The Environment in Focus with Tom Pelton

The Environment in Focus is a weekly perspective on the issues and people changing Maryland's natural world.  There's a story behind every bend of the Chesapeake Bay's 11,684 miles of shoreline, in every abandoned coal mine in the Appalachian Mountains, in every exotic beetle menacing our forests and in every loophole snuck into pollution control laws in Annapolis. Tom Pelton gives you a tour of this landscape every Wednesday morning at 9:35 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.  He describes the people behind the news and discusses the broader government policies and trends shaping our ecology -- our land, our air and our Bay.

Tom Pelton is senior writer for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he won national awards for his environmental reporting.  He's hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007.

The Environment in Focus is sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, which conserves the lands and waters on which all life depends. In Maryland, our work spans from the Chesapeake Bay to our western forests, protecting clean water and air, preserving recreational opportunities and saving our natural legacy for future generations.  Learn more at nature.org/Maryland.

Program Days: 
Wednesday
Short Program: 
Only Archive

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Wetlands are supposed to be protected because of their value as pollution filters and breeding grounds for fish and birds. But federal and state agencies routinely approve permits for developers to destroy wetlands under the condition that they pay for the construction of artificial wetlands as replacements -- and these replacements are rarely as productive biologically as real wetlands, a new scientific study concludes.

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Three years ago, Maryland and Virginia imposed restrictions on catching female blue crabs that succeeded in roughly doubling the population of the once-troubled icon of the Chesapeake Bay. But a side effect of this good news is that adult female crabs now outnumber males by about three to one, leading one researcher to question whether the imbalance could impede reproduction.

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A growing number of religious organizations have been launching environmental advocacy campaigns. A recent example is the Evangelical Environmental Network's radio ads that criticize "pro-life" members of the U.S. House of Representatives for trying to derail EPA mercury pollution control regulations, which are meant to protect the unborn from brain damage caused by the toxic metal.

 

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After a major rockfish poaching incident, Maryland Natural Resource Police are using high-tech gear, including sonar systems and tracking devices, to crack down on illegal fishing in the Chesapeake Bay.  New laws also grant officers the power to impose $25,000 fines, revoke fishing licenses, and inspect the cabins of commercial fishing boats without probable cause.

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Offshore wind farm.  iStockphoto.
Offshore wind farm.  iStockphoto.

The Maryland General Assembly is debating whether or not to require power companies to help pay for the construction of a billion-dollar-plus offshore wind farm east of Ocean City.  The economic viability of offshore wind, however, is threatened by the scheduled expiration of federal tax credits for wind power and cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing in the region's Marcellus shale rock formation.

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Dennis Whigham, senior botanist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, is trying to bring back species of orchids that are threatened and nearly extinct.
Dennis Whigham, senior botanist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, is trying to bring back species of orchids that are threatened and nearly extinct.

Orchids are sometimes called "the smartest plants in the world" because of their ingenious ability to trick insects and people into helping with their pollination and transport. But many of the 25,000 known species of orchids are threatened or endangered, and Dennis Whigham and colleagues at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are investigating why--and trying to bring them back.

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Tundra swans lift off a frozen field on Maryland's Eastern Shore
Tundra swans lift off a frozen field on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The epic journey of tundra swans from Canada and the northern U.S. states to Maryland and Virginia is one of the most beautiful things you can see and hear in the Chesapeake region's winters. But the arctic angels are visiting less and less often, because water pollution and disease are destroying their food supply of underwater grasses and shellfish.

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Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is building "green" alleys, parking lots and basketball courts with holes in them to absorb stormwater runoff pollution.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is building "green" alleys, parking lots and basketball courts with holes in them to absorb stormwater runoff pollution
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Cities and towns across the Chesapeake Bay region are struggling with how to reduce stormwater runoff pollution and meet new federal pollution limits. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is proposing an interesting idea: to rebuild itself into a "big green sponge" to absorb rainwater. Questions remain, however, about whether building water-permeable parking lots, alleys, and parks will solve the city's chronic sewage overflow problems.

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An air pollution control device called a scrubber rises at the Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant south of Baltimore, with plant chemical technician Melissa Sampson at left.
An air pollution control device called a scrubber rises at the Brandon Shores coal-fired power plant south of Baltimore, with plant chemical technician Melissa Sampson at left.  

Before an air pollution control law passed the Maryland General Assembly in 2006, critics claimed that compelling coal-fired power plants to install billion-dollar filter systems called scrubbers would force plants to close down, causing blackouts and layoffs.  But none of the dire predictions came true--and the Brandon Shores power plant south of Baltimore actually increased its workforce to run its new scrubbers, providing evidence that environmental regulations are not "job killers."
 

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Photo of common loon from iStockphoto
Photo of common loon from iStockphoto

The Chesapeake Bay is an important stopover for many species of migratory birds, including common loons, which visit every fall as they fly south toward warmer regions for the winter. But the number of loons counted on the Choptank River and other Bay tributaries appears to be falling, perhaps because a primary food for the birds -- small, oily fish called menhaden -- are being overfished by industrial fleets out of Virginia. 


Contact Tom Pelton at pelton.tom@gmail.com