Spy Minute: What the Heck is the Bistro Bill with Joe Petro

Even after reading the coverage in the Star-Democrat over the last few days about the so-called Bistro Bill, the Spy was still not entirely clear what proposed legislation would do if the Talbot County Council ultimately passes in next month.

Our solution was a quick check in with Joe Petro, owner of Hair O’ the Dog, and the primary advocate for changing the law. As Joe explains, Hair O’ The Dog wishes to add a wine bar alongside their existing store off of Marlboro Street but current local law caps the amount Hair can serve its customers to one ounce. This change would permit them to remove that restriction for the wine bar addition and serve both wine and beer by the glass or bottle.

We checked in with Joe this morning to allow him to make his case that the law should change.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about Bistro Bill, a.k.a. Bill No. 1377, please go here

 

Spy Update: Talbot County’s Economic Development and Tourism Team Reports In

Just over a year ago this week, Cassandra Vanhooser was given the task of running two crucial programs for Talbot County. The first was the job she had initially been signed up for, which was running the County’s Office of Tourism, and the second, heading up its office of economic development, was added to her portfolio after the Talbot County Council approved plans to consolidate the two divisions.

That was a tall order for any administrator, particularly given the fact that Cassandra would need to build an entirely new department from scratch, starting with such essential elements as mission statement, goals, and annual objectives with very little regarding resources and staff support.

Those circumstances have changed significantly over the last twelve months. With the addition of Sam Shoge as economic development coordinator, and Ryan Snow as the office’s project manager, a new team has emerged to not only complete the day-to-day needs for the department but also fast-tracked a community input and strategic planning process, successfully implemented a new enterprise zone for downtown Easton, and more recently fine-tuned all of the County’s major communications tools including enhancing Facebook and other social media outlets.

The Spy sat down with all three of them at the Bullitt House last week for a catch-up session.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information about Talbot County Economic Development and Tourism office please go here

Easton Point Marina and Port Street Corridor Plan Advance

Early this week, the Easton Town Council was presented with the most recent proposed zoning for Easton Point and the Port Street Corridor. Coming next is a November 20th public hearing held by the Easton Town Council to receive public input on the Port Street Small Area Plan, a document well worth careful review as it describes how an important area of the community would be developed over the next few decades.

Details on the November 20th meeting and additional information on changes under consideration can be found on the Town of Easton’s official site here

Centreville’s Russian Compound Gathers Dust While Awaiting Fate

The soccer field is still trimmed to perfection, but no Russians will be gracing the pitch anytime soon. Nor will they be staying in either of the two Georgian-style mansions or in any of the ten bungalows clustered on the 45-acre waterfront property.

Russia’s luxurious “dacha” on Maryland’s Eastern Shore sits eerily empty and waiting, a casualty of the diplomatic row with the United States that flared after it became clear the Russians meddled extensively with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Shuttered by the Obama administration last December, the spread is perched at the intersection of the Corsica and Chester Rivers in Centreville, Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, a town with a population of less than 5,000. In addition to the two large estate houses, it contains ten guest bungalows, a small apartment building, four tennis courts, two pools, a boathouse and a private beach.

Known locally as “Pioneer Point,” the Russian diplomatic compound was originally part of a 1,600-acre property owned by John Jakob Raskob, a wealthy industrialist best known for building the Empire State Building in New York.

Raskob, who once worked as a personal secretary for businessman and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont, made his fortune in the auto industry, helping to manage General Motors from its infancy to one of the world’s most powerful car makers. It was Raskob’s idea to launch a financing arm for the company, a venture that became General Motors Acceptance Corp., or GMAC.

Raskob’s house at Pioneer Point, the 19-room mansion once called “Hartefeld Hall,” is the centerpiece of the current Russian compound, built at some point after the land was acquired in 1925. Raskob constructed a second estate house shortly thereafter for his 13 children, who named it “Mostley Hall,” because it was mostly a long hall of a building.

Raskob passed away in 1950 and the property changed hands a few times until 1972, when what was then the Soviet Union acquired it.

Shortly after the Russians arrived in Centreville, the FBI did too.

“In the early days, they were the subject of enormous curiosity by the FBI,” Stephen Wilson, president of Queen Anne County’s Board of Commissioners, told Capital News Service. He lives across the river from Pioneer Point.

“The FBI used to send people down here with binoculars, who would stare across the river, as if there was something to be learned about Russians sitting on a beach,” Wilson recalled.

According to Wilson, one idea floated by the feds was to watch the Russians via submarine, a plan Wilson described as “comic” because the Corsica River is only about 10 feet deep.

However, the U.S. government eventually found a way to keep a closer eye on the compound. A property that borders it is still registered to the State Department, according to tax records, which put the value of the Russian spread at close to $9 million.

Judging from how little the Russians interacted with the locals over the years, they likely had a sense they were being watched.

“I would say for the most part they stayed to themselves,” said Joseph Connor, whose family has owned the property a few doors down from the compound for longer than the Russians have occupied it. “You didn’t see them unless they walked out.”

However, locals were occasionally invited over for parties. Connor said he went a few times and that the food was good, the company was likewise, and the vodka flowed freely.

Now that the Russians are gone, local feelings are mixed.

“You had two different reactions from the community when it was closed down,” said Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Gary Hofmann, who visited the compound once as part of an official invite to a group of elected officials. “You had a lot of people saying ‘Wow, I never knew that (compound) was there.’ And then you had people who were sorry to see some of the folks who they met in the past leave the compound.”

As for the property itself, Hofmann said: “It wasn’t what I thought it would be. There were no secret operatives walking around. It wasn’t like (there were) these covert tunnels we could find.”

Whether the Russians were using the property for work, play or both, it doesn’t appear Pioneer Point will welcome back its owners anytime soon.

In August, under threat of a veto override from Congress, President Donald Trump signed a new foreign sanctions bill that was partially authored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland. In it, the president’s ability to return diplomatic property in Maryland and elsewhere was made subject to congressional review.

After signing the bill, which included measures against North Korea and Iran as well as Russia, Trump called the legislation “significantly flawed.”

“We hope there will be cooperation between our two countries (U.S. and Russia) on major global issues so that these sanctions will no longer be necessary,” Trump added.

Earlier this month, Cardin accused the Trump administration of not enforcing the sanctions outlined in the bill, which he tied to the fate of the Centreville property.

“At this time, the senator (Cardin) believes there is no scenario in which the compounds should be returned to the Russians,” Sean Bartlett, the Democratic spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Capital News Service. “He does not believe they have been held accountable for their attack on our election. Despite Congress’ strong sanctions bill, the president has yet to begin enforcing it.”

Maintaining the 45-acre spread now falls to the State Department, which seized the compound under authority of the Foreign Missions Act. The legislation gives the secretary of state wide latitude over diplomatic facilities in order “to protect the interests of the United States.”

“We seek better relations with Russia, as the president and Secretary (Rex Tillerson) have said time and again,” said a State Department official authorized only to speak on background. “But we will also be clear-eyed in our engagement with Russia.”

In response to the closing of the Maryland compound and one in Long Island, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the United States in July to reduce its diplomatic footprint in Russia by 755 people.

When asked on state-run Russian TV why he did it, Putin said: “Because the American side undertook the unprovoked, which is a very important, step in the deterioration of Russian-American relations…”

The U.S. intelligence community had a decidedly different assessment.

A report from the director of national intelligence in January stated: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”

The Obama executive order that directed the State Department to shutter the Maryland and Long Island compounds in December 2016 said they were “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes…”

Since then, three more Russian diplomatic facilities have been ordered shut by the State Department, including a consulate in San Francisco and annexes in New York and Washington.

How long Pioneer Point remains closed is anyone’s guess, but there’s a chance it won’t remain abandoned for long. The Foreign Missions Act allows for a diplomatic property to be sold by the State Department after it has been vacated for a year.

The catch is the Russians would get the money.

By J.F. MEILS

Maryland Legislators Developing Ways to Entice Developers to Combat Homelessness

Maryland legislators are considering how to entice private developers to build more homes for low-income families as affordable housing in Maryland is becoming increasingly difficult to find, and lawmakers are particularly worried about unaccompanied youth left without stable shelter.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness is taking steps toward crafting a bill that would provide financial benefits to for-profit and nonprofit developers for building affordable housing units, according to Delegate Mary Washington, D-Baltimore.

“Consistently, we are hearing that one of the barriers around housing and stability is the high price of housing,” Washington, one of the committee chairs, said last week. “So we want to incentivize people to build affordable housing.”

About 72 percent of extremely low-income households in Maryland pay more than 50 percent of their income toward housing expenses, according to census data from 2011-2015.

This makes owning, or renting, a living space incredibly difficult and risky, according to United Way of Central Maryland CEO Franklyn Baker.

“There’s no rain plan or safety net if you get sick” or have other emergencies, Baker said.

A crucial factor for affordable housing for low-income households is funding from state and federal governments.

One key program is the Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which provides states an annual allocation based on population. Last year, Maryland was awarded $13.8 million in these tax credits to distribute to developers, according to Novogradac and Co.

Under the program, private developers agree to provide housing to low-income families at below market value. The residences must remain affordable for 30 years, when the agreement between developers and the government expires.

After three decades, private developers maintain control of the property and can charge what they wish.

Across the various programs within the state last year, developers requested $93 million in total funding, yet only $47.5 million was awarded, according to the Community Development Network of Maryland.

Of that, developers requested $56.5 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, but only $27.5 million was awarded between federal tax credits and state subsidies, according to the Affordable Housing Resource Center.

Developers of more than 3,500 affordable housing units in Maryland sought funding this year, but only 43 percent, or 1,505 units, were funded, according to the Community Development Network of Maryland.

The tax credits for nearly 35 percent of federally subsidized housing in Maryland will expire by 2020, meaning that those residences will no longer be set aside as affordable housing, according to the National Housing Preservation Database.

Owners of the developments would have to re-apply for Low Income Housing Tax Credits and therefore sacrifice potential profits at market value, according to Odette Ramos, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland.

These public-private agreements are critical to providing affordable housing to impoverished communities, so the Community Development Network of Maryland is asking the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to help allocate money for these projects, Ramos said.

Representatives from the Community Development Network of Maryland also called the 1999 Assisted Affordable Housing Preservation Act outdated, and suggested that the state update its local laws and practices. The act does not require property owners to contact local social services, which creates a disconnect and leaves families without benefits, Ramos said.

Many of those without housing in Maryland are young adults who have issues with drugs, teen pregnancy, or other issues out of their control, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

Additionally, nearly 70 percent of youth entering out-of-home placement, which includes foster care, had prior issues with neglect, causing developmental and psychological problems, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.

In 2016, 1,223 people younger than 25 were surveyed in homeless shelters and through affiliated agencies. Results showed that 893 young people were independent from a guardian and without a stable housing situation, and were classified by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development as unaccompanied homeless youth.

In a 2015 survey of unaccompanied youth, the Maryland Department of Human Resources found 474 unaccompanied youth living in non-traditional housing, according to Amanda Miller with the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Even for children with guardians to care for them, though, life can be difficult.

State Sen. Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s County, recounted a story of visiting Prince George’s County’s Shepherd’s Cove Women’s shelter and witnessing more than 60 children with their parents and unable to get services parent.

“I must say, it is very difficult for me to sit on this committee,” Benson said. “These services are absent for them and they’ve lost hope. Homelessness is unacceptable.”

By Josh Schmidt

Affordable Care Act: One Young Cancer Patient in Maryland

Presents sat unopened in her family’s Davidsonville house in April, while at Johns Hopkins Hospital her parents told her she had Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumor growing in her stomach. The disease is so rare that only about 225 children in the United States are diagnosed each year.

Ella Edwards, 9, holds the opening page of a story she is writing about her fight with cancer. Ella was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma on her birthday. Capital News Service photo by Aaron Rosa.

The Edwards family entered a new reality of oncologists and treatments.

“It was crazy fast,” Jen Edwards said. “We were taken up to oncology, and I was thinking, what are we doing here? There are kids with cancer here.

“At that point we weren’t even thinking of insurance.”

The Edwards family hadn’t been following the congressional debates over the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” But now they, like millions of other Americans, would have to deal with a pre-existing condition — which before the Affordable Care Act meant companies could refuse insurance.

Though Congress and the Trump Administration have tried — and failed — to repeal President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, these patients remain worried about their future.

“The ACA was something I never paid attention to,” Jen Edwards said. “You just assume your child is never going to get sick and be healthy all their lives.”

Brian Edwards runs Hague Quality Water, a water treatment company, owned by his father, that has been in his family over 20 years. He purchased health insurance for his children, which, he said, cost less than what he would have to pay through work.

A week before Ella’s birthday, a stomach flu hit the family, but Ella did not respond to the usual medications.

Ella Edwards walks into the room where she will receive the third of six proton radiotherapy treatments. Capital News Service photo by Aaron Rosa.

Doctors at Anne Arundel Medical Center found a grapefruit-sized tumor pressing against her bladder and transferred her immediately to Johns Hopkins University for further testing.

There, the doctors diagnosed the cancer. And two days after her parents took her to the hospital for what they thought was a stomach bug, Ella began receiving chemotherapy.

At Hopkins, Jen Edwards recalls, hospital administrators made a crucial discovery: Ella had been admitted through the emergency room. If Ella was discharged, Johns Hopkins would not readmit her because, though the emergency visit was covered, Hopkins did not accept her insurance for continuing treatment, a staff member confirmed.

They stopped the family from leaving. The administrators recommended that Brian Edwards purchase a new plan, under “Obamacare,” that would cover Ella’s future treatment — avoiding a bill of $80,000.

In a stroke of luck, Hague Quality Water was in a two-week period where the business could choose a new insurance provider for their employees. Brian Edwards switched his company’s coverage to Evergreen Health, a plan on the state health exchange that offered in-state health insurance for Ella’s condition.

Ella’s newly diagnosed cancer is included on a list of declinable conditions that would have caused her application for insurance to be automatically denied in all but five states before the health care law, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Evergreen Health’s monthly premium is $1,900, nearly 30 times the $66 premium he previously paid for insurance covering all his children — the policy from a company that Johns Hopkins would not accept.

“Even if you can’t pay the bills in that moment, you’re still going to do the treatment,” Jen Edwards said.

She leafed through a thick, worn binder filled with letters from doctors, scraps of paper with hastily jotted notes, and bills — dozens of bills.

Ella’s initial seven-day hospitalization topped $41,000, including $17,000 for room and board, and $20,000 for her first round of chemotherapy.

Four months of cancer treatments, visits with specialists, and hospitalizations racked up over $200,000. All but their $1,500 deductible was paid by their insurance company.

Before the Obama health care law, those costs led many families to bankruptcy.

A study conducted by Harvard University and published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that from 2001 to 2007, bankruptcies attributable to medical problems increased by 50 percent and comprised 67 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States.

Cost of life, a metric used to quantify one year of life with cancer treatment, rose from $54,100 in 1995, to $207,000 in 2013. This statistic does not include expenses like surgery or home care, nor does it account for the loss of income resulting from a chronic illness.

Brian and Jen Edwards held a different view of the health care law before Ella’s diagnosis. Back then, they viewed “Obamacare” as socialization of health care.

“For me, Ella’s cancer changed my perspective about the Affordable Care Act,” Jen Edwards said.

“Knowing some of these children that are also at Hopkins, I know their families can’t afford it,” she trails off. “Every child should get care.”

Jen Edwards has quit her job at a local church to care for Ella.

Brian Edwards supplements his work-provided policy with an additional policy to cover the more expensive drugs not covered by Evergreen.

The additional policy is income-based. With five children and a single income, the Edwards family qualifies for its insurance. But if Jen Edwards were to resume working and the family income increased, they would be ineligible.

But even with government subsidies, the Edwards family’s health insurance policies cost him over $2,500 a month.

“It’s overwhelming,” Brian Edwards said. “I don’t know how people do it without insurance.”

Ewing’s sarcoma has a good prognosis if it has not spread. Ella’s has spread to her lungs.

Ella has completed nine of 14 rounds of chemotherapy and is undergoing an eight-week proton radiotherapy treatment plan in lieu of a surgery that would have removed two of her vertebrae.

The family’s life is now shaped by cancer.

Ella and her siblings manned a lemonade stand on the side of a nearby road this summer to raise money for Ewing’s sarcoma research. The family visited Hershey Park. And Ella attended a special week-long camp sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Hospital and staffed by medical personnel.

What they did not do this summer was watch the healthcare debate on television.

Brian Edwards canceled their cable TV subscription. The Edwards children watch cartoons on Netflix.

“Nothing good comes from watching the news,” Brian Edwards said.
But the next wave of bad news didn’t come through the television. It came in the mail.

As a non-profit, Evergreen could no longer cover the costs of its clients, and in a final desperate measure, converted to a for-profit model and sought an outside investor.

Investors dropped out of the Evergreen acquisition deal this summer. In August, the Edwards family received a letter from Evergreen Health announcing that it would be going out of business, honoring existing contracts but closing its doors for good in 2018.

“We’ve been lucky to have coverage so far,” Brian Edwards said softly. “But with Evergreen going out of business, next year is going to be very different.”

Brian Edwards again switched his company’s insurance from Evergreen to Maryland Blue Cross Blue Shield.

His monthly premium increased by $400.

By Aaron Rosa

2017 Christmas in St. Michaels Ornament Celebrates Working Dogs of the Chesapeake

The much anticipated 2017 Christmas in St. Michaels ornament has been unveiled and is sure to become an instant collectible. The one-of-a-kind ornament celebrates the working dogs of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the 14th in a series depicting icons of the Eastern Shore. Created by local artist Joanne Buritsch, the 24k gold plated solid brass ornament features a trio of familiar four-legged friends – the Chesapeake Bay, Labrador and Golden retrievers – framed by a wreath of etched holly.

All of the dogs featured in this year’s design are known as a powerful swimmers with strong retrieving instincts. Their gentle dispositions and lively intelligence have made them a favorite of waterfowl hunters and pet owners alike. Of the three, the Chesapeake Bay retriever is the only breed developed in Maryland, allegedly from a pair of Newfoundland puppies rescued from a shipwreck and bred with local dogs. The Chessie was officially recognized as a breed in 1918, and is now the state’s official dog.

Labrador retrievers, originally known as St. Johns Water Dogs or Lesser Newfoundlands, were described by James Mitchener in his novel Chesapeake as “the finest huntin’ dog ever developed to challenge the reign of the Chesapeake as the consummate hunter.” Golden retrievers, developed in Scotland, were bred to retrieve game from the shooting field in wild fowl hunts among Scottish elites. They proved to be the perfect hunting dog for small game and could endure the adverse Scottish conditions.

It takes more than six months to conceive, design and produce the annual Christmas in St. Michaels ornament, beginning with brainstorming sessions held shortly after Christmas presents have been stowed away and festive lights taken down. This year’s idea came from the many years Buritsch spent with her own beloved retrievers.

Buritsch, who designed many of the previous ornaments, works closely with her fellow Christmas in St. Michaels Ornament Committee members to develop finely honed sketches of the dogs and surrounding detail. Once the final sketch is approved, it’s sent to Beacon Design by ChemArt, a small specialty company in Rhode Island that has produced the official White House Christmas ornament for nearly four decades.

“We submit a very detailed proposal which includes Buritsch’s artwork with photographs and multiple sketches, specific color recommendations, and even suggestions for dimensionality” noted Lisa Rey, Ornament Committee co-chair who worked closely with Buritsch on the design. “It takes quite a bit of back and forth to get everything exactly right. It’s truly a collaborative process.”

The actual production process takes nearly a month and a half beginning with graphic design. The ornaments are then hand cut, chemically etched, gold plated and screen printed. The finished pieces are assembled by hand and packed in decorative holiday boxes.

The 2017 ornament is now available in various local St. Michaels stores as well as online at christmasinstmichaels.org. For those who are collectors, the entire series of 14 ornaments is available for purchase online.

All proceeds from the sale of the ornament go to fund non-profit organizations serving the St. Michaels community.

Marylanders collect Donations to Help Puerto Rico

Organizing aid collections is one way that many Puerto Ricans on the mainland have begun to shake off the “impotencia,” or powerlessness, they feel since Hurricane Maria slammed into their home island almost two weeks ago.

While Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday that he was sending a 26-member team of the Maryland National Guard to assist on the ground in Puerto Rico, many people from the territory believe that more work needs to be done. As a result, donation sites, many set up by former residents of Puerto Rico, have sprouted across the state.

A sign on the front door of the Tabernacle Church lists items it is collecting in its lobby for relief efforts in Puerto Rico. (Photo by Helen Parshall / Capital News Service)

“The fact is that our families being alive is not enough,” said Carolyn Faría, of Gaithersburg, Maryland. “It is a blessing and we are happy that they are alive, but it is not enough. We need them being okay day-to-day.”

Faría, originally from Ponce, Puerto Rico, was one of several people in neon vests directing cars through the drop-off lines at Dynamite Gymnastics Center on Saturday. The Rockville site served as a centralized hub for some of Maryland’s suburbs to send donations to be shipped to the island through the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA).

“Everyone here today has been touched by a family member who is suffering in one way or another,” Faría said, speaking both for herself and other volunteers, many of whom have family on the island. “We are voters, we are citizens and we are part of the United States. We are here and we need help.”

There were more than sixty volunteers on site Saturday, Faría told Capital News Service. On Sunday, the number had almost doubled with more than 100 people lending support.

Over the course of the two days, Faría said that volunteers filled a dozen 26-foot trucks with the donations bound for Puerto Rico.

“We’re a big community of Puerto Ricans in this area,” Faría said. “When bad things like this happen, although I pray they never do again, it doesn’t matter what town you’re from. We’re all working together because our families need us.”

Hyattsville was another of several sites in Maryland that sent shipments to the Dynamite Gymnastics Center. Candace Hollingsworth, Hyattsville’s mayor, was outside the municipal building with several volunteers to “stuff the van” for Puerto Rico on Saturday morning.

Hollingsworth has been critical of the federal government’s actions since the storm, saying in a tweet that President Donald Trump should “work harder” at relief efforts in the Caribbean. She drove the van to Rockville herself on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m here because I have friends from Puerto Rico, and I think it’s important that we help since the federal government isn’t doing anything in a timely fashion,” said Justine Christianson, one of the Hyattsville volunteers.

In the days after the storm, friends Waleska Cruz, Tanya Malpica and Eileen Romero channeled their heartbreak into working across almost two dozen local collection sites to gather supplies to send through PRFAA to communities on the devastated island.

“Being in the United States, you never think you’re going to get the call from your family that they need food and water,” Romero said. “The tedious work of these donations is almost therapeutic when you’re stripped of the ability to be there and help them.”

All three women are from Carolina, a northeastern town in Puerto Rico. While Malpica and Cruz were friends growing up, they did not meet Romero until they were living in and around Laurel, Maryland.

“Most of my family is on the island,” Malpica said. “I’m blessed that even though I can’t be there yet, I have amazing friends checking in, and I know people are taking care of my family.”

“I want to be there and help,” added Cruz. “From food, water, gas – there are so many concerns, and we want take a flight down there to do anything we can.”

Tabernacle Church and Loving Arms Christian Center are two of the main collection sites the women are working with in Laurel, Maryland. The churches’ involvement means a lot because it is the “home churches” opening their doors, Romero said.

Vernice and Roberto Gonzalez, the pastors of Loving Arms Christian Center, canceled the usual Thursday Bible study to be able to organize donations and fill trucks with supplies.

“We are joining forces with everyone willing to sow a seed to Puerto Rico,” Roberto Gonzalez said as he led the community in a closing prayer. “In this difficult and trying moment, this is where the Bible becomes reality.”

“This is us putting our love for one another into action,” said Vernice Gonzalez. “We’re praying for God to help them, and we will be continuing to do this as long as there is need.”

For Cruz, Malpica and Romero, it also important to plan for the future.

“In the longer term, things will stabilize and get better, but right now we don’t want to deplete resources from people who need them on the island,” Romero said.

The three are brainstorming ideas – from 5K races to dance parties – to keep communities on the mainland engaged once the immediacy of the storm damage begins to fade from public consciousness. They hope to be able to fly down by the end of October to be able to help rebuild and clean up their homes.

“The hardest part is the waiting game,” Romero said. “It feels like it’s been a month since Maria but it’s not even been two weeks.”

“We have to understand that this is not a three-, six-, or even one-year situation,” Malpica added. “This will take years to recover from. When the hype dies down, people on the island will still be suffering. That’s when our support matters even more.”

by Helen Parshall

Hogan Sues EPA over Power Plant Pollution from Neighboring States

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a lawsuit Wednesday against the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce limits on air-pollution control at 19 mostly coal-fired power plants in five states upwind of Maryland.

“We want the EPA to step in and make sure provisions of the Clean Air Act are followed,” said Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment. “This is necessary to protect air quality and the Chesapeake Bay.”

The 19 plants have installed “smog controls,” according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. “But they’re not always running them when they should be,” Grumbles said.

About one-third of the nitrogen that ends up in bay waters comes from “air sources,” according to the EPA, which did not respond to multiple requests for comments by press time.

The original petition to the EPA requesting that the agency regulate the plants — in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia — was filed by the MDE in November. The EPA granted itself a six-month extension on the original 60-day deadline. By July, the agency still had not responded to the petition.

The Hogan administration and MDE contend the power plants in question have not “effectively” operated their pollution control systems during the summer months, also known as “ozone season,” and some have not used their pollution control systems at all.

Although most parent companies of the power plants cited in the Maryland petition did not respond to requests for comment by deadline, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates Paradise, a coal-fired plant in Kentucky, challenged Maryland officials’ claims.

“We do have emissions controls. They run when the plant is operating,” said Jim Hopson,TVA’s manager of public relations, who said he was not aware of the Maryland lawsuit. “They reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrous dioxide levels in excess of 90 percent and they eliminate particulate matter…All of our plants have those.”

The EPA defines the ozone season for Maryland and all the states named in the EPA petition as April through October, with the exception of Indiana, whose ozone season is April through September. Ozone levels are believed to be at their worst during the summer on sunny, hot days, particularly in urban environments, according to the EPA.

“Pollution from out-of-state power plants also harms our in-state streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay,” said Jon Mueller, vice president of litigation at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which plans to file a similar lawsuit with partners in the coming weeks. “Studies show nitrogen oxides from coal plant emissions degrade our water, and harm our fish and other aquatic life.”

In its original petition to the EPA, MDE expressed concern that nitrogen oxide emissions from the offending plants could prevent the state from achieving the required air-quality standards mandated by the Clean Air Act.

According to estimates in the Maryland petition, about 39,000 tons of nitrous oxide emissions could have been prevented in 2015 had the 19 power plants in question “run their control technologies efficiently.” In 2014, MDE said those same power plants had profited to the tune of $24 million by either not using their pollution controls or not using them effectively.

A request for comment from the American Coal Council as to why or why not a coal-fired power plant would employ pollution controls was not returned by press time.

“Maryland has made significant progress in improving our air quality in recent years, and that progress is in jeopardy due to a lack of action by the EPA that dates back to the previous administration,” said Hogan, a Republican, in a statement. “We strongly urge the EPA to approve the petition and enforce the air pollution controls…”

By J.F. Meils and Julie Depenbrock

US House Moves to Keep EPA from Enforcing Bay Pollution Diet

In a move that environmentalists charged would undermine the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this month to bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against any state in the Bay watershed that fails to meet pollution reduction goals set by the EPA six years ago.

The measure, an amendment to an EPA and Interior Department spending bill put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, passed Sept. 7 by a largely party line vote of 214 to 197. On Sept. 14 the House passed the omnibus spending bill by a similar margin.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–VA)

Three GOP House members from Pennsylvania — G.T. Thompson, Bill Shuster and Scott Perry — joined Goodlatte in introducing the amendments. Goodlatte, whose district includes most of the Shenandoah Valley, has pushed unsuccessfully before to block the EPA from enforcing its Bay “pollution diet.”

The 40 House members whose districts include a portion of the Bay watershed split nearly evenly on the controversial issue – 19 voted for it, 18 against, the latter including six Republicans. The Bay watershed delegations in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia overwhelmingly supported curbing the EPA’s authority, while those from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware did not. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, who would have opposed the amendment, was on medical leave and missed the vote. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-VA, also missed the vote. And Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District, does not have a vote.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Goodlatte said his amendment was needed to prevent a “federal power grab” over the Bay cleanup effort. “My amendment stops the EPA from hijacking states’ water quality strategies,” he said. “It removes the ability of the EPA to take retaliatory or ‘backstop’ actions against the six states . . . if they do not meet EPA-mandated goals.”

Goodlatte said that Congress had intended for states and the EPA to work collaboratively to carry out the federal Clean Water Act. But in the Obama administration, he added, “every state in the watershed has basically been given an ultimatum — either the state does exactly what the EPA says, or it faces the threat of an EPA takeover of its water quality programs.”

But Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Goodlatte’s amendment would strip the federal-state restoration effort of needed accountability just as water quality is improving. She pointed out that the states had all agreed, after failing to meet earlier voluntary cleanup goals, to work toward the pollution reduction targets the agency set in 2010.

“However, only EPA has the ability to enforce the agreement in the event that a state fails to meet its commitments,” Coble said. “By suspending this backup enforcement authority, the Goodlatte Amendment threatens the viability of the [cleanup plan].”

The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution as called for in the 2010 plan. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials have warned they’ll take “backstop” actions. Those can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller livestock operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants.

The EPA briefly withheld nearly $3 million in grant money from Pennsylvania in 2015 after finding the state lagging badly in curbing farm runoff and stormwater pollution. The money was restored, but the agency has since warned the state it may take additional actions if it doesn’t do more to meet its pollution reduction goals.

The EPA’s authority to enforce its “total maximum daily load,” or pollution diet, for the Bay, was challenged in federal court by farming and building groups. They were joined by attorneys general for 22 states — including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, now the EPA administrator — who feared that the Bay pollution diet might inspire similar federal pressure on states to deal with nagging water quality problems elsewhere, particularly in the massive Mississippi River watershed. District and appellate courts upheld the agency’s authority in the Chesapeake case, though, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to review those decisions.

The House has yet to take a final vote on the spending bill, which would provide $31.4 billion in fiscal 2018 to fund the Interior Department, EPA and several other agencies — restoring many, but not all, of the sharp cuts proposed by the Trump White House. The Senate also is still mulling its version of the bill, which could differ markedly from the House’s.

Environmental groups have said they will urge senators not to go along with the Bay amendment. It’s far from clear if the two chambers will be able to agree on the overall budget, a standoff that would effectively kill this restriction on EPA.