Bay Journal

Chesapeake Notebook

News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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Virginians back Bay cleanup, want feds to stick with it, poll finds

Virginians strongly support the multi-state effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and oppose efforts to roll back federal clean air and water laws, according to a new survey.

The poll of registered voters also found that people see the state’s environment getting better, overall. They graded its overall environmental health at a “B,” the highest mark given since the question was first asked in a 1997 survey, when the state’s environment rated a “C.”

 

Karl Blankenship
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Virginia lawmakers act on Alexandria sewage overflows, coal ash

Virginia’s General Assembly took final action on two measures that could impact water quality in the Chesapeake Bay during a one-day veto session on Wednesday.

In response to several amendments Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed to bills passed earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers refused to give the city of Alexandria more time to reduce polluted overflows from its sewer system and agreed to a moratorium on new coal ash-related permits until further study can be conducted.

After rejecting McAuliffe’s proposed amendments to give the city of Alexandria three additional years to reduce overflows from a combined sewer system, Virginia senators voted to pass the bill as originally written, potentially giving the city a compliance deadline of 2025. But the measure did not get enough votes in the Senate to pass it over a potential gubernatorial veto.  

Whitney Pipkin
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Oyster sanctuaries to be left alone for now under new Maryland law

Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries will continue to provide a refuge from harvest, at least through next year, after Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday allowed legislation barring any changes in the protected areas to become law without his signature.

The Hogan administration had sided with the state’s watermen in opposing the measure, which passed late last month. But the General Assembly, heeding pleas from environmentalists, gave the sanctuary protection bill enough votes to override the governor’s veto had he chosen to exercise it. Legislative leaders put it on Hogan’s desk March 29, and legislation becomes law after six days when there is no action by the governor.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper hangs it up for politics

The Lower Susquehanna River is getting a new watchdog. Michael Helfrich, the first Riverkeeper for the bottom half of the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, is leaving after 12 years, to pursue a career in politics.

Already a part-time York, PA, city councilman and president of the five-member municipal governing body, Helfrich is vacating his full-time Riverkeeper post on April 1 to run for mayor of his hometown.

“After nearly 12 years of having my focus and energy spread out over 9,215 square miles of Lower Susquehanna issues — and issues of the Chesapeake Bay — I’m now going to focus my energy on the 5.2 square miles of York City,” Helfrich said.

Donna Morelli
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Governor proposes giving Alexandria more time to fix sewage overflows

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has proposed giving the city of Alexandria three additional years to fix its chronic sewage overflows into the Potomac River. 

The Northern Virginia city has been working for several years to reduce the amount of rain-diluted waste that pours untreated from its antiquated combined sewer system, but environmentalists have complained that local officials weren’t moving fast enough. State lawmakers got involved this year and passed legislation that would require Alexandria to greatly reduce overflows from the system by 2024, a deadline that city engineers contend would be nearly impossible to meet.

Whitney Pipkin
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MD House passes cownose ray fishing contest moratorium

Maryland is getting closer to at least a temporary moratorium on the killing of cownose rays in bowfishing contests, a summer pastime that has angered animal-rights groups and as well as many fishermen.

By a vote of 119 to 21, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed HB 211 Wednesday, which would impose a moratorium on such contests until July 1, 2019, and require the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to prepare a fisheries management plan by Dec. 31, 2018.

The House action comes a month after the state Senate voted, 46-0, to pass SB 268, which would bar bowfishing contests for rays through July 1, 2018, and require the DNR to develop its management plan a year earlier than called for under the House bill.

Rona Kobell
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MD House approves fracking ban, stormwater funding plan

Maryland’s House of Delegates voted Friday to ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, while also approving a Hogan administration bill that would let the state invest in potentially less costly ways of reducing stormwater pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay.

The fracking ban, approved on a 97 to 40 vote, comes after a six-year debate over whether to allow the controversial energy extraction technique in the state. More than a dozen counties and cities adopted local ordinances or resolutions to ban fracking, and opponents have staged several rallies in Annapolis since the legislative session began in January.

 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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MD Natural Resources Police fights to keep its eyes in the sky

Last Thanksgiving, the Maryland Natural Resources Police got something for which they could truly be thankful: A helicopter.

After seven years with no eyes in the sky, the NRP got its 1972 Bell Jet Ranger back.  The police aviation unit, founded nearly 70 years ago, had been eliminated by the previous administration in a cost-cutting move in 2009, and the helicopter was transferred to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

But restoring the NRP’s aerial mobility was a priority of Mark Belton, the current natural resources secretary. So he reacquired the copter and had it refurbished for $158,000, according to NRP spokeswoman Candy Thomson. Named Natural 1, it was pressed into service almost immediately, helping the NRP catch oyster and deer poachers and assisting with search-and-rescue missions.

Now, though, after just four months, the NRP, an arm of DNR, is in jeopardy of losing its helicopter again.

Rona Kobell
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Trump budget plan would slam Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Program and other federal initiatives that could impact the Bay have been targeted for steep cuts in preliminary Trump administration budget plans sent to federal agencies, prompting alarm from conservation groups and lawmakers alike.

According to a report in The Washington Post, a budget blueprint for the 2018 federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by nearly a quarter, from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion, and slash its workforce from 15,000 to 12,000.

Karl Blankenship
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Lawmakers urge Trump to maintain Bay funding

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants President Trump to maintain the current funding level for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts when the administration releases its first budget blueprint.

While the EPA is widely expected to be hit by potentially deep budget cuts when the administration releases a budget outline in a few weeks, five Republicans and 12 Democrats from the House of Representatives signed a letter last week asking that funding for the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program be kept at $73 million.

Karl Blankenship
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MD lawmaker denounces crab fishery manager's firing, calls for her reinstatement

One of the Maryland General Assembly’s leading environmental advocates denounced the Hogan administration Friday for firing the long-time state employee who oversaw the blue crab fishery after some watermen complained to the governor about a catch restriction they could not get lifted.

Speaking at the end of the legislature’s Friday session, Sen. Paul Pinsky charged that Brenda Davis was “summarily fired’ over watermen’s unhappiness with a policy that was set by higher-ups at the Department of Natural Resources.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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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

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