Wye River's beauty could lead to its undoing

Maryland health officials have been unable to pinpoint the cause of high bacterial levels that have halted shellfishing in the Wye River, but some believe the beauty of the area could be its biggest problem.

Local environmentalists say they are dismayed at continued development, particularly subdivisions near the headwaters of the Wye in rapidly growing Queen Anne’s County. Ellie Altman, a member of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, cites the 60-home Wye Knot Farm now under construction near Queenstown as an example.

“The river may look beautiful, but we are concerned,” Altman said. “It still is a very prestigious address, but many people feel it has already gone too far.”

Charles Schnaitman, who has spent a lifetime working the water and helping to run the dockside boat rental, bait shop, snack bar and crab wholesaling business his family has owned for more than 50 years, agrees that the river’s natural splendor may be causing the trouble. “Who knows what the cause is, it could be a lot of things, but the river draws people,” he said.

Meandering narrow strips of the East Wye River and Wye Narrows form a pristine crook around the 2,800-acre Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area, a sanctuary that includes 30 miles of shoreline.

Just north of the narrows is the Aspen Institute Wye River Conference Center, where Middle East negotiators recently met to discuss a peace agreement.

Nearby are historic plantation homes of some of Maryland’s first leaders. All along the Wye River’s serpentine path lie stately waterfront homes and weekend estates of the wealthy.

“In the summer, you’ll see 150 boat trailers parked here at the landing, and it’s not unusual to see that many big yachts moored in Shaw Bay at the mouth of the river. It all has an impact,” Schnaitman said.

State health officials say there could be several causes for the shellfish harvesting ban. The state Department of the Environment ordered the closure Sept. 14, after tests revealed unacceptable levels of fecal coliform.

The level of bacteria found in the river is not in itself harmful to people, according to department spokesman Quentin Banks. But it can be an indicator that more harmful pathogens might be thriving.

State officials say high levels of fecal coliform could be caused by manure spread on farms, failing septic systems, municipal waste water treatment plants, or even by the waste produced by large numbers of waterfowl.

The harvesting ban does not apply to crabs, and the river, which has a reputation for producing the largest crabs in the region, will continue to draw recreational crabbers, Schnaitman said.

“This is not that big a deal, except in the public’s perception,” he said “But maybe in the long run, it will be one more question in the consumers’ minds.”

Penn State rated mediocre in environmental survey

Penn State’s main campus got a mediocre environmental rating from an independent study recently released by a group of university professors and students.

“Penn State is probably quite typical of other large universities,” concluded Christopher Uhl, a professor of biology.

The two-year study, which was done by the Eberly College of Science but not commissioned by the school, examined Penn State’s energy and water use, transportation, waste disposal, recycling, pesticide use and other factors. The aim was to find out whether the campus is “sustainable” — meeting current needs without compromising future generations.

On the positive side, Penn State is using less water than 10 years ago, doesn’t appear to contaminate the ground water, is doing more recycling and is using fewer pesticides.

On the down side:

  • The university’s energy use is up 6 percent from the early 1980s, its coal consumption has increased 81 percent since 1981 and its coal-burning emissions have increased 22 percent since 1986.
  • About 12 acres of green space were converted to parking lots in the last decade.

In buying food, cost and convenience are the most important factors, not environmentally sound farming practices, packaging and treatment of animals. Purchasing doesn’t take into account how far the food must be transported, either.

The university has made some improvements, including composting kitchen waste, scaling back the heat in dorms during winter break and replacing bulbs in its 2,800 exit lights to cut wattage by 95 percent.

The 110-page report recommends: reducing energy use by 10 percent and water use by 25 percent by 2003; buying 10 percent of the school’s food from regional suppliers by 2001 and purchasing environmentally friendly supplies.

Mountaintop removal affects 470 miles of WV streams

About 470 miles of streams in West Virginia, many in areas where endangered species live, have been or are expected to be buried under earth left over from mountaintop removal strip mining, according to a federal report.

The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service studied the matter after the EPA asked for help evaluating the effects of mountaintop removal on aquatic resources. The report covered West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia. West Virginia had the most mileage of streams affected, followed by Kentucky with 355 miles either buried or permitted to be covered by valley fill. The two states accounted for 825 miles of the more than 900 miles of streams found by the study to have been affected.

Because West Virginia contains one of the largest areas of contiguous forest in the Northeast, it is “a hot spot for bird species of high concern in the Northeast United States,” the report said. “Consequently, the loss of these streams and their associated forests may have ecosystem-wide implications,” it said.

Mountaintop removal entails shaving off entire hilltops to expose large coal seams. The leftover earth is generally spread out in a nearby valley, flattening the landscape somewhat.

Coal operators say the practice allows the coal industry to remain profitable in Appalachia. The 10-page Fish & Wildlife report cited an improving market for coal for a sharp increase in the frequency of mountaintop removal mining.

“In addition to aquatic habitat losses, terrestrial wildlife habitat losses have accelerated,” the report said. “Surface disturbance once quantified in permit applications by numbers of acres today can be quantified in terms of square miles.”

The valley fills have resulted in the replacement of thousands of acres of deciduous hardwood forest by meadows in most plans, the report said.

No state has been keeping track of the number of valley fills or the amount of streams buried, the report said, and the Fish &Wildlife Service officials had to review hundreds of permit files to try to compile the lists themselves.

Birds dropping in on PA county

Officials say it’s more of a nuisance than a public health threat, but bird feces is a big problem in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.

Hitchcockian swarms of blackbirds migrating south are wreaking havoc this year around quaint country towns where trees, sidewalks and cars are so coated with bird feces, its stench has townspeople gagging.

By day, thousands of screeching grackles, starlings and brown-headed cowbirds swirl around the sky and fan out to feed in farmers’ fields. By dusk, they head to town to find a place to sleep.
Behind them is a long trail of droppings.

“It’s like stepping on a glob of grease,” said A. R. Furman, a retired funeral director who spends his evenings in front of his turn-of-the-century funeral home with the charming red-brick turrets, a wraparound porch — and a cannon.

It’s a miniature Civil War cannon purchased for $50 at a toy store, With one tablespoon of water and a pinch of carbide powder, it creates enough thunderous booms to send the birds flying.

In nearby Lititz, residents also have been battling the blackbirds on and off for decades. Lancaster has suffered a plague that pummeled strollers in a downtown park and ate the caulking on the roof of an adjacent parking garage. Car finishes all over the county have been damaged.

Ten years ago, townspeople started seriously fighting back, putting loudspeakers in trees, trying scarecrows and popping balloons. They even gave the Lititz Sportsmen’s Association a special permit to shoot to shoo, though not to kill.

That worked until the birds caught on, said Phil McCloud, former president of the club. “They got the idea that the shots weren’t coming up at them,” he said.

Their fight lasts all fall and part of winter, but is needless in the summer, when the birds breed and live in solitary nests, guarding their territories from each other.

Margaret Brittingham, a Pennsylvania State University professor of wildlife resources, said the droppings have caused a health scare in the entire community.

People fond of eating outdoors are now worried about the fungus that grows on bird droppings, which can cause lung infections if breathed in heavily, Ms. Brittingham said.

The most effective remedy throughout the years has proved to be the loudest: large nuisance cannons timed to fire every few minutes to startle the birds before they settle in for the night. A park bought one. A nearby high school has one.

And Furman has his at his funeral home.

Despite it all, feathers still float by in the air. A satellite dish is caked with excrement. A rocking bench is, too.

This year, the blackbirds have claimed the block.