses,” said Nicholette Smith-Bligen, executive director of family investment within the Maryland Department of Human Services. “That’s saying to us that this program (the two-generation approach) is critical.”

Allegany County, in rural Western Maryland, where 20 percent of the population lives in poverty, has already begun viewing their local systems with a two-generation approach. In the last six months, many agencies and departments in the county have worked together to establish a Head Start center, GED classes and financial education programs.

“It’s not a new program, it’s a change in the way we deliver services,” Courtney Thomas-Winterberg, the director of Allegany County Department of Social Services, told the committee members.

Thomas-Winterberg read out loud letters from several families within the county who have benefited from integrating services in Allegany County.

“No one was telling me what to do for the first time,” Thomas-Winterberg said one parent wrote. “They were actually asking me what I wanted to do.”

The county is creating a needs-based intake assessment that will connect a low-income family with the specific agency or agencies required for their circumstances. This opportunity allows families to have one set plan moving forward with intentionally linked services, which the commission hopes to replicate statewide.

“I think it’s absolutely a step forward,” Smith-Bligen told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “I think that the committee seemed very interested in our work and what it could look like in the future and how they can help, so I think this is just the beginning.”

The commission is scheduled to release an interim report on or before Dec. 31, as required by Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order, signed in March.

By Jess Feldman

State Slashes Oyster Restoration Acreage Goal

The state of Maryland has decided to reduce the large-scale oyster restoration project goal in the Little Choptank River after boaters ran aground at another sanctuary and some of the man-made reefs there had to be rebuilt.

The sanctuaries are among five planned to be built as part of a federal-state agreement to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The project, which grows and plants oysters on man-made beds in protected waterways, has been touted by environmentalists and generally opposed by watermen. Numerous agencies have agreed to a longterm goal of growing oysters on at least 50 percent of restorable oyster habitat.

The habitat goal for the Little Choptank River sanctuary has been cut by 118 acres — about one-fourth of the original target.

This means there will be roughly 19.5 million fewer oysters at this site alone — enough to filter up to 1.03 billion liters of water per day.

Oysters’ capacity to filter water can vary widely depending on temperature, salinity and other factors, according to Matthew Gray, an assistant professor specializing in oyster feeding habits at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

A construction error in Harris Creek — Maryland’s first large-scale oyster restoration site — caused damage to multiple boats, as vessels grounded or scraped against stone-based reefs that did not meet five feet of navigational clearance, officials said.

Skeptical of oyster restoration from the start, watermen have complained of trotlines getting stuck in new stone river bottoms and boats being damaged by oyster reef “high spots” in Harris Creek. A trotline is a long, heavy fishing line with short, baited lines suspended from it. They are often used to catch blue crabs in Maryland.

Watermen depend on their boats to earn a living. No boat means no fishing. No fishing means no income.

The extent of damage to boats as a result of Harris Creek groundings varied widely, said Jeff Harris, a Tilghman Island waterman. Even a relatively insignificant repair requires taking the boat out of the water.

“You could lose maybe three days of work,” he said.

The state’s natural resources agency cited navigational risks for boaters and the inconvenience to trotlining in its decision to curb construction in shallower spots in its second oyster sanctuary — the Little Choptank — going forward, according to Chris Judy, Maryland Department of Natural Resources shellfish division director.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District was tasked with designing the reefs in Harris Creek and hired contractor Argo Systems LLC, based in Hanover, Maryland, to build them.

But after stone-reef construction in Harris Creek in 2015, the location was left with “high spots,” according to Angie Sowers, oyster restoration study manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District.

Argo Systems could not be reached after repeated requests for comment.

The “high spots” in Harris Creek have since been leveled to meet specifications determined by the oyster recovery partners — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps and the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

But for the Little Choptank, 118 fewer acres may have greater implications.

The oyster recovery partners finished planting 350 acres in Harris Creek in 2015, and it has been touted as the largest oyster restoration in the world. The Little Choptank project was scheduled to overtake Harris Creek, with 440 acres of river bottom to be covered with restored reef by late 2018.

In 2009, then-President Barack Obama signed the The Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order, setting a goal of restoring 20 tributaries by 2025.

The goal was amended by the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which set out to restore oyster populations in 10 tributaries — five in Maryland and five in Virginia — by 2025, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under the amended agreement, the oyster restoration partners agreed to restore 50 to 100 percent of “currently restorable oyster habitat” in each tributary, according to a 2011 Oyster Metrics Workgroup report. Restorable habitat has hard riverbottom, suitable for man-made reefs, which keep the bivalves from sinking into sediment and dying.

“In order to qualify as successfully restored,” said Stephanie Westby, oyster coordinator at NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay Office, at least 50 percent of the tributary’s suitable habitat must be restored.

The Little Choptank had 685 restorable acres at the project’s onset, Judy said. The original goal was to restore 64 percent of that restorable habitat — a total of 440 acres. Now Maryland has pared back the target.

Though the state is removing the shallower areas from the Little Choptank’s restoration plan, Judy said, “there is a commitment to make sure it’s 50 percent and we will do that.”

The Little Choptank’s new, 50-percent target is 342.5 acres.

“We’re disappointed,” Allison Colden, fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “The state is doing the bare minimum to meet restoration standards and setting a bad precedent for future oyster restoration in Maryland.”

Judy maintained that the state’s only obligation is to restore at least 50 percent and that the department will do that.

At the new 342.5-acre target, 390 million fewer spat — baby oysters — will be planted in the Little Choptank.

The mortality rate of spat developed at the state’s Horn Point Hatchery is regularly 90 percent or higher once they are released into river, Judy said. The spat are highly vulnerable because of their small size, he added.

At a 95 percent mortality rate, 390 million spat translates to 19.5 million adult oysters.

No more stone

The amended version of the Little Choptank restoration also aims to avoid using stone and other substrate foundations for reef construction, a practice the watermen community has opposed from the project’s inception.

Robert Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “didn’t do their job. They had criteria they were supposed to go about.”

“They put so many stones in there that it has disturbed the places where (watermen) crabbed at,” Brown said. “When you’re running a trotline down … you have a long line with bait on it and it’ll get hung underneath the stones and your line can’t come up.”

Harris, who took a 15-minute break from working on the water to speak with Capital News Service Oct. 20, said the oyster recovery partners “ruined Harris Creek for trotlining.”

He also pointed out that the lines actually shift with the tides, increasing the likelihood of the baited-lines getting snagged.

Brown added: “I don’t wanna see ‘em use no more stone, anywhere.”

The decision to avoid stone and substrate-based reefs raises concerns about the filtering potential of the oyster restoration.

Stone-based oyster reefs in Harris Creek produced an oyster density about four times greater per square meter than mixed-shell based reefs, according to NOAA’s 2016 Oyster Reef Monitoring Report.

“If you’re constructing reefs … for the oysters’ sake, then that points to the stone being a very promising material,” Westby said.

She added: “the science we have indicates” that oysters seem to do better on stone.

Constructing the remaining reefs exclusively from shell magnifies the shortage of recycled shell.

Shell is acquired from restaurants, which can recycle oyster and clam shells, or by purchasing out-of-state shells.

The Department of Natural Resources is also seeking a permit to dredge buried oyster shells from waterways, Judy said. “Every possible option is being pursued, whether it’s in-state or out-of-state.”

As it stands, the Little Choptank is approximately 63 acres shy of reaching the new 342.5-acre goal, Judy said.

In other words, the oyster recovery partners have completed more than 80 percent of that project with various reef-bases, including stone and substrate. The remainder will be built with a shell base.

In-the-water work in the Little Choptank began in 2014 and is expected to be completed mid-summer 2018. But that may take up to a year longer than expected “because you have to accumulate the shell to complete the project,” Judy said.

By Alex Mann

Maryland Touts new Generic Drug Price-Gouging Law

Following Maryland’s recent efforts as the first state to enact a law that protects consumers from generic prescription drug price-gouging, local leaders and health care advocates on Tuesday highlighted the benefits of the legislation and urged Marylanders to share their personal stories about drug affordability.

The law went into effect Oct. 1 and restricts manufacturers of generic and off-patent prescription drugs from price gouging, or the “excessive and not justified” increase in the cost of a drug, according to a state analysis.

In July, the Association for Accessible Medicines, the trade association that represents America’s manufacturers of generic and biosimilar medicines, filed a lawsuit against Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and Dennis Schrader, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, charging that the law was unconstitutional. The association said in July that the law was only protecting high-priced brand name drug companies and punishing lower cost generic alternatives.

In September, a judge rejected portions of the association’s argument and allowed the law to take effect. The association in a statement has said it plans to appeal.

“As a caregiver, prescription drugs are a big part of my life,” said Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker in a press release. Baker on Tuesday explained how the law has personally affected him and his family. His wife was diagnosed with early onset dementia and the cost of her medication had shot up from $100 during his earlier pharmacy visits to $300 in recent visits.
“You think about the fact that I have some of the best insurance as county executive. … I have resources, but what happens to somebody that comes in and can’t afford to pay $300?” Baker said.

Generic medications account for 88 percent of drugs dispensed nationally, and 22 percent of generics studied by the Government Accountability Office experienced an “extraordinary price increase” of 100 percent or greater between 2010 and 2015, according to the office of the Maryland Attorney General.

“I take care of patients, not laws,” Dr. Stephen Rockower, past president of MedChi said Tuesday. “My job is to make sure that patients get better, which means patients taking their medicine, and I can’t do my job when they can’t afford their medicine.”

EpiPens and Naloxone are medications that officials have raised concerns about recently — citing prices that rose sharply from October 2013 to April 2014. Prices of EpiPens had a 508 percent increase in price. Naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdose — an especially important medication amid the nation’s opioid crisis — increased in price by 553 percent, according to the office of the Maryland Attorney General.

“It’s outrageous that companies can jack up prices like this,” Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative President Vincent DeMarco told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “This law is a life-saver and we’re confident that the attorney general will continue to succeed in court with this legislation.”

Maryland joined 44 other states on Tuesday in an antitrust investigation of the generic drug industry. They asked a federal court for permission to file a new complaint to increase the number of generic drug manufacturer defendants from six to 16, and drugs at issue from two to 15.

“We have to go after it,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told Capital News Service. “We’ll see the drug companies collapse and take it to trial.”

Supporters of the legislation urged consumers on Tuesday to submit their stories to www.healthcareforall.com/hearmystory, a new webpage created for the public to share how escalating drug prices have hurt them or their families.

“As legislators, one of the ways we were able to fight was to hear the stories of individuals and repeat them in court by talking to people who could not afford the medicine that they needed,” said state Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery). “We need your help to make sure that the legislation works.”

By Georgia Slater

Challenges remain for Musk’s hyperloop in Maryland

Elon Musk’s East Coast “hyperloop” project still faces technological and regulatory hurdles as Gov. Larry Hogan announced Maryland’s support for construction of the project last week.

Maryland may have jumped the gun a bit, as a day after the announcement Thursday, Musk tweeted a clarification: “Not ready to do a proper announcement yet, but maybe in a month or so. Maryland has been awesome to work with and just wanted to say thanks.”

This deal, though full of ambition from Hogan and Musk, billionaire inventor, entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX and Tesla Inc., thus far is lacking specifics.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said last week The Boring Co. will start with two 35-mile tubes between Baltimore and Washington. Even if this proposal comes to fruition, the company will have 10.3 miles approved, and approximately 215 miles of approval left to complete Musk’s vision of an underground New York City-Philadelphia-Baltimore-D.C. hyperloop.

In Maryland, Musk will still have to gain approval to tunnel more than twice the amount of miles under the remainder of Route 295 — the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — which is owned by the federal government.

“Approval needed from: Federal DOT; 6 states; 17 counties; numerous cities; hundreds of elected officials. Definitely happening rapidly,” tweeted Yonah Freemark, a transportation expert and doctoral student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expressing skepticism at Musk’s proposal earlier this year.

Musk’s “hyperloop” idea was first released in a joint Tesla and SpaceX Hyperloop Alpha white paper in August 2013, detailing a reduced-pressure tube system capable of propelling small pods of people at an average speed of 600 mph and a top speed of 760 mph using vacuum pumps and “air bearings” to overcome air resistance.

Touted as an open-source project, Musk has taken a backseat approach to the development of the concept, instead encouraging other companies to take the proposal and make it a commercial reality, with SpaceX building a test track in California and hosting a competition for students and engineers to develop prototype sleds.

Two companies are the most active in making the hyperloop a reality: Virgin Hyperloop One, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group Ltd., and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a crowdsourced company.

This brings us to the question: Who will be building the hyperloop itself?

In the governor’s announcement, the state has given Musk’s The Boring Co. — initially formed to provide a cheaper solution to digging tunnels in an attempt to allay the businessman’s frustration with Los Angeles traffic — permission to dig under the Maryland-owned, 10.3 mile-long section of Maryland Route 295, but has not specified which technology is proposed to be built under the roadway.

Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ proposed concepts are vastly different from each other, with Hyperloop One using Musk’s originally proposed “air skis” and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies using a passive magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology.

However, both companies’ specifications depart from Musk’s original white paper, looking more like high-speed, underground rail and less like a 760 mph above-ground bobsled from the future.

Namely, the originally proposed hyperloop’s top speed of 760 mph and average speed of 600 mph may be more of a pipe dream. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has not produced a working proof-of-concept, while Hyperloop One’s recent proof-of-concept topped out at 192 mph.

In a July Tweet, Musk proposed an East Coast hyperloop resulting in a 29-minute, New York City-to-D.C. commute, as compared to the current five-hour drive or three-hour train ride.

Additionally, it is still not clear what environmental review will be needed for the conditional utility permit the Maryland Department of Transportation has given The Boring Co., and how Musk will plan to gain permission to dig under the remaining two-thirds of Maryland Route 295, currently owned by the National Park Service.

Ultimately, the roadway’s future could include construction of additional toll lanes above Route 295, and tunneling a hyperloop beneath it.

According to Hogan’s September announcement of a $9 billion plan to widen Maryland’s highways, he has already started the process of acquiring Maryland Route 295 from the U.S. Department of the Interior. But the federal agency was non-committal: “No decisions related to issues involving the Baltimore-Washington Parkway were made during that meeting,” according to a brief statement.

By CJ Mitchell
Capital News Service