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News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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MD leaders pledge support for environmental protections amid Trump rollback

Maryland’s legislative leaders delighted environmental advocates Thursday by vowing to strengthen the state’s forest conservation law, increase renewable energy and pass other green initiatives, while resisting environmental rollbacks by the Trump administration. It remains to be seen whether election-year politics will help those prospects.  

The 23rd annual environmental legislative summit in Annapolis drew a standing room only crowd to hear pitches — and pledges of support — for green groups’ top priorities during the 90-day General Assembly session that began Jan. 10.

“We’re going to make us the most environmentally friendly state in America,” House Speaker Michael Busch declared, to enthusiastic applause. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller voiced similar sentiment, predicting that amid upcoming debates over taxes, spending and other tough issues, “the one thing we’re going to agree on is the environment.”

Timothy B. Wheeler

Bay Barometer finds things keep looking up

The wintry weather outside may be frightful, but the latest Bay Barometer is pointing in a generally positive direction.

The annual report released by the federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program trumpeted continued gains the long-running effort to restore the estuary, with new highs reached last year in fish passage, water quality and blue crab and underwater grass abundance.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Bay water quality nears record high mark

Water quality in a little more than 39 percent of the Chesapeake was good enough during the last three years to support Bay creatures, from worms to crabs to fish, figures released Thursday show.

That was the second-best extent of good water quality seen in any three-year period since coordinated Chesapeake monitoring efforts began in 1985, according to the state-federal Bay Program partnership.  

Karl Blankenship

Environmental groups say Conowingo operator can afford to help restore Bay

Exelon Corp. could help restore the lower Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay by changing the way it generates electricity at Conowingo Dam, and still make a “healthy” profit, a pair of environmental groups said Tuesday.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy released a study they jointly commissioned that finds that the Chicago-based energy company could easily afford to mitigate the impacts Conowingo is having on downriver fish habitat and water quality.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Hellbender step closer to being PA clean-water mascot

The Eastern hellbender is one step closer to becoming Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian after the Senate voted 47 to 2 Wednesday to pass a bill calling for its designation. The hellbender is North America’s largest salamander and only lives in pristine mountain streams, so environmental advocates want to make it a sort of clean-water mascot.

Donna Morelli
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Striped bass reproduction in Bay a bit above average, surveys show

Striped bass reproduction in the Chesapeake Bay slightly exceeded the long-term average this year, annual surveys show, offering hope that the population is rebounding from low levels that led to coastwide fishing restrictions three years ago.

In Maryland — where reproduction has historically been an accurate predictor of future coastwide populations — the annual juvenile index has been above average for two of the past three years.

That’s an improvement from the previous seven-year span when the index had been below average in all but one year. That reproductive drought spurred the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the harvest of migratory fish, to impose a coastwide catch reduction in 2014, including a 20 percent cut in the Chesapeake.

Karl Blankenship
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MD presses case for dredging oyster shells from popular fishing reef

The Hogan administration is pressing ahead with its bid to dredge old oyster shells from the largest remaining deposit in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay — a move backed by watermen but widely opposed by conservationists and recreational anglers.

The state Department of the Environment has declared its support for the plan to mine 5 million bushels of shells from Man-O-War Shoals, near the mouth of the Patapsco River. The MDE issued a public notice Nov. 1 recommending that the state Board of Public Works grant the Department of Natural Resources a tidal wetlands license, which is needed to do the dredging.

The plan still needs federal approval, but if given the green light, DNR officials say the old shells would be used to replenish reefs in waters open to commercial harvest, help private oyster growers and restore reefs in sanctuary areas.

Timothy B. Wheeler

A few rays of hope - and another major setback for VA pipeline opponents

The multi-billion-dollar Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas conduit that has been proposed to cross environmentally sensitive areas in Virginia, continues to move through the regulatory process, though several new developments offer environmentalists and private landowners cause for cautious optimism.

On Oct. 13, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave formal approval to Dominion Energy’s request to build the pipeline, which will involve the legally sanctioned seizure of private property from unwilling landowners.

William H. Funk
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Key to stream restoration success: location, location, location

With millions of dollars being poured into urban and suburban stream restoration projects across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a recent study suggests location matters when trying to assess how effective those efforts have been.

After surveying 13 Baltimore highly degraded suburban streams that had undergone makeovers, a pair of researchers found that aquatic insect populations were larger and more diverse in isolated headwaters than in larger downstream reaches.

Timothy B. Wheeler

MD senators call on EPA to reverse Bay Journal decision

Warning that its decision to cut grant funding for the Bay Journal sets a “dangerous nationwide precedent,” Maryland’s two U.S. senators asked Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt to reverse his agency’s action in a letter Wednesday.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen said the Bay Journal has “done a sterling job of delivering returns on investments,” and that there was “no legitimate cause to deprive the residents of the Chesapeake Bay watershed of such a vital source of information.”

Karl Blankenship
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Judge approves disputed plan to fix Baltimore's sewage overflows

Brushing aside an environmental group’s objection, a federal judge has given the city of Baltimore another 13 years to eliminate the chronic sewage overflows that frequently render local streams and the harbor unsafe for recreation.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz approved a consent decree on Thursday spelling out a new plan for overhauling Baltimore’s aged, leaky sewer system. It modifies the initial agreement reached in 2002 with federal and state regulators, which had given the city until January 2016 to fix its problems. Despite spending nearly $1 billion on repairs over that time, by city officials’ estimates, the overflows continue.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Virginia endowment honors Bay Journal Media

Bay Journal Media was one of 22 organizations recognized as one of the Virginia Environmental Endowment’s “Partners in Excellence” during its 40th anniversary celebration in Richmond on Oct. 5.

The VEE said the Bay Journal, the organization’s primary publication, “is recognized as the media voice for news about the Chesapeake Bay.” The endowment has provided financial support for increased coverage of Virginia issues in the Bay Journal, and has helped launch its recent Local Government Edition, which provides Bay-related information to local officials throughout the watershed.

Karl Blankenship
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Virginia board to hear pipeline arguments over four days in December

The fate of two sprawling pipeline projects in Virginia will be decided by the State Water Control Board at a pair of meetings in December, each expected to last two days.

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, which would carry natural gas across portions of West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina have faced steep opposition from citizens and environmental groups. The projects are undergoing review by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which has pledged to apply several “regulatory tools…to ensure that Virginia’s water quality is protected” should the projects be approved.

Whitney Pipkin
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Oyster season opens on a down note

The public oyster harvest season began Monday, with Chesapeake Bay watermen no doubt hoping for a better haul this fall and winter than last. For Maryland watermen, though, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism.

Despite mild weather last winter, Maryland’s 2016-2017 harvest from public oyster bars was off nearly 42 percent from the year before, a steep drop from the modest decline seen the previous two years. Last season, 1,086 licensed watermen harvested 224,609 bushels of bivalves, down from a 384,000-bushel catch in 2015-2016, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Documentary delves into rising sea level’s toll on culture, habitat

What happens when land that has been farmed or built upon for more than 300 years, and hunted and fished for thousands of years before that, becomes open water? What happens when nuisance flooding becomes prevalent and undermines roads to such an extent that the cost of fixing them cannot be justified by local government? What happens when one of the most popular national wildlife refuges in the country turns from marsh and upland — beneficial to migratory birds and many native species — to open water with barren bottom?

High Tide in Dorchester, a new Bay Journal documentary film about the cultural and ecological effects of rising sea level in Chesapeake Bay, will seek to answer these and other questions

David Harp
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Climate change brings heightened risks in Bay of contaminated water, shellfish

As climate change warms the Chesapeake Bay, people face heightened risks of getting ill from eating raw oysters out of the estuary or from swimming in its waters over the next several decades, a new study warns.

Drawing on climate models and extensive Bay monitoring data, a research team led by scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that two of three harmful strains of Vibrio bacteria already found in the Chesapeake can be expected to grow in abundance as temperatures rise. The study appears in the current issue of GeoHealth, the American Geophysical Union’s journal.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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MD septic pollution lawsuit cleared for trial

A Caroline County judge has ruled that a former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground to unchecked septic pollution, will have her day in court.

In early September, Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen denied a motion by the town and the state to dismiss the case, saying that a jury needed to decide if either bore responsibility for the pollution to Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on the 100-acre property that Gail Litz used to own.  The judge has yet to set a trial date.

Rona Kobell
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VA forum to bring Bay issues into governor's race

Virginia voters will get to hear this week where the state’s gubernatorial hopefuls  stand on the Chesapeake Bay and other water quality  issues, as a pair of environmental groups stage a candidates’  forum in Richmond.

The Clean Water Forum, co-hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the James River Association, will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 at The National Theater in the state capital.

Whitney Pipkin
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Once lowly soft-shell crab new darling of haute cuisine

Time was, seaside restaurants would put out a simple handwritten sign, usually around Memorial Day. It would say, “we have soft crabs,” and diners would line up for the fried favorite, served between two pieces of white bread.

Nowadays, the sign would have to stay up much of the year. Thanks to increased demand, better shipping methods, a changing global palette and a drive for artisanal and local food items, the proverbial “bug on a bun” has been elevated to a place on top of salads, small plates and platters — and even cooking shows.

“It’s just getting unbelievable,” said Terry Vincent, owner of Lindy’s Seafood, a Hooper’s Island wholesaler that sells crabs from the Chesapeake Bay as well as from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

Rona Kobell
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Bay Journal to lose EPA funding

It’s always awkward to become the news rather than simply report it, but here goes:

Today, we learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to cut off a multi-year grant awarded to the Bay Journal by the EPA two years ago, effective Feb. 1. If the cut is upheld, it’s a big loss, as EPA funding covers about a third of our budget.

But it’s not the end of the Bay Journal — not even close.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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In about-face, VA's governor turns against offshore drilling

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pulled an about-face Thursday on his previous support for offshore oil drilling, saying that he now wants the Atlantic Ocean waters off his state excluded from an upcoming federal leasing program.

Citing primarily economic but also environmental concerns, McAuliffe said that with the Trump administration’s “reckless actions” regarding oil revenue-sharing with coastal states, coupled with proposed cuts to funding for regulatory environmental agencies, “Virginia is left with only one option.” He asked that the state not be included in a new five-year plan for leasing portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for energy development

William H. Funk
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MD's Hogan looking for Conowingo remedies

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is convening his second annual summit Tuesday on the buildup of sediments and nutrients behind Conowingo dam.  But the agenda and attendees remain a mystery.

Doug Mayer, Hogan’s communications director, said in an email that the summit would be at 11 a.m. in Darlington, MD, near the dam on the Susquehanna River.  But Mayer said the session was closed to the press. He said Hogan would hold a press conference following the summit, but did not respond to a query about why the meeting was not open to the public.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Virginia city's share of $50 million cleanup deal still in doubt

A federal judge has approved a deal requiring the chemical company DuPont to pay $50 million for decades of mercury pollution of Virginia’s South River, finalizing the largest natural resources settlement in state history.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski did not specify how much, if any, of the $42.1 million earmarked in the settlement for restoration projects ought to be spent in Waynesboro, where DuPont’s polluting factory operated. 

William H. Funk
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Pennsylvania judge halts pipeline construction after multiple problems

A Pennsylvania judge has put a two-week hold on all drilling for a controversial pipeline construction project that’s had multiple spills and sparked complaints of well contamination.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board ordered Sunoco Pipeline L.P. late Tuesday to stop all horizontal directional drilling underneath waterways on its 350-mile Mariner East 2 pipeline after a series of leaks or spills of drilling fluid and the contamination of private water supplies.

Donna Morelli

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