Bay Journal

Chesapeake Notebook

News, notes and observations from the Bay Journal staff.

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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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Dolphin-spotting: the next big Chesapeake pastime?

Dolphins might be more common and wide-ranging in the Chesapeake Bay than once thought, if recent reports from citizen spotters are any indication.

Since a Chesapeake Dolphin Watch website launched at the end of June, 1,200 people have signed up and reported more than 500 dolphin sightings, often of 10 or more of the mammals at once.

“We knew anecdotally that dolphins were seen in the Chesapeake, but I still wasn’t anticipating anything like the number of sightings we’ve seen reported,” said Helen Bailey, a research associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory who helped to launch the website. “It’s just been incredible.”

Whitney Pipkin
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House panel proposes $60 million in federal funding for Bay restoration

The Chesapeake Bay restoration effort stands to get $60 million in federal funds next year under a bill acted on this week by a U.S. House subcommittee. That’s a significant cut from this year’s spending level, but a clear rejection of President Donald Trump’s proposal to completely de-fund the cleanup.

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee included that amount for the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal-state Bay Program in a bill it reported Wednesday, according to Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-MD, a member of the full committee. Of that total, $10 million would be allocated to grant programs to be spent for on-the-ground restoration projects in the six-state watershed.

Timothy B. Wheeler

Dinner with a side of Bay 101

There are plenty of places where diners in Washington, DC, can find a decent surf and turf. But, instead of steaks, one chef chose to serve his recent six-course seafood dinner with a side of education — and far more than would fit in the small font on a menu.

At a pop-up dinner in a warehouse-like event space this month, Mackenzie Kitburi of Capital Taste Food Group invited Bay experts to talk about water quality, federal regulations and invasive species while guests consumed a half-dozen types of fish they’re not likely to find on many local menus.

Whitney Pipkin
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Tangier mayor hopes that Trump call leads to a seawall

Tangier Island sits like a fishhook in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a fishing village known for its distinct local accent and eroding shoreline. Every now and again, it makes the news for a quirky event, like when the mayor found some oysters attached to a crab, or a tragic one, as when a longtime resident drowned.

That changed in June, when President Donald Trump called Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge. The president, who has suggested in the past that climate change is a hoax, told Eskridge not to worry about rising sea levels. “Your island has been there for hundreds of years,” he told Eskridge, “and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more."

Rona Kobell
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EPA moves to rescind controversial Clean Water rule

It came as no surprise, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it is moving to withdraw the so-called Clean Water Rule, potentially making it easier for farmers, builders and others to disturb some streams or wetlands.

The regulation, also known as the “Waters of the United States” rule, had been targeted for rollback since February, when President Trump issued an executive order instructing his administration to begin work on the “elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

It had been adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration, but drew intense opposition from the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Home Builders and other agricultural and industry interests. 

Timothy B. Wheeler and Rona Kobell
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Washington diplomats plant grasses in the Potomac, earn bragging rights 

Representatives from about a dozen nations got a lot more than their feet wet recently when they waded into the Potomac River to plant Bay grasses they had personally cultivated. But after a six-month competition only one country got to claim the esteemed prize for raising the “best grass.”

Those bragging rights went to China in a friendly contest to see who could grow the longest, thickest and overall best batch of underwater grasses, which participants transplanted into the river earlier this month during an event at Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, VA. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation helped organize the planting through its Grasses for the Masses program.

Whitney Pipkin
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Bay's 'dead zone' expected to be bigger than average this summer

A year after experiencing its best water quality in decades, the Chesapeake Bay is expected to have a larger than average “dead zone” this summer, where fish, crabs and shellfish will struggle to breathe.

Researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) and the University of Michigan are forecasting that the volume of oxygen-starved water in the Bay will grow to 1.9 cubic miles, enough to nearly fill 3.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Trump administration pledges to do more with less for U.S. aquaculture

"Aquaculture is not the future of oyster harvests. It's the present," said Mark Luckenbach - Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Luckenbach, based at the VIMS lab at Wachapreague, told me those words 11 years ago, when I wrote my first story about oyster aquaculture. Since then, I’ve written more than 100 stories on the topic, and someday, I hope, I’ll write a book. One thing is sure: the present has taken a long time to arrive - not just in the Chesapeake Bay, but all over the country.

Rona Kobell
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Algae blooms sprout lawsuit over polluted Virginia river

Four conservation groups have filed suit accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of failing to address pollution from agricultural runoff afflicting the Shenandoah River. The groups contend that the EPA is letting Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality classify the river as “unimpaired,” which they say is a violation of the Clean Water Act.

In a complaint filed May 30 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the groups allege that runoff from livestock and poultry operations “has caused algae blooms so severe they have been linked to major fish die-offs, severe decline of underwater aquatic plants, and conditions so unsightly and odorous that some visitors have turned away rather than use the Shenandoah River for swimming, boating, and fishing.”

William H. Funk
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Baltimore harbor safer for swimming in places, but still badly degraded

The outer reaches of Baltimore’s harbor were somewhat safer to swim in last year, but overall water quality in the harbor and the streams that feed into it continues to post failing or near-failing grades, according to the latest annual assessment.

The Healthy Harbor campaign's report card for 2016 found that fecal bacteria levels, which are indicative of the presence of raw sewage, were low enough in the Patapsco River off Fort McHenry to be safe for swimming nearly 90 percent of the time, and 70 percent of the time along the popular Canton waterfront, based on federal criteria. That’s an improvement over the 2015 report card, which found no place in the harbor met the safe swimming standard even 60 percent of the time. 

Timothy B. Wheeler
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Bay health gained slightly in 2016, assessment finds

The Chesapeake Bay’s ecological health improved slightly last year, according to a new assessment, with three of the estuary’s key fish populations in their best shape in decades.

For the fifth straight year, the Bay’s condition in 2016 earned a C grade on the annual report card produced by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The overall score — combining measures of water quality, habitat and fish abundance — ticked upward to 54 percent, a 1 percent gain over 2015.

Timothy B. Wheeler
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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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