Spy Profiles: Chesapeake Harvest with Deena Deese Kilmon

There seems to be a good bit of nostalgia about the traditional family farm on the Eastern Shore as of late.  Going back centuries, the idea of a self-sufficient, agricultural enterprise that’s focused on locally grown produce has had a minor renaissance as consumers continue to seek out healthy alternatives to commercial grown “fresh” fruit and vegetable sections.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that in order for those local farmers to be competitive they are increasingly asked to certify their agricultural practices in order to qualify in the wholesale and retail markets.

This is not an easy undertaking. And that is why the work of the Chesapeake Harvest project formed by the Easton Economic Development Corporation is so critical to this important transition.

With the help of a federal grant, Chesapeake Harvest has made it its goal to work with 30 of these family farmers over the next three years to prepare them for USDA gap certification, the most common and well respected endorsement, while at the same time branding and marketing the notion of being “Bay-friendly” through the adoption of these production conservation standards.

Leading this marketing and outreach effort for Chesapeake Harvest is Deena Deese Kilmon who has not only had the invaluable background of coming from a family farm background, spent time in the wholesale food world but also owned restaurant in St. Michaels before joining the organization.

We caught up with Deena in Kent County a few weeks ago before she and her team of volunteers worked with the local farmer to do a risk assessment of that farm’s practices and make recommendations that will move that farm into a gap certified agricultural center.

This video is approximately three minutes in length. For more information about Chesapeake Harvest please go here

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Hangs it Up for Politics

There has been a change of the guard for the Lower Susquehanna River. Michael Helfrich, the first Riverkeeper for the bottom half of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, is leaving after 12 years, to pursue a career in politics.

Already a part-time York, PA, city councilman and president of the five-member municipal governing body, Helfrich vacated his full-time Riverkeeper post on April 1 to run for mayor of his hometown.

“After nearly 12 years of having my focus and energy spread out over 9,215 square miles of Lower Susquehanna issues — and issues of the Chesapeake Bay — I’m now going to focus my energy on the 5.2 square miles of York City,” Helfrich says.

Helfrich, 47, says he’d rather not identify his successor until the Riverkeeper board of directors signs off on a work contract. But a photograph posted on his Facebook page from his going-away party in late March shows Helfrich exchanging chugs from a jug of Susquehanna River water with Ted Evgeniadis, current treasurer of the organization, avid fisherman and a veteran of many watershed improvement activities. Also, Evgeniadis confirmed that he’ll be the new riverkeeper.

“He’s passing me the torch,” Evgeniadis says. “And I’m going to run with it to support all of the efforts and accomplishments that Mike has made over the past 12 years.” Evgeniadis and Helfrich have worked together on water quality issues in York since 2011.

Helfrich founded the Codorus Creek Improvement Partnership in 2001. It organized citizens around a section of the creek, once known as the Inky Stinky, which flows through the community of nearly 44,000 people, according to the 2010 Census.
During the organization’s first three years, volunteers and partners formed waterway pollution patrols, removed more than 150 tons of trash from the creek, and brought attention — and legal actions — against polluters. The Codorus does not stink as much anymore, partially as a result of a 2001 settlement of a lawsuit filed by York city residents against York-based paper company P.H. Glatfelter Co. to clean up effluent from its paper mill upstream from the city. Following the lawsuit, Helfrich worked with Glatfelter on Codorus Creek improvement projects.

In 2005 Helfrich set his sights on bigger waters — the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay — when he founded the group Stewards of the Susquehanna and became a licensed Riverkeeper. Since then, he’s spent countless hours surveying the river from the back roads of south central Pennsylvania and paddling in it and its tributaries. When not in his clunky Subaru station wagon or his kayak, Helfrich was in Harrisburg or Washington, D.C., lobbying someone to do something, or in some policy meeting with state officials. Depending on a person’s position, Helfrich was seen as either an annoyance or a strong voice at these meetings. Either way, he was always a gadfly.

“The work of a Riverkeeper is not for the faint of heart,” says Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “The hours are long, the work is endless, and there is strife and conflict at many turns. . . . Michael Helfrich has been fighting for his river for twelve years — and has pushed back against a host of different pollution sources.”

Sometimes the struggle brings results. Helfrich joined other groups pressuring PPL Electric Utilities and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to investigate thermal pollution from an electric utility linked to several large fish kills in 2006. After a lengthy process and pressure, PPL agreed to invest $120 million in upgrades to the Brunner Island steam electricity plant on the Susquehanna between York and Lancaster counties. The utility installed a system that lowers the temperature of water used to cool equipment in the plant before releasing it into the Susquehanna. The project reduced the temperature spike in the river caused by the 600-million-gallon daily discharge, and eased the thermal shock experienced by fish in the area.

The upgrade of Brunner Island is one of two accomplishments of which Helfrich is most proud. The second, albeit not as neatly resolved, involves addressing the millions of tons of sediment trapped behind Conowingo Dam. Responding to concerns raised by him and others, a multi-year, federal and state study has documented that the dam is at capacity for storage of nutrient–laden sediment, and that it could have impacts on restoring water quality in the upper Bay. But there’s no agreement yet on how — or even whether — to deal with it. Some are pushing for dredging and removing the sediment, while others argue that the long-term solution lies in curtailing the runoff of sediment and nutrients upriver in the Susquehanna’s watershed.

Helfrich isn’t done with riverkeeping completely. If his mayoral bid is successful, he won’t start his new job until January 2018. He is committed to another nine months of mentoring Evgeniadis and keeping an eye on the watershed.

“We worked hard with [the U.S. Geological Survey] and others to get Conowingo on the map,” Helfrich says. “Eleven years later, and we still don’t know what to do. I’m going to stick around for a while and help the new Riverkeeper keep Conowingo on the radar.”

By Donna Morelli

Donna Morelli is a staff writer for the Bay Journal based in Harrisburg. She’s a former staffer for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Ecosystem Long Form: Author John Englander on Rising Sea Levels at the Chesapeake Bay

As John Englander, noted oceanographer and author of High Tide on Main Street and more recently, Rising Seas and Shifting Shorelines, recently noted in his keynote address sponsored by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy last Saturday morning, one sometimes needs to say something seven times to make sure your audience gets your most important point. In John’s case, it is undoubtedly the under-reported consequences of rising sea levels on rural communities.

As part of the ESLC’s ongoing conversation about the impact of climate change on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the author was invited to give a summary of the research and increasingly grim data has been collected in recent years that points to the Chesapeake experiencing from three to six feet in sea levels over the next one hundred years as opposed to the one to two feet forecast currently being used by local and state government and other policy organizations as they anticipate this severe environmental event.

The Spy was at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center for John’s remarks and present them in their entirety.

This video is approximately twenty-nine minutes in length. For more information on ESLC please go here 

 

 

Ecosystem: Lawmakers Blast Trump Budget that would Cut Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

Lawmakers from states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday expressed bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal support for cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

“The president’s budget that would zero out the Chesapeake Bay Program is outrageous,” Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill meeting with members of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. “It’s dead on arrival.”

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said cutting investments for the bay clean up will not help the economy.

“Our Chesapeake Bay is an economic engine and the cleaner it is the more it produces economically,” he said.

The nonprofit coalition hosted its fifth annual lobbying day, centered around saving the federally funded Chesapeake Bay Program after Trump last month proposed a “skinny budget” that would eliminate the $73 million bay restoration project.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides the program with monetary support to restore the bay’s ecosystem and reduce pollution.

Started in 1983, the program is conducted under a six-state partnership with Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia.

Advocates from each state attended the meeting with lawmakers.

“We know how important the Chesapeake Bay is for the entire region,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. “We are going to fight harder and harder and harder.”

Ruppersberger said the bay generates more than $1 trillion annually and the restoration of oysters, tributaries and streams is a project that needs to be continued.

The bay is a source of drinking water for 75 percent of the region’s 17 million residents, according to the Choose Clean Water Coalition.

The Chesapeake also is the largest estuary in the United States serving as a place for recreational water activities, as well as a workplace for the commercial fishing and crabbing industry.

Made up of 225 local, state, and national groups, the Choose Clean Water Coalition has been advocating for a healthy Chesapeake watershed since 2009.

“The Coalition will work to continue to push back on the president’s proposed budget, and secure the essential funding that is necessary to return clean water to the Chesapeake Bay,” coalition spokeswoman Kristin Reilly said in a statement Wednesday.

Members of the House and Senate said they were pleased to have bipartisan support for clean water.

“The Chesapeake Bay is the perfect thing to come together around and serve energetically,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, last year’s Democratic vice presidential nominee.

He said everyone has to work together to make sure checks and balances are implemented.

“We have an EPA administrator who doesn’t accept science. If you don’t accept climate science, it’s a fair question to ask if you accept science,” Kaine said, referring to Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order last week to shut down the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a program aimed at reducing climate change by cutting carbon emissions from power plants.

“We are faced with a tough budget battle, but an attitude from the EPA that says we can ignore science,” Kaine said.

The bay is a valuable natural resource and if Trump wants more jobs, then he should work to rehabilitate the bay, Wittman said.

The congressman said he was deeply concerned about Trump’s budget plan and wrote a letter to the administration asking to restore resources to the bay.

Wittman wants more money to help revitalize wetlands.

“Our wetlands are the nursery for everything that lives in those ecosystems…mother nature is the sponge that absorbs what man puts in it,” he said.

By Briana Thomas

MD Assembly Votes to Block Opening Oyster Sanctuaries to Harvest

Maryland lawmakers voted Tuesday to temporarily block any changes to the state’s oyster sanctuaries, effectively halting a move by the Hogan administration to open some of them to commercial harvest next fall.

By a vote of 32 to 14, the Senate gave final approval to a bill barring adjustments to sanctuary boundaries until the Department of Natural Resources finishes an assessment of the state’s oyster population, expected late next year.

The same measure passed the House two weeks ago, 102-39, so it now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan. Once it reaches his desk, he has six days to sign or veto it, or let it become law without his signature. Though his administration opposed the bill, it received enough votes in each chamber to override his veto.

Environmentalists hailed the vote, saying it headed off what they considered a premature move to open sanctuaries before state fisheries managers have figured out how much harvest pressure Maryland’s oyster population can handle.

Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it “a very important step for oyster recovery in the Bay.” Oysters, she said, are the state’s only fishery without a stock assessment or a full management plan to ensure it is sustainable. Over watermen’s objections, the General Assembly last year directed the DNR to assess the status of the state’s oyster population and determine a sustainable harvest level, which would be due by Dec. 1, 2018. “This bill makes sure we have that before we make any changes to our protective policy for the sanctuaries,” Prost said.

But Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton issued a statement saying he was disappointed that lawmakers had acted on behalf of “special interest groups” to “upend” the work of the 24-member Oyster Advisory Commission he had appointed last year. That group, about half of its members representing or sympathetic to the oyster industry, has been meeting since July and discussing possible changes to the state’s management of its sanctuaries, its public fishery and restoration efforts. Belton said the legislature’s vote “demonstrates a disdain of the commission’s progress and for science itself.”

Last year, a five-year review by the DNR staff concluded that while oysters appeared to be doing well on many of the sanctuaries, others were not meeting expectations for survival or reproduction and might be candidates for opening to harvest. But the report also noted that five years was too short a time to evaluate the overall performance of the sanctuaries, and that there was little or no data on which to make a judgement.

Watermen have been lobbying the Hogan administration to revisit the 2010 decision by former Gov. Martin O’Malley to provide more refuges for the Bay’s depleted oyster population, which, because of overharvesting, habitat loss and disease, is now estimated to be less than 1 percent of historic levels. O’Malley, stressing the need to protect oysters for their ecological value as natural water filters and habitat for other fish and crabs, expanded the state’s sanctuaries to encompass 24 percent of the viable oyster habitat in the Maryland portion of the Bay. Watermen say the expansion deprived them of some of their best harvest areas, and they’ve stepped up their appeals this year, because a flare-up of oyster diseases has contributed to a slump in the harvest this season.

Last month, the DNR staff, drawing on proposals from county watermen’s committees and from environmental groups, presented a draft plan that would declassify all or portions of seven of the state’s 51 sanctuaries, while creating three new protected areas and expanding four existing ones. But the net effect of the changes would shrink the acreage of oysters protected from harvest by 11 percent. In those opened sanctuaries, watermen had pledged to invest funds allotted to them by the state to build up and seed the reefs with hatchery-spawned oysters, then to harvest them four years later on a “rotational” basis.

But the plan provoked an outcry among environmentalists, who contended the sanctuaries shouldn’t be touched until more was known about the status of the oyster population and the impact of the annual commercial harvest. “You can’t go back,’’ Prost said. “Once these sanctuaries were open to harvest, it would not take more than a few weeks of the season to decimate the structures that may be there or the oysters that may be on the recovery path.”

Eastern Shore senators tried to blunt the impact of the legislation with a series of amendments that would have left room for the DNR to make at least some changes to sanctuaries. Oysters can’t make it on their own, they argued, so need the kind of management watermen could provide. “We have distressed sanctuaries,” said Sen. Adelaide Eckardt, a Republican representing the mid-Shore. “Without adequate investment in any of the bottom, we will not grow oysters.”

But Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who is chair of the committee that heard the bill, countered that the DNR stock assessment is needed to identify sanctuaries that are faltering as well as public fishery areas. At her urging, all the Shore lawmakers’ amendments were soundly defeated.

Belton had appealed to lawmakers to let the commission continue its work without interference and try to work out a plan that everyone could accept. At the commission’s last meeting March 21, Belton had said his staff would revise its earlier draft to try to respond to complaints from both environmentalists and watermen. “Today’s vote was based on fear, not the facts,” the natural resources secretary said.

But Prost countered that the vote assured that the DNR would have more facts before it decided the fate of the state’s sanctuaries. “Once we know how many oysters are out there and have actual management strategies based on that stock assessment, then we can discuss if these fallow sanctuaries … could be opened up and made productive,” she said. “But we don’t know how many oysters are in the Bay, how many can be taken out every year (or) how many acres really need to be in sanctuary.”

Jeff Harrison, president of the Talbot Waterman’s Association and a member of the Oyster Advisory Commission, called the bill’s passage a “detriment” to the panel’s work. He said the panel was simply trying to follow the guidelines set in 2010 when the sanctuary system was expanded, to review the protected areas’ performance and use “adaptive management.”

“This basically means that if something isn’t working, instead of doing the same thing, we should try something different,” Harrison said.

Of 28 sanctuaries regularly monitored by the DNR, he said, the department’s five-year review found that 75 percent either had the same or lower abundance of oysters. The advisory commission was talking about opening some, he noted, so the industry could try restocking them with shell and seed oysters and then subjecting them to a rotational harvest every four years.

Harrison cited as an example a sanctuary in the upper Chester River, one of those sanctuaries that has had no work done on it since 2010 and that the DNR review found has lower abundance and biomass since then. Harrison contended the upper Chester would have been a prime spot to try the watermen’s plan for rotational harvest. With the bill’s passage, it can’t be tried now, which he said “as far as I am concerned, (is) a loss for the state and the Chester River.”

by Timothy B Wheeler

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.

Black Rail Bird Population Sinking Fast as Rising Sea Level Drowns its Habitat

Getting to know the Eastern black rail has always been tough. The sparrow-size bird lives deep in marshes that are hard to access, and it is most active in the wee hours of the morning. Even then, it tends to scamper through dense vegetation, rather than fly — some call it a “feathered mouse.”

“We know almost nothing about this species,” says ornithologist Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in Virginia. “It’s very tiny and incredibly secretive. Even most bird watchers have never seen this species before.”

Now, even hearing their call is unlikely. Its habitat, a delicately balanced zone deep within coastal marshes, is being flooded by the rising waters. And the Eastern black rail is disappearing fast — potentially becoming the first victim of sea level rise around the Chesapeake Bay and other areas of the East Coast.

Watts recently completed an exhaustive review of literature about the black rail, going back more than 100 years. His findings on the status and trends of the rail population were compiled in a 148-page report released in 2016.

“They are sort of evaporating around us,” Watts says.

The decline has been rapid and unexpected. Only 50 years ago, part of Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was a world-renowned hot spot for birders seeking a glimpse of the elusive black rail. Today, the black rails are gone from Elliott Island, and only a handful are left in the state. None have been seen in Virginia’s coastal marshes for a couple of years.

Their exact number doesn’t make much difference, Watts said, because the downward trend is so strong — Maryland numbers have fallen 90 percent in just 25 years.

“This species is not going to be sustainable in its landscape in the face of sea level rise,” he says. “It will be lost. Maybe in five years, maybe in 10 years. But it’s on the way out.”

David Brinker, an ornithologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, shares this assessment. He said that surveys for the state’s next Breeding Bird Atlas would start in 2022. “By which time,” he says, “we’ll be really lucky to find a black rail, unless some miracle happens.”

The bird is listed as endangered in both Maryland and Virginia, as well as several other states along the Atlantic Coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering protecting it through the federal Endangered Species Act and is expected to make a recommendation in September 2018.

Historically, the black rail has received little attention. Along with its deep marsh habitat and nocturnal activity, the black rail is quite small. Its body is about 6 inches long, with dark feathers and white speckles on its wings, back and abdomen. It has brilliant red eyes. But hardly anyone sees it — even among professional ornithologists. “I’ve seen one in my lifetime,” Brinker says.

The closest most birders — and scientists — come to the bird is hearing males call in the early morning hours of breeding season: “kickee-doo” or “kic-kic-ker.”

Biologists “look” for black rails by playing recordings of the call and listening for a response. Even that is difficult because the birds are most active between midnight and 4 a.m. Surveys sometimes require maneuvering boats in shallow-water marshes in the dark.

Black rails were once found from Texas up the East Coast as far as Massachusetts. Over time, they have suffered major habitat loss as marshes were buried to make way for urban growth. Places such as Cambridge, MA; Queens, NY; Atlantic City, NJ; and Baltimore once supported black rails. The historic ditching and draining of marshes eliminated more habitat.

But scientists believe the recent, rapid demise of black rails is linked to rising water.
Black rails live in high marshes that, with slightly higher elevation, typically escape the daily tidal over-wash. But the birds forage for invertebrates, such as water beetles, in areas that have wet soil or even a thin covering of water.

It’s a narrow band that Watts describes as a “hydrology tightrope.” With sea level rise, he said that he believes the nests are increasingly inundated by storms and unusually high tides. If a nest is ruined in a single year, the population can rebuild the next year. But if nests are drowned more frequently — and eggs along with them — the birds gradually disappear.

The birds can adjust by moving upslope but, because marshes are relatively flat, even a small amount of rising water can push them out of suitable habitat toward trees, roads or stands of invasive phragmites.

“If the water gets up 2 centimeters, it is not just inundating the edge of the marsh, it is inundating the entire marsh,” Watts said. “Once it hits that tipping point, you are effectively flooding the entire marsh.”

In the Saxis Wildlife Management Area on Accomack Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, black rails were last located at the tree line, and then they were gone.

The decline has been rapid. In 1991–92, a DNR survey in Maryland’s portion of the Bay recorded 180 black rails. “We found more than we expected,” Brinker says. “They were widespread. It was the third most frequently encountered rail in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay.”

In 2007, the DNR and the Center for Conservation Biology, which is affiliated with both the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, collaborated on a Baywide survey. They found just 50 calling males in Maryland and Virginia combined. “That was the first indication that we had that the population was collapsing,” Watts says.

Birders had been reporting a decline, Brinker says, “but the magnitude of the change sort of hit us in the face.” A 2014 survey found just 10 individuals — eight in Maryland and two in Virginia.

The decline isn’t limited to the Bay. Black rails have largely disappeared at the northern edge of their range, with “catastrophic” rates of decline in New Jersey, Delaware and North Carolina, according to Watts’ status report, which was prepared for the upcoming federal endangered species review. South Carolina had a slower rate of decline, but still more than 4 percent each year.

According to Watts’ report, the total number of breeding pairs along the Atlantic Coast is between 455 and 1,315. Their status might be better in Florida and Texas, both of which have large amounts of potential habitat, but many of those areas have not been surveyed. In those two states, “we have a huge amount of uncertainty,” Watts says. Biologists, state and federal agencies are coordinating to conduct surveys in those and other areas in the next two years.

Historically, black rails were also found at some inland sites in the Eastern United States that simulated conditions found in high marshes, such as hayfields adjacent to river flood plains. But over time, most of those locations have also disappeared, largely because agricultural practices have intensified and altered the habitat, Watts said.

Black rails are also found in the Caribbean and in Central America, but little is known about their status.

Devising protection for black rails will be difficult. Creating special habitats for the birds is one possibility; they have, for instance, survived in impoundments built for waterfowl, where they are able to nest on the edge and forage on the flat, wet bottoms. But, Watts cautions, “the slightest rain will fill these impoundments up and flush the nests out.” Designs might be tweaked to accommodate the birds, but doing so at a scale that would secure the population’s survival could be costly. “You have to get it just perfect, or they won’t be there,” Brinker says.

Also, securing funds for a bird that most people never see could be difficult. “Black rails are nowhere near as charismatic as bald eagles and whooping cranes,” Brinker says.

While the immediate concern is for the black rail, steep declines have been seen in other species that use the same habitat, such as the sedge wren and saltmarsh sparrow, which ranges from Accomack County in Virginia to New England. The sedge wren has already largely disappeared from most coastal areas in the region, though it is still found inland. But the saltmarsh sparrow is declining at a rate that would make it extinct in less than 50 years, biologists say.

But the black rail, the reclusive “feathered mouse” that scampers through the high marsh in the dead of night, is the canary in the coal mine,” says Brinker. “It’s telling us that things are going on in our tidal wetlands, and they are not good things,” he says. “[The black rail] is just the first one to go, because its niche is so narrow and so precise.”

Karl Blankenship is editor of the Bay Journal and executive director of Chesapeake Media Service. He has served as editor of the Bay Journal since its inception in 1991

Annapolis: Democrats Blast Hogan Silence on Bay Cleanup Cuts as Administration Fires Back

Democrats in Annapolis Thursday railed against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan for not doing enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay under the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the Bay cleanup plan and under a new EPA administrator historically hostile to environmental regulations.

“The Bay can’t speak for itself obviously and needs a spokesperson,” said Senate President Mike Miller, leading a press conference of House and Senate Democratic leaders. “Obviously the person in the highest office in the state is not speaking out for the Chesapeake Bay, so we’re here to say this Bay is ours, it’s the largest estuary in the world…and we’re going to protect our Chesapeake Bay.”

(The world’s largest estuary, where fresh water combines with saltwater from the ocean, is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, according to numerous sources. The Chesapeake is the largest in the U.S.)

Miller, whose home overlooks the bay at Chesapeake Beach, said progress has been made to bring back the canvasback duck and rockfish populations and establish oyster sanctuaries “and we’re not going to retreat,” Miller said.

Conspiracy of silence

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, said the Hogan administration has been guilty of a “conspiracy of silence” since the federal budget came out last week with $73 million in proposed cuts to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup program, which was enacted in 2010 to put the Bay on pollution diet to reduce nutrients flowing into it.

“The program, the resources and the oversight…have been cut and not a word from the second floor,” Pinsky said. “It is a conspiracy of silence and it is guilt of omission.”

“Without that program we are going to slide backwards not only losing that $73 million but the oversight and push from the federal government. Without that we have a major problem,” Pinsky said.

Pinsky said Hogan’s support of a bill to weaken penalties on oyster poachers and the firing of scientists, had become an act of commission. He was referring to the recent firing of Brenda Davis, blue crab fisheries manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who spent 28 years at the agency.

She was supposedly fired for setting limits on the size of crabs that could be harvested after July 15 every year to 5 ¼ inches.

Lawsuit compelled enforcement

Maryland’s Bay cleanup plan was the result of a lawsuit won by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2010 that compelled the EPA to enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act. Under a consent decree, states in the Chesapeake Watershed, from New York to Virginia, were required to implement plans to reduce nutrient pollution, bringing the Bay into compliance with the Clean Water Act by 2025.

Kim Coble, the foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, said the “bay is improving” because of a 35-year state and federal partnership that started with President Ronald Reagan.

“Our ‘State of the Bay’ report this year has the highest reporting level we’ve ever had,” Coble said. “We have improved water clarity and the [population] of oysters and crabs and underwater grasses are coming back. And all of this is at risk.”

Administration pushback

The administration answered the Democratic leadership with a little sarcasm and it defended Hogan’s record on the Bay.

“With two weeks left in the session, we wish that the majority leadership would focus on doing their jobs here in Annapolis instead of focusing on Washington, D.C. partisan politics,” the statement said. “The governor has already made it clear that he will always fight for the Chesapeake Bay and that he opposes hypothetical cuts at the federal level.”

“Our administration will continue to support the Bay at record levels in the state budget, which has included over $3 billion for the Bay since taking office. We are happy to see that the presiding officers have seen the light on Bay restoration funding, given their support for the past administration raiding over $1 billion from restoration efforts.”

“President Miller and Speaker Busch promised that their entire focus this session would be on Washington politics; at least that’s one promise they’ve delivered on.”

Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican left in the Maryland congressional delegation, said last week: “The Chesapeake Bay is a treasure, and as a member of the Appropriations Committee, I am committed to working with the administration to prioritize programs within the Environmental Protection Agency that would preserve Bay cleanup efforts.”

By Dan Menefee

Oyster Sanctuary Bill finds Support in House of Delegates

The House of Delegates voted 102-39 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would keep intact existing oyster sanctuaries on the Chesapeake Bay, a blow to the commercial fishing industry’s efforts to expand the state’s oyster fisheries.

Supporters and opponents of the bill, named the Oyster Management Plan, are both saying that their solution is best for the long-term health of the bay and its oyster population, which helps clean the Chesapeake by filtering nutrients like excess algae out of the water column.

“(The Oyster Management Plan) protects the fragile progress that has been made to date in recovering oyster populations,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said in written testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 24. “This bill would in no way impact (the Department of Natural Resource’s) ability to manage the public oyster fishery, including the development of rotational harvest management for public oyster bottom.”

Bill opponents, such as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, disagreed, saying that harvesting in the sanctuaries is vital to maintaining existing oyster stock in “idle” areas.

“There’s this idea that the sanctuaries would be generating all this oyster larvae,” coalition spokesman Chip MacLeod said to the committee on Feb. 24. “That larvae does no good unless it has a clean, hard bottom to strike. One of the things that doesn’t work with the oyster sanctuary theory is that we don’t have clean, hard bottom (around these sanctuaries).”

Opening parts of the sanctuaries to commercial use, MacLeod said, would remove aging oysters whose environmental usefulness had subsided, and free up space for oyster larvae to flourish.

The Department of Natural Resources, the agency that controls the sanctuaries, opposes the bill.

Opponents point to a 2010-2015 study conducted by the Oyster Advisory Commission, a Natural Resources department subsidiary, that concluded that there is “justification” to adjust current sanctuary boundaries.

“There are sanctuaries that are known to have poor habitat and/or very low densities of oysters,” the advisory commission’s study report said. “If the ultimate goal is to have more oysters in the water, then some areas that are currently sanctuaries could contribute to this goal and provide economic and cultural benefits to fishing communities.”

Conversely, a bill enacted in 2016, the Sustainable Oyster Population and Fishery Act, mandates that the Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, conduct a study to adopt a science-based fishery management plan by 2018. Supporters want to see this study concluded before allowing the department to entertain any ideas of opening sanctuaries to harvest.

Opponents contend that doing so undermines the efforts of the department and its advisory commission.

“The (Oyster Advisory Commission) is doing all of this good work, because the prior administration wouldn’t adopt a management plan,” Delmarva Fisheries Association chairman and waterman Rob Newberry told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Newberry told the Environment and Transportation Committee that the bill would “kill” the management plan adopted by the commission.

Supporters of the bill contend that oyster populations have not recovered enough to sustain themselves without protection.

Citing a self-commissioned poll that found 88 percent of Marylanders support sanctuaries and a 2016 Department of Natural Resources report that found oysters are thriving inside designated sanctuaries but not outside them, the bay foundation said in a press release, “Sanctuaries are Maryland’s insurance policy for the future oyster population. By protecting a small portion of the state’s oyster bottom from harvesting, oysters on the sanctuaries can grow and reproduce.”

The bill was voted on favorably with a couple amendments by the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Tuesday before it moved to the House floor. The amendments would prevent anyone from using the bill to block any sanctuary projects.

The bill is expected to be heard by the Senate in the coming weeks.

By Jack Chavez

Trump bid to Axe Bay Restoration Funding draws Fire

President Donald Trump’s budget outline proposing to defund the Bay Program and slash other programs aiding the Chesapeake restoration drew expressions of dismay this week from those engaged in the long-running effort, along with vows from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to resist such deep cuts.

Trump’s proposed spending plan, if enacted, would eliminate funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Bay Program Office — from $73 million last year to nothing in fiscal 2018. It would be part of a recommended 31 percent reduction in the budget for the agency, with only the State Department targeted for deeper cuts.

The White House’s budget blueprint also called for sharp decreases in other departments and offices that have contributed to the Bay restoration effort, without giving details of how those might play out in specific programs or initiatives. The administration is planning to release a more detailed spending plan in May.

Environmentalists promptly denounced Trump’s fiscal plan, warning that it could cripple the Bay restoration effort and reverse the gains seen in recent years.

“If this program is eliminated, there is a very real chance that the Bay will revert to a national disgrace,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker, “with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shellfish, and water-borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health.”

Earlier this year, driven by improvements in blue crabs and other fisheries, underwater grasses and water quality, the Bay Foundation gave the estuary’s ecological health a grade of C-minus, the highest score given in nearly two decades. The CBF report card mirrored recent assessments of modest progress reported by the Bay Program and the University of Maryland.

While the Trump budget has alarmed some Bay advocates, many have noted that Congress, not the president, has the final say on federal spending. They said they hoped that lawmakers would reject the proposed cuts.

The federal government’s support of the Bay cleanup over more than three decades has helped to develop a “world-class expertise” in managing large ecosystems, which in turn has inspired and guided other restoration efforts, said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“It’s just unconscionable that Congress would let that all slip away by terminating it,” Boesch said in a telephone news conference arranged by the Bay Foundation.

Several members of Congress representing portions of the Bay watershed pledged to fight to maintain the Bay Program funding. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-MD, called Trump’s proposal to eliminate it “wrong and outrageous.” And he questioned how that squared with Trump’s campaign pledge to build the nation’s economy and create more jobs.

“The Chesapeake Bay creates $1 trillion in our economy,” Ruppersberger said, across the six-state watershed. “These are jobs in fishing, farming, boating and tourism.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, a member of the Senate’s Budget and Appropriations committees, issued a statement saying the proposed cuts “seriously damage our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay — and threaten the jobs that depend on a healthy Bay ecosystem.”

And Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, one of the Bay’s staunchest advocates in Congress over the years, called on the body to “quickly reject” Trump’s budget “before the absurdity of his cuts . . . causes ripples of uncertainty and fear across the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed economy.”

Members of Trump’s own party joined Democrats in challenging the Bay Program cuts, though generally with less saber rattling. Reps. Andy Harris, R-MD, whose district borders the Bay, and Rep. Scott Taylor, R-VA, whose district covers portions of Hampton Roads and the Virginia Eastern Shore, indicated that they would try to keep federal funds flowing to the restoration effort. Both had joined three other Republicans and 12 Democrats from Bay watershed states in a letter to the White House more than two weeks ago urging it to keep the current funding of $73 million next year.

“We do not support reductions in the cleanup,” said a spokesman for Taylor. A spokeswoman for Harris issued a statement saying he would work with the Trump administration to “to prioritize programs within the Environmental Protection Agency that would preserve [the] Bay cleanup effort.”

Their support for the Bay restoration effort is significant because both sit on the House Appropriations Committee, which in coordination with the Senate panel on which Van Hollen serves, will draw up the actual federal spending plans.

Even so, Trump’s spending blueprint presents a challenge, as it calls for the federal government to back off from environmental efforts like the Bay restoration. “The Budget returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” explained a summary of the president’s budget that was posted online.

Also targeted for elimination was federal funding for restoration of the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and other compromised watersheds.

That view of the federal role in the Bay’s restoration represents a radical shift from the stance taken by every president since Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 declared the Chesapeake a “treasured national resource.” Reagan called for a sizable boost in the EPA’s budget, in part to begin “the long, necessary effort” to clean up the Bay. The Bay Program, which operates as a partnership between states and the federal government, was created the year before, when the EPA administrator signed the first of several agreements pledging to work with the Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to deal with pollution degrading the estuary’s water quality and fish populations.

Funding for the EPA’s Bay Program Office has ticked up or down from year to year, but has increased overall since then. Along the way, Congress wrote the Bay Program into law, spelling out the EPA’s responsibilities to coordinate the efforts of other federal agencies and of the states in reducing pollution and restoring the estuary’s living resources. Jon Mueller, the Bay Foundation’s vice president for litigation, said he thinks that the federal government can’t legally walk away from its statutory obligations to support the Bay Program. But he acknowledged that other legal experts believe Congress can’t be compelled to fund programs like this, even if supposedly required by law.

The White House’s proposed elimination of Bay Program Office funding comes despite praise that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt lavished on it during his Senate confirmation hearing in January. Under questioning from Cardin, Pruitt called it “something that should be commended and celebrated.” He pledged to enforce the Bay pollution reduction plan EPA had worked out with the states, and to see that the effort continued to get federal resources.

Asked how Trump’s budget blueprint squares with Pruitt’s Senate testimony, an EPA spokeswoman emailed a statement saying it “reflects the President’s priorities of preserving clean air and water as well as to ease the burden of costly regulations to industry. Administrator Pruitt is committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfill the agency’s core mission.”

The loss of $73 million for the Bay Program would be significant in itself, but the impact of Trump’s overall proposed EPA budget cuts would go far beyond that, as the agency spent an additional $121 million on other water-related grant programs in the watershed last year, some of which may also face cuts. The largest of those is the EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which made $102 million in low-cost loans to states last year for projects that improve water infrastructure.

While not facing outright cuts, the revolving loan fund would likely have less money to spend in the watershed. The Trump administration would end a $498 million grant program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture that pays for improvements to rural communities’ water and wastewater infrastructure. Instead, the budget would have rural areas compete for the EPA funds — so the money available for water infrastructure would effectively be spread among a larger group of communities.

Although the most severe cuts would fall on the EPA, other federal departments that play a role in Chesapeake Bay restoration also face double-digit reductions. Altogether, federal agencies provided $536 million for Bay-related projects in 2016, helping to fund everything from wastewater treatment plant upgrades and farm runoff controls to oyster reef construction and wetland restoration.

In the budget plan, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture faces a 21 percent cut, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 16 percent, and the Department of the Interior 12 percent.

In many cases, the budget provides little detail about how hard various programs would be hit, but the Interior Department’s land acquisition money, which has been used to help purchase sensitive areas around the Bay in recent years, would be slashed.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $250 million would be cut from grants supporting coastal and marine management, research and education. Among the areas slated for elimination is NOAA’s Sea Grant program, which provides about $4 million annually in Bay-related research and education efforts.

In that context, the EPA’s Bay Program funding accounts for just about 14 percent of the annual federal spending on the Chesapeake. But the Bay Foundation’s Baker called it a “linchpin” of the overall restoration effort. Roughly two-thirds of the $73 million in this year’s budget goes to state and local governments in the form of grants to aid their cleanup efforts. The rest supports things such as water-quality monitoring to measure the efficacy of cleanup efforts, computer modeling to help inform cleanup plans, and the activities of nonprofit groups to encourage public engagement in the restoration. (A portion of Bay Journal funding comes from a Bay Program grant.)

Environmentalists said cuts in EPA funding would hurt the ability of states to carry out a wide range of environmental programs, including those related to the Bay.
“Essentially they are saying they are going to turn over more authority to the states, and then cut the amount of money for the states to do it,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection echoed that concern in a letter it sent to Pruitt on Thursday, which said the state agency relies heavily on federal funding to implement air and water pollution control programs.

Cutting the EPA Bay Program funds, the DEP said, would hurt the state’s ability to pay for pollution control efforts on Pennsylvania’s farms, where the state has tried to focus its lagging nutrient control efforts.

“These budget cuts do not reduce any of the responsibilities that DEP has to the people of Pennsylvania, but does decrease the resources available to fulfill those responsibilities,” DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell wrote. “These cuts, if enacted, would harm businesses seeking permits, and harm residents’ clean water, air, and land.”

CBF’s Baker said he’s worried that the loss of federal funds may result in a loss of “political will” in state houses and city halls to increase spending. And UM’s Boesch noted that much of the federal largesse for the Bay restoration effort comes in the form of matching grants.

“If the federal funds go away,” Boesch said, “the thought that we could go back and get state governments to double or triple investments is just naïve, given the budget issues they’re dealing with.”

Even if, as many expect, Congress dismisses Trump’s budget as too extreme, environmentalists said they worry it could give lawmakers cover to slash environmental programs much more than they have in the past.

“The real danger here is not that Congress will approve these numbers, it’s clear that they won’t,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The danger is that people start taking it seriously as a point of negotiation.”

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. Bay Journal editor Karl Blankenship contributed to this article.

Bill may Ban Foam ‘to-go’ Carriers from Food Businesses in Maryland

All expanded polystyrene products used for packaging food products, including foam carriers, could be banned from all Maryland food businesses if pending legislation is passed in the General Assembly this session.

The legislation, sponsored in the House by Delegate Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore, will prohibit a person or business from selling or providing food in an expanded polystyrene food service product beginning Jan. 1, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The bill, which has also been cross-filed in the state Senate, also bans the sale and use of loose fill packaging.

The fiscal analysis defines the banned material as “a product made of expanded polystyrene that is used for selling or providing food.” This means the bill would ban food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, meat and vegetable trays and egg cartons made of expanded polystyrene.

“Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is the generic industry name for the white rigid material made by expanding polystyrene beads with steam and pressure to bond the beads together to form blocks or to shape molds,” according to Universal Foam Products.

Styrofoam, a registered trademark and a type of expanded polystyrene, is not included in the bill, according to the Department of Legislative Services report. “Although foam coffee cups and plates are often referred to as ‘Styrofoam®,’ that terminology is incorrect,” the fiscal analysis said. Styrofoam is generally used in industrial settings for building materials and pipe insulation, according to the report.

Lierman said in a Feb. 15 House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing that this bill is an extension of a concept that has already been enacted in some areas. Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, the city of Gaithersburg and the city of Takoma Park have prohibitions on expanded polystyrene already in place.

Dr. Richard Bruno, a doctor of medicine who works at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, gave written testimony Feb. 15 in support of the bill, saying styrene, a chemical found in expanded polystyrene, is a threat to health, waterways and ecosystems.

Delegate Al Carr, D-Montgomery, said it is important to make this a statewide ban because it is a statewide issue and the ban has been successful locally.

“Businesses and government agencies have been able to adapt and have not seen an increase in their costs,” Carr said. “I have been receiving many emails from constituents in favor of the bill.”

“It is important to make it a statewide ban so that the prices of alternative products go down,” Lierman told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. Lierman pointed to California, saying when businesses there made the transition to stock alternative recyclables the prices changed. “(Expanded polystyrene) is now more expensive than recyclable products in California,” Lierman said.

Restaurants, fast food restaurants, cafes, supermarkets or grocery stores, vending trucks or carts, movie theaters, and business or institutional cafeterias would all be food service businesses affected by this bill, according to the fiscal analysis.

“Enacting a statewide ban on polystyrene foodservice packaging will level the playing field for businesses across the state,” Nick Rudolph, President of Pigtown Main Street in Baltimore, said in his testimony to the House committee.

Dart Container Corp., a national company that manufactures cups, plates, containers, lids and straws made from such materials as expanded polystyrene foam, solid polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, paper and sugar cane, opposes the bill.

Dart employs 630 Marylanders with another 50 open positions in high-paying, rural manufacturing jobs, according Paul Poe, Government Affairs and the Environment Manager at Dart. Poe said Dart is also planning to open a third facility in the state, in Havre de Grace.

Poe specified in testimony that expanded polystyrene is recyclable and Dart has created a program to accept expanded polystyrene items and recycle them with drop-off and pick-up options.

Delegate Christopher Adams, R-Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico, said in the House committee meeting that Dart’s stance on the bill should be considered. Since the company creates jobs for Marylanders, the state should do no harm to the company, Adams said.

“This bill is our hope for a cleaner and healthier future, to neighborhoods with less toxic trash, air and water,” Claire Wayner, a high school junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore County and founding member of Baltimore Beyond Plastic, an organization created to teach students the problems with plastics like polystyrene and elevate their reactions against it, said in her Feb. 15 testimony to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

“At Baltimore City public schools, lunch is served on polystyrene trays, and as many students are economically disadvantaged, it’s not possible to refuse a lunch … when it may be your only food you’ll see that day,” Wayner said.

“Baltimore City schools serve daily lunch on EPS trays to 83,000 students a year,” according to a Baltimore Office of Sustainability Feb. 15 letter.

“Using compostable paper trays, plates, and other containers in place of EPS would make food recovery efforts much more feasible, because users can simply place their tray and all leftover food directly into a compost container, rather than having to separate out trash and compost,” the organization said in its letter.

“Around 1 percent of the trash properly disposed of and sent to landfills is expanded polystyrene, but up to 40 percent of litter found in and along water streams is expanded polystyrene,” according to Lierman. “That shows the disproportionate amount of (expanded polystyrene) that is recycled and littered.”

Prince George’s County Department of the Environment Director Adam Ortiz told the House committee it costs $60 per ton to process expanded polystyrene food products, but when they are able to compost the alternative recyclable products, they make money.

Baltimore City, Caroline, Howard and Washington counties accept polystyrene plastics for recycling, but the rest of the Maryland jurisdictions do not, according to the analysis.

“Growing up in neighborhoods that are full of trash, it’s hard to not self-identify with the image of trash,” Wayner said in her testimony.

“Forcing businesses to use alternative products does not reduce litter; it simply changes in composition,” Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association said in a Feb. 15 letter to the committee.

Lierman said that she understands people who litter with foam containers will probably continue to litter with alternatives, but the alternatives are better for the environment and easier to pick up than the expanded polystyrene products.

There are also health risks for consumers who use expanded polystyrene containers, according to Lierman. When expanded polystyrene is heated, it leaches styrene into the food or liquid that is in the containers, Lierman said.

“Styrene, the main ingredient in (expanded polystyrene), has been listed as a possible carcinogen by both the International Agency for Research on cancer and the National Toxicology Program since 2002,” Bruno wrote in his testimony.

“The general public is exposed to 20 mg of styrene annually,” according to Bruno. “This toxin has no place in our bodies, schools, restaurants or homes.”

But the American Chemistry Council referred to a 2013 study completed by the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group in its Feb. 15 written testimony that said “current exposures to styrene from the use of polystyrene food contact products remain extremely low, with the estimated daily intake calculated at 6.6 micrograms per person per day.”

“This is more than 10,000 times below the safety limit set by the FDA,” the organization said. “The FDAs acceptable daily intake value of styrene is calculated to be 90,000 micrograms per person per day.”

The fiscal analysis said the effect on small businesses and the state will be minimal. There will be an increased cost to the state of $19,300 in the 2018 fiscal year in order to conduct the education and outreach campaign, but will decrease to zero after one year.

“County health departments must enforce the bill’s prohibitions and may impose a penalty of up to $250 on violators,” according to the fiscal analysis. Health departments must issue a written notice of the business’ or person’s violation and allow three months to correct the violation before a fine can be issued.

By Cara Newcomer