MD Septic Pollution Lawsuit Cleared for Trial

A Caroline County judge has ruled that a former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground to unchecked septic pollution, will have her day in court.

In early September, Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen denied a motion by the town and the state to dismiss the case, saying that a jury needed to decide if either bore responsibility for the pollution to Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on the 100-acre property that Gail Litz used to own.  The judge has yet to set a trial date.

In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department closed the campground’s lake to swimming, citing unsafe fecal coliform levels in the water, which were traced to failing septic systems in nearby Goldsboro.

That same year, the town signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledging that residents’ septic systems were failing. The order outlined a schedule for the town to install a public sewer system and said Goldsboro would be fined $100 a day if it did not comply.

The town never undertook the wholesale fix, and the state didn’t enforce the order. In 2010, Litz lost her property to foreclosure and filed a lawsuit, alleging the town and county’s negligence cost her the property.  She asked for $7 million in compensation.

Campen wrote that the “most significant and overarching disputed fact” in this case is whether, and to what extent, the pollution of Lake Bonnie continued after the 1996 consent order. “This factual dispute must first be resolved by a jury before other factual or legal issues can be addressed,” the judge wrote.

For seven years, across various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long to file suit.  The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for the MDE contended that they could not force Goldsboro to pay.

Those arguments prevailed in lower court hearings, but in February 2016, Maryland’s highest court said that the state’s failure to enforce the consent order could be viewed as “inverse condemnation” if Litz could prove it was the septic pollution that caused her loss. The case was sent back to Caroline County Circuit Court for a trial.

A trial was all Litz has wanted since she filed the lawsuit seven years ago. After losing her home and lake, she moved in with her son and his family in Florida, and worried that she wouldn’t have any inheritance to leave them.

“I just want responsibility taken and my children and I to be compensated,” she said. “No one can replace the home we loved and treasured.”

This summer, as the case went before Campen after the town and state filed to dismiss it, both began raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE attorneys spent much of a July hearing questioning how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town. They pointed to other possible sources, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions.

Meanwhile, Goldsboro’s attorneys, who had always argued the town could not afford the fixes, said the town was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks because they were private and fell under the county health department.

In 1985 and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted down a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but at that point, the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it. The cost to Goldsboro residents: between 39 and 62 cents a day, according to Litz’ lawyer, G. Macy Nelson.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now uses the land as a private residence. Three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government funded a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant on Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year.

by Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.

An Eastern Shore Land Conservancy Toast to Sandy Hoon

In a few weeks, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy will be having their annual gala in Kent County to honor one of their organization’s founders, Alexander “Sandy” Hoon, who passed away a few months ago. The Spy was delighted to hear the news of the gala.

While Sandy might have been best known in his senior years as being the father of the well-known attorney in town, Philip Hoon, the legacy of Sandy Hoon’s contributions to Chestertown, Kent County, and a good bit of the Mid-Shore are not only noteworthy but truly worthy to celebrate.

While no one could never accuse Sandy of shyness, like many of his generation, it was not in his core nature to take a bow. Like many of a certain age, he never sought credit for when he and other dedicated Mid-Shore land conservationists, like former Governor Harry Hughes and Centreville attorney Howard Wood, helped formed the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy in 1990.

But the results of that fledgling organization, twenty-seven years later, show how remarkable that achievement has been. Since those early days, literally thousands of acres of some of the Eastern Shore’s most extraordinary landscapes have been permanently protected in all five counties of the Mid-Shore.  Just as importantly, the ESLC has taken on a leadership role in keeping small towns in the region vibrant with such stunning successes like the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton or the transformational plans for the Cannery Building in Cambridge.

The Spy sat down with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s first and only executive director, Rob Etgen, and Sandy’s son Phil to reminisce  about Sandy and his impact on land conservation.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about the ESLC gala please go here

CBF on the Shore: Harris Creek Update and Rod and Reef Slam

It’s safe to say that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – or anyone concerned with the health of our local waterways and its critters – is interested in how Harris Creek is doing. It’s the largest known man-made oyster reef in the world. While the project’s success will be measured over the course of many years, early monitoring reports out now begin to indicate whether the restoration is meeting expectations.

It was great news when reports showed that by and large oyster restoration is remarkably successful in Harris Creek. It is meeting scientifically determined thresholds for success, and then some. Eighty percent of the reefs in some areas of the creek are meeting the optimal threshold of 50 oysters per square meter. While the Spy has its doubts about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s claim there were no staff celebrations on this news, the CBF message was clear in talking to Alan Girard, CBF’s Eastern Shore Director, and Allison Colden, its Maryland Fisheries Scientist, that this is not the time for a victory party.

As Alan and Allison discuss in their Spy interview last week, the Harris Creek project still has many serious hurdles to pass over before any real success can be declared. Nonetheless, both Alan and Allison can’t hide their genuine excitement with the latest monitoring results.

Alan also talks about CBF’s upcoming, Harris Creek Rod and Reef Slam which turns out to be not your average fishing tournament.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Harris Creek project or the Rod and Reef Slam please go here

The Most Important Fish in the Bay Needs Help

Join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on September 6, 6:30 p.m. at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in downtown Easton for an evening of all things menhaden. CBF is screening the short film Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay, followed by a discussion of the current state of the fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden will describe the critical role that menhaden play in the Bay’s food web and answer questions from the audience. One lucky audience member will walk away with a fun and fishy CBF gift basket.

Menhaden face potential new threats along the Atlantic coast. Right now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is responding by considering revisions to its fishery management plan. One proposed amendment to the plan could help keep more fish in the water by including important guidelines—called “ecological reference points.” These will help fishery managers ensure that enough of these essential fish remain in the water, serving their role as a vital food source.

Any threat to this critical fish is also a threat to the countless Chesapeake critters who rely on it. Learn more about the current state of this fishery and what you can do to help on September 6. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required at cbf.org/MenhadenFilm. Contact Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org or 410/543-1999 with questions.

If you can’t make the event, you can still make your voice heard. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, September 18 from 6-8:00p.m. at Anne Arundel Community College, Cade Center for the Fine Arts – Room 219, 101 College Parkway, Arnold, MD. Written comments on ASMFC’s Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden will be accepted through October 20, 2017. Comments can be sent to comments@asmfc.org (Subject line: Draft Amd. 3).

 

ESLC Teams Up with Lyon Distilling for Limited Batch of Black Rum

A local nonprofit known for land preservation and town planning on the Eastern Shore has hooked up with one of Maryland’s finest distilleries for a good cause.

Lyon Distilling Company of St. Michaels, known since 2013 as a micro, craft distillery producing ultra-small batches of award-winning rums and whiskeys in St. Michaels, has released its latest concoction – a special, limited batch Black Rum with a percentage of every bottle sold benefitting the projects and programs of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC).

This rum varietal features a rich and smooth finish, with subtle touches of oak spice and sweetness. From the bottle’s packaging: “Together we are committed to protecting the land on which we work and play, and encourage you to sip this delicious spirit soundly knowing that a portion of your purchase helps fund ESLC’s many worthwhile endeavors.”

“We’re so excited to help support the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy with our Black Rum,” says Lyon owner and co-founder Jaime Windon. “I’ve always admired partnerships like this. Philanthropy is so important to us and as a startup we are limited in what we can do. But we try to do everything that we can locally, and this is the first effort that has been organized at this level. Exciting times!”

ESLC plans to commemorate the release of the Black Rum partnership with a happy hour party on Thursday, August 31st from 5-7pm at their headquarters in Easton. Bottles will be available for sale with Lyon staff on hand providing tastings and joining in the celebration. ESLC’s Communication Manager David Ferraris described the partnership as “a natural fit.”

“ESLC is ecstatic to have its name associated with a local company producing an exceptional product,” said Ferraris. “Since their arrival on the Shore, Lyon has made it clear that they support local initiatives that are near and dear to their hearts. Protecting and preserving the environment in which they live and conduct business is one of those initiatives, so this makes perfect sense.”

For more information, please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165.

Opposition Grows to Seismic Testing For Offshore Oil Reserves

Scientists are worried that an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year that seeks to open large portions of the mid-Atlantic and other coastal areas to oil and gas exploration would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other species that occasionally visit the Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s order, issued April 28, would reverse a 2016 policy from the Obama administration that outlawed drilling in federal waters off portions of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. The order also instructed federal agencies to streamline the permitting process to speed approval of seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves in those areas.

But the action is increasingly unpopular with many elected officials along the East Coast. In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his opposition to further offshore exploration. And the attorneys general from nine East Coast jurisdictions — including those from Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Delaware — submitted comments opposing additional surveys.

“The proposed seismic tests are themselves disruptive and harmful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “Worse, they are the precursors to offshore drilling that would put the Chesapeake Bay at risk to drilling-related contamination. That contamination would have catastrophic impacts on fragile ecosystems and important economies. This is a foolish gamble with our precious natural resources.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is the lone Southeastern governor supporting marine oil exploration, saying he “never had a problem” with seismic testing. While 127 municipalities have passed resolutions against the tests, only five are in Virginia.

But coastal Virginians’ unease with seismic tests appears to be growing. In July, the city council of Norfolk passed a unanimous resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic testing, citing threats to marine life, local fisheries and wetlands that offer vital protection from rising seas. The previous month, the city council of Virginia Beach also voted to oppose offshore drilling.

The seismic testing has raised particular concern because of its potential impact on marine life. The tests are conducted by firing seismic air guns from ships “every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at a noise level that would rupture a human eardrum,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that was among 10 organizations that filed suit May 3 over the executive order. Among the plaintiffs’ contentions is that seismic blasts “could deafen and even kill whales, dolphins and other animals.”

The University of Rhode Island, in partnership with NOAA, has created a website called “sound in the sea,” through which visitors can click to hear what seismic air guns actually sound like when heard several thousand kilometers away underwater.

Cetaceans — whales and their relatives — use specialized echolocation for almost all of their activities, including hunting, migration, courtship and communication, but they are extremely sensitive to underwater sound vibrations, scientists say. Right whales, whose population is thought to number only around 500, could be at particular risk, they say.

Last spring, 28 top marine mammal scientists specializing in right whales signed a statement declaring unequivocally that for this species, already facing a “desperate level of endangerment,” widespread seismic surveys may well represent a tipping point toward extinction.

To locate new sources of undersea oil, companies employ compressed-air guns that blast powerful acoustic waves through the water and into the seafloor. Each seismic test can affect an area of more than 2,500 square nautical miles, raising background noise levels to 260 decibels, approximately equaling the epicenter of a grenade blast. This can go on continuously for weeks or even months, according to a 2013 report released by the international body carrying out the United Nations sponsored Convention on Biodiversity.

Scientists say potential harm is not limited to large marine mammals. The testing could also harm zooplankton — microscopic invertebrates that constitute the core of the marine food chain for everything from shrimp to baleen whales. In a June 2017 study published in the journal Nature, a team of marine ecologists found that their air gun tests decreased zooplankton abundance and caused a two–to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton. The study concluded that there was significant potential for negative impacts on the ocean ecosystem’s functions and productivity.

In May, 133 environmental and civic organizations sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him not to proceed with the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling and related seismic testing, citing “unacceptable risks” to ocean wildlife and ecosystems as well as human populations on the coast.

But Zinke followed up on the president’s executive order with an order of his own on May 11, setting the seismic testing in motion. “Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” Zinke said in a statement. “Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has also proposed authorizing more than 90,000 miles of active seismic blasting which, based on the results of the Nature report, would constitute “approximately 135,000 square miles,” according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Reflection seismology, as the geophysical exploratory process is called, uses concussive compressed air to send a sudden shock of sound beneath the ocean surface. Oil deposits can be detected by a geological interpretation of sounds, or reflections, that bounce back. Reflections are gathered and collated by floating hydrophones, also called towed arrays or streamers.

“When a mammal is exposed to an audible sound of high intensity and long duration,” said Maria Morell, a specialist in marine mammal acoustics in the University of British Columbia’s zoology. “The sensory cells of the inner ear can suffer mechanical and metabolical fatigue.” This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, she said.

The seismic testing, she said, just adds to the cacophony that Atlantic’s marine mammals endure every day, including everything from ship engine noise and military activities to acoustic deterrent and harassment devices.

Ingrid Biedron, a marine biologist with the conservation group Oceana, said that Trump’s call for offshore drilling may be difficult to enact under federal law. “Current proposals conflict with the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” she said. “They also conflict with the Endangered Species Act because several endangered whale species use the area proposed for seismic air gun blasting.” Citing a federal study, she said that as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed and up to 13 million disturbed if the seismic testing is allowed.

The recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Noise Roadmap recognizes that “sound is a fundamental component of the physical and biological habitat that many aquatic animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on over millions of years.”

By William H. Funk

William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.

Pilot Project planned to Dredge Conowingo Dam Sediments by Tim Wheeler

Declaring the sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam a growing threat to the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday a pilot project to dredge up a tiny portion of the accumulated silt and sand.

Speaking at a press conference at the dam, Hogan said the state later this month would issue a request for proposals to dredge 25,000 cubic yards of sediment by next spring from the reservoir upstream of the hydroelectric facility on the Susquehanna River.

The intent, he said, is to pin down what it would cost to dredge massive quantities of sediment from the Conowingo “pond,” as the reservoir is called, and to find out if there are viable markets for reusing the material. He said that he hoped the project would help the state determine whether large-scale dredging is feasible — even though an earlier study concluded that dredging the built-up sediment would be costly and provide little overall benefit to the Bay.

Since its completion in 1928, the 94-foot high dam has been trapping millions of pounds of sediment, as well as the nutrients attached to the particles, keeping them from flowing into the Bay 10 miles downstream. But the pond has been slowly filling, and a study led by the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that it has reached capacity and now does little to prevent material from reaching the Chesapeake.

Another concern is that major storms, and even routinely heavy spring rains, can scour large quantities of the deposited sediment from the river bottom and flush it into the upper Bay.

“Much of our efforts to protect the Bay and safeguard our environment for future generations could be wiped out by the effects of one bad storm,” Hogan said. “Simply put, this is a growing threat which must be addressed.”

Hogan’s announcement came on the heels of a brief, invitation-only, closed-door “summit” about the dam at a nearby volunteer firehouse. The meeting, the second that Hogan has held on Conowingo, was welcomed by rural elected officials who’d been invited and have long complained that the dam is a bigger pollution threat to the Bay than almost anything coming from their portions of the watershed, including farming, septic-based development or stormwater runoff.

Charles D. “Chip” MacLeod, a lawyer for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a group of seven rural counties, most of them on the Eastern Shore, called the summit “total vindication” of its position that the sediment buildup behind the dam should be made a priority of the Bay cleanup.

“We’ve lost sight of the real problem,” said Richard Rothschild, a commissioner from Carroll County, one of the coalition members.

Others are not so sure. Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who was not invited to the summit, issued a statement saying that “while dredging could be a part of the solution” for cleaning up the Bay, the Corps study indicated that the most cost-effective way to reduce pollution coming across the dam would be to carry out more runoff control practices upriver.

Hogan, though, has aligned himself with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s position on the dam since he campaigned for governor in 2014, claiming that state and federal officials and environmentalists were ignoring Conowingo’s threat. He recently became chairman of the Executive Council that oversees the federal-state Bay Program restoration effort, which gives him greater clout to press his case.

The Republican governor said he was gratified that scientists have come around to agree with his position on the importance of dealing with the sediment behind the dam.

The scientific assessments, though, don’t exactly concur. The Corps of Engineers study found that between 2008 and 2011, only 13 percent of the sediment coming into the Bay from the Susquehanna was scoured from what had been deposited in the reservoir behind the dam. Even during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, a major flood, only about 20 percent of the sediment that flooded into the Bay originated from sediment stored behind Conowingo, while the rest was flushed downriver past the dam without ever being deposited.

But the diminished trapping capacity of the dam does mean that more nutrients from up the Susquehanna are washed downriver to the Bay, where they contribute to algae blooms and fish-stressing low-oxygen conditions in the water. To compensate, the Corps study estimated that areas upstream of the dam would need to keep an additional 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and an extra 270,000 pounds of phosphorus annually from getting into the river. That would require a 9 percent greater reduction in nitrogen and a 38 percent greater cut in phosphorus from now to 2025.

Dredging the sediment and nutrient buildup from behind Conowingo would in theory allow the dam to trap more sediment, as has happened in the past. But the Corps study found that this would be costly and of limited benefit to the Bay. To restore sediment levels to what they were in the mid-1990s, the study estimated, 25 million cubic yards of silt would need to be excavated. The Corps estimated that could cost up to $3 billion. And unless the flow of sediment coming down the river is curtailed, the pond would gradually fill in again. Roughly 3 million cubic yards a year, or 1.5 million pickup truck loads, would need to be dredged annually to avoid losing ground. The Corps study estimated that could cost anywhere from $48 million to $267 million each year.

Clean Chesapeake representatives maintain that the Corps study was flawed. And in any case, they suggest some short-term actions are needed now, because Pennsylvania is lagging so badly in reducing its pollution to the Susquehanna. “It’s breathing room for the Bay,” said MacLeod, the coalition lawyer.

But a recently completed study by researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that phosphorus flushed past the dam along with sediment scoured from the reservoir “would not have a large effect on the Chesapeake Bay.”

The state last year issued a “request for information” seeking preliminary proposals for dealing with the sediment behind the dam. It received 13 responses suggesting dredging and other options for using it to treat soil or create building materials. Roy McGrath, director of the Maryland Environmental Service, said the request for proposals would be more detailed.

The federal-state Bay Program is re-evaluating the progress made to date in restoring the Chesapeake’s water quality, and is finalizing new computer modeling to project what more needs to be done. Meetings are planned this fall, and states are expected to begin drawing up revised cleanup plans next year. Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, said state officials hope the information gleaned from the demonstration project will help shape those plans.

“We’re going to keep our fingers crossed,” said Bob Meffley, a Cecil County councilman who was among the summit invitees. He said he lives on the Bohemia River which, like much of the Bay, is showing signs of recovery, with underwater grasses seemingly everywhere and crabs plentiful — “except when we get [heavy] rain.” he added. Then, he said, they don’t see anything, because of the sediment stirred up in the water.

Others in attendance at the summit saw the dredging demonstration as a minor step, but one still worth taking.

“What it represents is a sliver of the problem,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It’s important,” she added, “because they want to see if they can engage the private sector in (finding) innovative uses (for the sediment), but what’s equally important is to recognize that 80 percent of the (pollution) load coming down the Susquehanna is from the upstream watershed and 20 percent is from scour.”

Cecil A. Rodrigues, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said federal regulators are interested in seeing the results of Maryland’s demonstration project.

“We don’t care where reductions come from,” he said, adding that if the test indicates it’s feasible, it could be factored into future cleanup plans. But whether dredging is done or not, he said, upstream pollution reductions will still be needed.

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a conservation group, who was also invited, praised Hogan’s move. But he said it should not take away from working to reduce pollution from upriver, while enlisting private as well as public involvement.

“The sediment behind the dam is a major issue and should be addressed in the most creative way possible,” Dunn said, “but perhaps more important is a focus on reducing future pollution from coming down the river, otherwise our children will be dealing with this same issue.”

In his press conference remarks, Hogan seemed to acknowledge that. He said that dealing with the sediment and nutrients behind the dam is “just one of many approaches we must take.” But he added that he considered it “an extremely important one.”

The demonstration project will be funded by Maryland, but Hogan made it clear that if it led to more dredging, he expected financial help and cooperation from Exelon Corp. the dam’s owner, as well as from the federal government and the states upriver. Maryland has held up renewal of Exelon’s federal license to operate the Conowingo hydroelectric facility, citing concerns about the impacts on state water quality of the sediment buildup.

“This is not just Maryland’s problem,” Hogan said. And in response to a reporter’s question, he said, “If it comes to that, we’ll file suit against the EPA and the upstream states.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Teachers Investigate Human Impacts by Land and Sea at Pickering Creek

“Every time I do a workshop with Pickering Creek it’s always diverse, interesting, and hands-on,” Cathy Bornhoeft, Environmental Science teacher at North Caroline High School, said after participating in the two-day Audubon Watershed Experience teacher professional development workshop this summer.

Now in it’s fifteenth year, the Audubon Watershed Experience (AWE) program, funded by Chesapeake Bay Trust, has connected thousands of high school biology and environmental science students to local conservation efforts on the Eastern Shore through hands-on and investigative in-class lessons and field experiences at Pickering Creek. Although the students are the focus of this successful program, another equally important and engaged group at the program’s center – teachers – experienced their own exciting and experiential AWE program this summer.

Environmental Science teachers from Talbot, Wicomico, and Caroline Counties look on as Dr. Dave Curson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon MD/DC, demonstrates a bird monitoring protocol

The theme of 2017’s summer workshop was “Investigating Human Impacts by Land and Sea.” Day One took place at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and focused on the impacts of rising seas on critical habitat for bird populations that rely on local salt marshes. Throughout the day, teachers from Wicomico, Caroline, and Talbot Counties played interactive games, practiced using data and scientific evidence to support arguments, and took home hands-on activities and resources to use in their classrooms.

Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier, Director of Science for the Maryland/DC chapter of the Nature Conservancy and an Associate Research Professor at the University of Maryland, presented her research on “blue carbon” and salt marshes. In the afternoon, Dr. Dave Curson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon MD/DC, toured the teachers to several Refuge areas where Audubon is working closely with Refuge staff on projects to help local salt marshes adapt to a changing climate and rising seas.

With strong coffee in hand, the teachers started Day Two at 6:00 AM for a trip to the Chester River Field Research Station in Chestertown to experience bird banding up close. Maren Gimpel, Field Ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society, toured the group around the 228-acre Chino Farms migration banding station; demonstrated how birds are caught, banded, and released; and shared research findings from the banding station’s records. Similar to Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Chino Farms has a long history of agriculture and a recent history of conservation and restoration efforts to improve and protect bird habitats.

Maren Gimpel shows teachers a recently banded Blue Jay at the Chester River Field Research Station

Using data collected from the banding station, teachers practiced a lesson investigating the impacts of weather, land management, and local habitat changes on Northern Bobwhite Quail and Grasshopper Sparrow populations. Following their morning at the banding station, the teachers boarded Washington College’s research vessel Callinectes for an afternoon on the Chester River. Emily Harris, Watershed Coordinator for the Chester River Association (CRA), demonstrated water sampling techniques for fresh and brackish water; discussed restoration, behavior change, and policy initiatives to reduce pollution; and introduced projects CRA works on with landowners, homeowners, and legislators to improve local water quality.

Teacher professional development workshops with Pickering Creek Audubon Center introduce teachers to new activities, resources, and lessons for their classrooms, and connect teachers directly with scientists working in the field. When asked what they found most valuable about the two-day workshop, one teacher commented, “Interacting with the scientists and hearing first hand the importance of the experiments they were conducting. This allows me to better explain these things to my students and show actual work.”

For more information on Pickering Audubon Center please go here

 

MRC Installs Rain Garden at St. Mark’s UMC

Through a partnership with Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy (MRC), St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Easton has an attractive new addition to their property. On July 20, volunteers from St. Marks, MRC, and special guests from the YMCA summer camp planted a 240-square-foot rain garden. Workers of all ages planted more than 200 native plants, including over 22 different species, such as red twig dogwood, joe-pye weed, and blueberry bushes.

A rain garden is an attractive and functional technique to reduce stormwater pollution by collecting and absorbing runoff from impervious surfaces such as parking lots, driveways, and roofs. Before the rain garden was installed, a roof gutter from the church building led directly to the storm drain. Since installation of the rain garden, stormwater will be diverted to the rain garden. In addition to improving water quality, this native rain garden will serve as a habitat for birds, butterflies, and other native wildlife.

Runoff from the downspout shown here will now be diverted into the new rain garden.

The St. Mark’s project was funded by Chesapeake Bay Trust. Other project partners included Adkins Arboretum, Kurt Bluemel, Inc, Environmental Concern, Herring Nursery, and Severn Grove Ecological Design. Representatives from St. Mark’s included Frank Meyerle, Bill Gunther and Pat Lewers.

This project is the second rain garden planted in MRC’s Stewards for Streams program,which connects faith-based organizations and environmental stewardship. The program offers congregations a range of engaging and meaningful teachings and activities, from restoration projects and congregation kayak trips, to rain barrel installation and adult/youth environmental education opportunities.

Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration, protection, and celebration of the waterways that comprise the Choptank River, Eastern Bay, Miles River, and Wye River watersheds. For those interested in getting involved in projects with MRC, future rain garden plantings are scheduled with Grace Lutheran in Easton and Greater New Hope Ministries in Preston. For more information or to volunteer, please contact Suzanne Sullivan at suzanne@midshoreriverkeeper.org

Bay Ecosystem: Lake Bonnie Pollution Saga back in Court

A former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground from unchecked septic pollution, will find out soon if she’ll finally get her day in court.

Last week, in the latest twist of Gail Litz’s 7-year legal quest, a Caroline County Circuit Court judge heard arguments from attorneys for all sides on whether to set a trial date for the lawsuit – or dismiss the case.

ce the central attraction of an Eastern Shore family campground, Lake Bonnie was ordered closed to swimming in 1996. The Caroline County health officer declared it contaminated with unsafe levels of fecal bacteria from failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro. (Litz family)

The litigation centers around Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on more than 100 acres of land that Litz’s family owned for several decades and operated as a campground. In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department closed the campground’s lake to swimming, citing unsafe fecal coliform levels in the water, which were traced to failing septic systems in nearby Goldsboro.

That same year, the town signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledging that residents’ septic systems were failing. The order outlined a schedule for the town to install a public sewer system and said Goldsboro would be fined $100 a day if it did not comply.

A brochure for ‘Lake Bonnie campsites’ promotes fishing, boating and swimming. Business fell off after the Caroline County health department declared the lake contaminated by septic pollution. A state order to clean it up went unenforced for decades. (Litz family)

But the town never undertook a wholesale fix of its system, and the state didn’t enforce the order. In 2010, Litz lost her property to foreclosure and filed a lawsuit, alleging the town and county’s negligence cost her the property. She asked for $7 million in compensation.

Over the next seven years, in various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long under Maryland law to file suit. The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for MDE contended that they could not force Goldsboro to pay.

Those arguments prevailed in lower court hearings, but in February 2016, Maryland’s highest court said that the state’s failure to enforce the consent order could be viewed as “inverse condemnation” if Litz could prove it was the septic pollution that caused her loss. The case was sent back to Caroline County Circuit Court for a trial.

Since then, Litz’ attorneys, Phil Hoon of Chestertown and G. Macy Nelson of Towson, said they have attempted to settle the case, and even brought Litz up from Florida — where she now lives — because they thought they were close. MDE attorneys Matthew Zimmerman and Patrick Smith declined to talk about the case, but MDE secretary Ben Grumbles said that he would like to settle it.

“We need to agree to the facts,” he said. “I want to move forward. I want to bring closure to this.”

But the state is now raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE’s attorneys at the July 20 hearing questioned how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town – and, by extension, on the state’s failure to enforce its consent order.

The MDE attorneys pointed to other possible sources of pollution, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm, which they argued could have contaminated the lake. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions — such as taking out a loan against the campground to make improvements to her home — and not because of contamination.

“The state denies that Goldsboro was the proximate cause. The data simply isn’t there,” Smith said.

Nelson, Litz’s lawyer, was incredulous, pointing out that the state’s consent order had blamed the pollution on Goldsboro’s septic tanks, as had the 1996 warning from the Caroline County health officer, who said that the town desperately needed a fix for its sewage problems.

“From the very first pleading in this case, the state admitted that the septic systems were a cause. They admitted it. Now they are reaching back into the past. You can’t walk that back,” Nelson argued.

Joseph B. Wolf, the town’s lawyer, said that the municipal government of the small community of 400 or so homes was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks. That obligation rested with the affected individuals, he said, and the county health department.

Judge Sidney Campen questioned how that was supposed to work. Wasn’t the town responsible for its residents’ systems? Did Wolf’s reasoning mean that “Lake Bonnie was used as a sewage lagoon for the town,” the judge asked, and the town was fine with that outcome?

Litz’s attorney responded and said yes. He recalled that in 1985, and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted against building a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it.

“They could have solved this problem for 39 cents a day, or if they wanted to be big spenders, 62 cents a day,” Nelson said. “They chose not to.”

Judge Campen told the attorneys he would take the arguments under advisement and reach a decision in a few weeks. At the end, he asked both parties about setting a trial date. A trial date was the very thing Litz wanted, but Hoon and Nelson said they take nothing for granted.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now maintains it as a private residence. And three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government finally came together to fund a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant in Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year. The state hopes eventually to extend the system to other nearby Caroline County towns with failing residential septic systems.

Litz waits in Florida for the judge’s ruling; after losing her Maryland property, she moved in with her children and grandchildren. She relives the memories of her campground through a Lake Bonnie Facebook page, where she posts updates on the case.

“I have been trying for over 20 years to get the pollution, human waste, stopped from being discharged into the stream feeding my former property,” she wrote recently. “I am still not a patient person. I am frankly mad that it was allowed to happen.”

by Rona Kobell
Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.