Bay Journal

Chesapeake Notebook

News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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Fracking debate nears crossroads in Maryland

Maryland’s “fracking” debate begins in earnest this week in Annapolis. With a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas scheduled to end Oct. 1, lawmakers are under increasing pressure to decide whether to ban the practice permanently, punt it to the voters or let drilling proceed under disputed regulations that have yet to be finalized. Emotions are running high, and legislators appear nearly evenly split.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Maryland's seafood marketing headed back to where it came from

If the Hogan Administration has its way, Maryland’s seafood marketing will go back to its roots — at the state’s agriculture department.

The administration has introduced a bill that, if passed, would shift responsibility and resources for promoting Maryland’s seafood from its current home at the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, where it was housed six years ago.

Rona Kobell
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Bay 'Barometer' shows restoration progress, but forest buffers, wetlands lag

The Chesapeake Bay is showing signs that decades of work are starting to pump new life into the nation’s largest estuary, according to a new report, though it also showed worrisome trends for forest buffers and wetlands – two elements considered critical to any long-term recovery.

The Bay Barometer, released Wednesday by the state-federal Bay Program partnership, largely echoed the positive movement shown in recent report cards from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, suggesting that cleanup efforts were starting to pay off with expanded underwater grass beds, clearer water, and a smaller oxygen-starved “dead zone.”

Karl Blankenship
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MD lawmakers eye energy efficiency boost

Even as Maryland lawmakers face a decision on whether to try to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a renewable energy measure, another potential confrontation is brewing over how involved the state should be in encouraging consumers to reduce electricity usage.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Some Virginia lawmakers want Alexandria to fix sewage overflows faster

Virginia’s legislators are sounding off this session about how soon the city of Alexandria should have to end frequent overflows from its sewer system into the Potomac River and its tributaries.

The state Senate voted last week to give the city almost eight years to carry out costly upgrades to the system, a change from an original bill that would have required the city to act by 2020 or lose all state funding. A version of this compromise will now need to pass the state House of Delegates.

Whitney Pipkin
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Spike & Rona, on making food local, and reasonably priced

One night last week, an overflow crowd packed Artifact Coffee in Woodberry to hear me interview Spike Gjerde, then listen to him interview me.

Gjerde is a pioneer in the local and farm-to-table movement in Baltimore. With his partners, he owns Woodberry Kitchen, Parts and Labor, Artifact Coffee, and is opening a new restaurant in Washington, DC, called A Rake’s Progress. He and his team can also do things with root vegetables that I can only dream of doing. If I could, maybe my children would love carrots and beets

Rona Kobell
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Coal ash storage near the Potomac to be discussed at public meeting

Coal ash storage at one of Dominion Virginia Power’s plants will be the subject of yet another public meeting on the evening of Jan. 26.

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is hosting the meeting at 7 p.m. at Potomac Senior High School in Dumfries to provide information about a proposed permit the company is seeking to permanently store coal ash at its Possum Point power station in Prince William County.

Whitney Pipkin
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Rusty patched bumble bee's buzz fading

The buzz is not good for the rusty patched bumble bee. Once common across more than half of the United States, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this wild pollinator is now so rarely seen that it’s believed to be on the brink of extinction.

Distinguishable from other black and yellow bumblebees by the rusty reddish patch on the backs of males and workers, Bombus affinis, as it’s known to scientists, is the first bee in the continental United States to be placed on the endangered species list.  It’s likely not the last.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Cardin voices "major concerns" about Trump's choice to run EPA

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said Tuesday that he has “major concerns” about President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after quizzing him about his attitudes towards federal enforcement of the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, climate change, and other issues.

The two-term Democrat said he met with Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt in advance of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to become the next EPA administrator. The session has not been scheduled yet, but is considered likely next week.

Cardin, a longtime advocate for the Bay cleanup, said he had a “positive” discussion with Pruitt about the Bay, though he remained confused about Pruitt’s rationale for joining a legal challenge to EPA’s imposition in 2010 of a pollution reduction plan for the Chesapeake.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Bay earns C-minus in latest report card on its health

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has taken the pulse again of the nation’s largest estuary, and found its health has improved a bit, though it’s still far from out of the woods.

The Annapolis-based environmental group released its latest “State of the Bay” report on Thursday, declaring that the Chesapeake is in better shape overall now than at any time since the foundation began issuing regular updates in 1998. 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Maryland still mulling cownose ray bowfishing limits

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources still wants to hear from the public on how it should manage cownose rays, a migratory species that bowhunters enjoy killing for sport and conservationists wish to save because of their beauty and importance to the ecosystem.

The department has put a revised notice on its fishing regulations web page saying it will take comments through Jan. 8 on whether and how it should limit bowfishing for rays.

Rona Kobell

Maryland lawmakers mull fracking rules, gird for debate over drilling ban

Lawmakers in Annapolis waded this week into the Hogan administration’s plan for regulating “fracking” for natural gas, while girding for a bitter debate early next year over whether to ban the hotly disputed drilling practice.

Ben Grumbles, the state’s environment secretary, told members of a joint House-Senate committee Tuesday that hydraulic fracturing rules given final approval recently by the Hogan administration are the most stringent and protective in the nation. He asserted that they offer a “platinum package” of safeguards for public health and the environment, a step up from rules proposed in 2015 by former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who touted them at the time as the “gold standard” nationwide in regulating fracking.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Many Pennsylvania farmers have stepped up to curb pollution, survey finds

For several years, regulators have been sounding the alarm about Pennsylvania agriculture’s lagging pace in meeting its Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals. For nearly as long, the farmers have been telling the government that they have been putting in a lot of pollution-controlling practices, but they weren’t getting credit for them.

So earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sought to determine who was right. Working with Penn State’s Survey Research Center, environmental officials sent questionnaires to the state’s farmers. A total of 6,782 farmers — 35 percent of the 20,000 farmers to whom the survey was mailed — answered the questions. They included information about how many best management practices were in place and where they were. To verify the information, the Penn State researchers visited 700 farms, about 10 percent, to inspect.

So, who was right? Turns out, maybe both

Rona Kobell

DuPont agrees to pay $50 million to restore contaminated Virginia rivers

Chemical giant DuPont has agreed to pay more than $50 million to deal with mercury contamination of two Virginia rivers caused by the company’s one-time operations in Waynesboro, federal and state officials announced Thursday.

The Justice and Interior departments and the Commonwealth of Virginia filed a proposed consent decree in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg spelling out terms reached with the multinational company based in Wilmington, DE. The largest settlement of its kind in Virginia comes after decades of studies, litigation and negotiations over how to resolve extensive contamination.

Under the deal, DuPont would pay $42.3 million to federal and state agencies to fund cleanup and recreational projects on the South Fork Shenandoah River and one of its tributaries, the South River. The company also agreed to pay up to $10 million toward the renovation of a state fish hatchery at Front Royal, VA.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Richmond council rejects state funding for contested stream restoration

A disputed stream restoration project in Richmond faced a major setback last month when the City Council rejected state funding that would have helped cover the $1.27-million cost. Despite the 8-1 vote against the project from council, city staff said they will continue to seek permits for it.

The project had drawn fire from residents who argued it wasn’t the best way to reduce polluted runoff into the James River and would strip the stream bank of hundreds of trees in the process.

Whitney Pipkin
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Cardin sees fights ahead in DC to protect Bay cleanup progress

Warning that the Chesapeake Bay is at risk, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin asked environmental groups to help him fend off moves expected by the incoming Trump administration and the next Congress that he warned could undermine the long-running efforts to restore the nation’s largest estuary.

Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who has long been active with environmental issues, met at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation offices in Annapolis Monday with leaders from state conservation groups to preview likely efforts to shift federal policy in the coming year. He counseled them to enlist local and state officials around the Bay watershed, including Republicans, to communicate to leaders in Washington that the Chesapeake restoration effort Is working and needs to continue.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Blackwater refuge expands to deal with rising water

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, already vast at 27,000 acres, is becoming even larger.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that it has acquired 410 acres of new land for the refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore from The Nature Conservancy.

Rona Kobell
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Dead manatee found in Baltimore harbor

A dead female manatee turned up last week in Baltimore’s harbor, and state officials said the cause of its death remains undetermined.

A citizen called the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on Nov. 21 to report the deceased marine mammal. It took two days, and the help of staff at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, to recover the manatee because it was in an “inaccessible location,’’ according to Amanda Weschler, the DNR’s marine mammal and sea turtle stranding coordinator.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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New flood maps show what goes under when the District gets wet

What would it take to flood the National Mall, Ronald Reagan National Airport or Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling? According to the first interactive flood maps of their kind, recently released for the Washington, D.C. region: a lot, a little less than a lot and not much, respectively.

Whitney Pipkin

Brace for impact: What will Trump do for - or to - the Bay?

There was a symposium in Baltimore earlier this week on the future of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort. It was titled “Halftime for the Chesapeake Bay TMDL,” a sports-related allusion to the upcoming “midpoint assessment” of the pollution diet imposed six years ago on Bay watershed states.

But many of those in the audience Wednesday came wondering if there would be a second half, given the surprising results of Tuesday’s election. A few in the audience at the University of Maryland law school wore all black, as if in mourning. And it didn’t take long for one of the panelists to bring up “the elephant in the room,” meaning the Republican sweep of the White House and Congress.

What’s in store for the Bay cleanup under President-elect Donald Trump? Will the federal government pull back from the central role it’s assumed in the restoration effort under President Barack Obama?  Will it resume the cheerleader’s role it once had, or walk away entirely?

Timothy B. Wheeler
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MD eyes curb on bowfishing for cownose rays

Marylanders have a chance this week to make their voices heard.

No, this is not about the election of the next president or a U.S. senator. It is about the protection of the cownose ray, the big kite-shaped marine creature that scientists say has gotten a bad rap as a scourge of the Chesapeake Bay’s oysters.

Rona Kobell
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Dominion pulls back from draining coal ash lagoon at Chesapeake site

Dominion Virginia Power no longer plans to discharge water from a coal ash lagoon at its power plant in Chesapeake, VA, into the Elizabeth River, but now says it will pump and transport it off-site for disposal.

Though the company was seeking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s approval this summer to treat and discharge the ash pond water at Chesapeake Energy Center — as it is doing at two other sites in the state — Dominion officials said they have decided that is no longer cost-effective for the comparatively small amount of water remaining in the lagoon. The company has withdrawn its request for a discharge permit.

The Chesapeake Energy Center lagoon contains about 2 million gallons of water covering 60,000 tons of coal ash stored on the bottom, Dominion spokesman Rob Richardson said. In comparison, the company’s Possum Point Power Station near Quantico is in the process of treating and discharging more than 200 million gallons of water from its remaining coal ash lagoon there, a process that could take up to a year.

Whitney Pipkin
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Poultry zoning restrictions tabled in MD county

The drive to put some zoning restrictions on large new poultry farms on the Delmarva Peninsula has hit a speed bump, even as advocates press for more local action to safeguard the health of residents living near the facilities.

Maryland’s Worcester County commissioners last month tabled proposed poultry house siting restrictions to get more input from local farmers and other stakeholders.

Rona Kobell
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Pennsylvania stormwater: There's an app for that!

The November print issue of the Bay Journal has gone to press, so we will be putting the stories online over the next week or two. One of the first to go up is a piece I wrote about Pennsylvania localities beginning to tackle their polluted runoff.

The story was inspired by a presentation at the annual Chesapeake Watershed Forum in Shepherdstown, WV, which is organized by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.  I try to go every year, and not just because it’s in a beautiful location. The sessions are usually packed with interesting information, and you always meet people from corners of the watershed you didn’t know before. (I now have a long list of places in West Virginia that I must visit, including Smoke Hole Canyon, thanks to tips gathered at the bar.)

But mostly, this year’s program interested me because there were not one, but two, sessions on Pennsylvania stormwater.

Rona Kobell

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