Browsing articles in "Cleanup"

Migratory Birds, Fish Could Feel Impact of Gulf Spill

By Allison Frick  //  Cleanup, Pollution, environmentalism  //  91 Comments

Gov. Martin O'Malley (News21 photo by Allison Frick)

OCEAN CITY, Md.– It is extremely unlikely that oil from the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico will make its way into Maryland’s waters, but the spill could affect some of the region’s migratory birds and fish.

That was the consensus shared Tuesday by officials at Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s roundtable discussion on the local effects and lessons learned from the spill.

Complex currents should keep the oil out of Maryland, but if anything from the Gulf does make its way this far north, it will be in the form of tar balls, or “hard, crusted” remnants” of oil, said Dr. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

“This is a wake-up call to us all,” said Boesch, who is a member of a commission that President Obama appointed to study and prevent future oil spills. While he said that Maryland’s waters would not likely fall victim to large, catastrophic blowouts like the one in the Gulf, pipelines and barges that transport oil could leak into the state’s waterways.

There is a lot at stake financially and environmentally in Maryland’s waters.

“We have many migratory shorebirds who will be queuing up and heading south for the winter in the Gulf area,” said John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. They include terns, skimmers, egrets and blue herons, he said.

Griffin also said that migratory fish such as marlin might be affected.

The governor’s team agreed that the catastrophic spill in the Gulf is a warning for officials and environmental experts.

“We are benefitting and learning from the lessons … in the Gulf,” said Shari Wilson, Maryland secretary of the Environment.

O’Malley discussed in detail with his team the emergency preparedness plans in place in Maryland. They rely on cooperation between the government and private companies to effectively use booms and vacuums to collect and treat water in the event of a spill.

–by Allison Frick


Fixing Anacostia Pollution Won’t Be Quick

A young Eastern painted turtle, covered in algae, basks on some driftwood while a discarded spray paint can floats nearby in the Anacostia River.

A young Eastern painted turtle, covered in algae, basks on some driftwood while a discarded spray paint can floats nearby in the Anacostia River. (News21 photo by Jason Lenhart)

WASHINGTON – Renovations to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant — needed to help shore up an antiquated sewer system in the nation’s capital — are a year ahead of schedule, with completion expected in 2014, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty says.

But even with the updates, controlling raw sewage runoff into the Anacostia River during heavy rains may remain an issue until at least 2018, say the District’s water and sewer authority and environmental advocates.

The long-standing problem: There isn’t enough space in combined sewage and stormwater pipes to effectively transport untreated runoff to the Blue Plains plant.

“When those pipes reach capacity, overflow valves flip over,” says Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. “Essentially, raw sewage is discharged into the Anacostia River.”

Urban development in the Anacostia watershed has exacerbated the problem, he says. “As D.C. gets more and more built out, there’s more and more impervious surface and more and more runoff.”

The long-term solution, Bolin says, is to dig an eight-mile long tunnel that will capture and store excess storm water until it can be processed at Blue Plains. The Metrorail-sized tube will run from near RFK Memorial Stadium to Blue Plains.

“We applaud that they’re addressing the problem,” Bolin says. “But it’s a big engineering fix. It’s going to be a process to get through it.”

Currently, when overflows occur, thousands of gallons of polluted stormwater flood the river, exacerbating poor conditions of a river already deemed unsafe for swimming or fishing. (See map of overflow points.)

The overflows occur as many as 80 times a year, D.C. Water officials say. Their frequency is estimated using a model based on the amount of rainfall in a given year.

The renovation and tunnel fixes could reduce the number of combined sewer overflows to two a year, D.C. Water officials say. Reaching zero would make the cost of the project “magnitudes higher” than the current $2.5 billion price tag, according to analyses by D.C. Water and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The move to stifle sewage overflow events has been going on for more than 50 years, but the history of the sewer system goes back more than a century. In the late 1800s, Washington’s combined sewer system was considered to represent the best engineering standards available.

Fenty acknowledged after a meeting this month with the governors of Maryland and Virginia and environmental leaders that oversight could be better. “In the history of our city, our great nation’s capital, we haven’t always protected the rivers,” he said.

D.C. Water’s wide-ranging, $2.5 billion program includes constructing runoff tunnels to alleviate pressure on the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.

“Right now, the grid is overwhelmed,” Bolin says. “There are two things you can do: You can give an outlet to the grid, or you can prevent the inputs.”

Source controls such as increased street sweeping, adding catch basins, and promoting low-impact development and green roofs could help alleviate the stress on the combined sewer, Bolin says.

–by Justin Karp


All Signs Point to the Anacostia

By Justin Karp  //  Bay Education, Cleanup, environmentalism  //  59 Comments

News21 photo by Justin Karp

Signs like the one above, which dot storm drains throughout the portion of Prince George’s County that lies in the Anacostia River watershed, are part of the county’s efforts to curtail pollution and dumping.

Samuel Moki, associate director of the Environmental Services Division of the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources, says simple steps such as installing these street signs go a long way toward educating the public on how they can help to restore the Anacostia.

Moki says the billion-dollar, multi-agency and multi-state Anacostia restoration effort is cleaning up what has been one of the most polluted and neglected watersheds in the United States.

–by Justin Karp


Suburbanites Disconnected from Impact on Anacostia

WASHINGTON – The stream that runs behind the houses in Salil Kharkar’s Silver Spring neighborhood impacts the quality of the water in the Anacostia River, just downstream.

The problem is that others on the block might not know that.

“There are strong communities that want to protect their own watersheds,” says Kharkar, a wastewater treatment engineer for D.C. Water.

But, he says, they’re unaware their watershed is the Anacostia’s.

The Anacostia River watershed extends for 176 square miles across Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C. — but only 38 square miles lie in the city itself. The rest encompasses dozens of streams, creeks and branches that extend north into suburban Maryland.

A substantial amount of the multi-million dollar Anacostia cleanup focuses on the 6.8 miles of river that flow through the nation’s capital. But Kharkar and others believe that real progress can’t be made until residents of the watershed living outside the city are educated about the impact of their actions.

“People outside the environmental community are really buying into a future where the Anacostia River is an amenity to the community,” says Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for the Anacostia Watershed Society. But, he says, to get there, more awareness is needed.

While trash buildup and stormwater runoff from streets and parking lots remain the two biggest pollution problems plaguing the river, sediment and nitrogen runoff from upstream sources, such as Sligo Creek, the Northeast and Northwest branches and other Maryland streams, flow unchecked into the Anacostia.

“It’s sort of just letting people know that simple things they can do really make a difference,” Bolin says. “People don’t want to do the wrong thing. They just don’t know what the right thing is.”

He says steps as simple as properly disposing of grass clippings and other yard waste instead of dumping them into streams and creeks can go a long way toward reducing the amount of toxic nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that plague the watershed.

Carlton Ray, who administers a long-term control plan for D.C. Water, says that environmental stewardship is not at the top of the minds of many watershed residents.

“People are struggling to put macaroni and cheese on the table and are busy rushing their kids to soccer practice,” he says. “It doesn’t leave much time for them to ask, ‘What’s this thing about the watershed?’ ”

The long-term control plan is the utility’s effort to significantly reduce the amount of untreated sewage overflow entering the Anacostia from point sources during heavy rains. But both he and Kharkar agree this overflow is only part of the pollution problem in the Anacostia and that additional cleanup efforts from outside the city’s boundaries are vital.

“It’s something that needs to continue to be nurtured,” Ray says.

Ken Yetman, division chief for watershed assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says it doesn’t help that the District sees a disproportionate benefit from a clean river.

“There [are] billions of dollars being invested in new real estate down there along the Anacostia,” he says. “A healthier river will increase property value and will be a greater asset to the District.”

But ultimately, Yetman said, if suburbanites take care of their local streams, “it benefits those downstream. … The cumulative effect is that they care about the [Anacostia] river.”

–by Justin Karp


Experts Question Spill Preparedness in Chesapeake

By Sharon Behn  //  Cleanup, Government, environmentalism  //  42 Comments

As Congress hears testimony about the handling of the Gulf of Mexico spill, scientists and environmentalists question how prepared the government is to respond if a ship or barge were to leak oil into the Chesapeake Bay.

Experts say a quick-fire response is needed to stop oil from spreading in the shallow bay and reaching the shores.

“There is no functioning [emergency response] system on the Bay in the terms of what we call operational,” said William C. Boicourt, an expert in physical oceanographic processes at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point. He said the center has been working on an early warning system for wind and oil patterns, but such a system is at least two years away.

William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation / Photo by News21's Jason Lenhart“We don’t know of any detailed plans and response scenarios that are in place that have been practiced that are ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Clearly the states and the Coast Guard ought to do more planning.”

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael J. DaPonte said there are area contingency plans – collective efforts by federal, state and local agencies and industry representatives — to respond to water-related disasters on the bay.

But primary responsibility for cleaning any oil spill is the party responsible for the spill and the contractors it hires to do that work, DaPonte said.

–by Sharon Behn

This is an excerpt from a longer story; read full story from Behn in The Baltimore Sun.


Swim in the Bay? No Way!

By Sharon Behn  //  Cleanup, water quality  //  38 Comments

EASTON, Md. – Eighty-seven year old Clarence “Doc” Kuntz has been folding his long legs into borrowed kayaks for three years to pick up trash on the banks of the Tred Avon River.

“It’s almost litter-free now,” Kuntz said, after clambering out of his red kayak to pick up a selection of plastic bottles, bags and Styrofoam on the muddy banks of the river.

'Doc' Kuntz picks up trash on the shore of the Tred Avon in Easton, MD. 'Doc' has been independently cleaning parts of the upper Tred Avon around Easton, picking up bottles and litter in his kayak. News21 photo by Jason Lenhart

The Environmental Protection Agency, environmental advocates, citizens and businesses have been working for years to regulate and control the amount of pollutants and nutrients filling the rivers and waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“But the quality of the water has not improved that much,” Kuntz said.

Asked if he would swim in the river, one of the many on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay, he answered: “Not voluntarily.”

Kuntz, who retired from his job at Dupont years ago, has made cleaning the river and its banks a personal mission that started in 2007 during his daily walks to the creek.

The bay tends to have a romantic image that really doesn’t correspond to real life, added Bill Wilhelm, who runs an inn in the tony St. Michaels area of the Eastern Shore.

Although the bay is cleaner than it was, Wilhelm said, “I wouldn’t necessarily go swimming in it.” And, he added, “I wouldn’t necessarily eat from it on a constant basis.”

–by Sharon Behn


Chesapeake Bay Dead Zone Up to 125 Miles Long

By Sharon Behn  //  Cleanup  //  43 Comments

Dr. Mike Roman of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science talks about the growing concern surrounding the Chesapeake Bay's dead zones. (News21 photo by Jason Lenhart)

The Chesapeake Bay dead zone, an area so devoid of oxygen that nothing can survive there, now stretches 90 to 125 miles long and six miles wide every summer, said Dr. Mike Roman, lab director at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. That comes to about 10 percent to 15 percent of the total volume of water in the bay.

Although shimmering and beautiful on the surface, “the water is more like pea soup,” Roman told News21.

Of the 10 most important commercial species of fish and shellfish in the bay, only crabs can tolerate these dead-zone conditions for short periods.

“Everything else dies or escapes,” said Yun Li, a UMCES graduate research assistant who specializes in physical oceanography modeling.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous as well as sediment that flush into the bay every year with spring and summer rains are feeding huge algae blooms that eventually suck all the oxygen out of the water, Roman said.

“That’s why we have to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorous” pouring into the bay, Roman said. Nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment are endemic to agricultural and storm water runoff that seep into rivers feeding into the bay from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and D.C.

Since passage of the 1977 Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has worked to regulate discharges of pollutants into the waters, control the flow of those nutrients and improve the quality of waters across the United States, including the Chesapeake.

Roman has been studying the levels of dissolved oxygen in the both the Chesapeake Bay and the northern Gulf of Mexico for years and is one of the scientists heading down to the Gulf to analyze the water quality this summer.

About 50 percent of the nutrient-rich runoff pouring into the Chesapeake Bay comes from the Susquehanna, a river that starts in New York and runs through the Appalachian Mountains and farmland in Pennsylvania.

--By Sharon Behn


Bay Scientist: ‘Nitrogen Is Our Oil’

By Sharon Behn  //  Bay Education, Cleanup, Pollution  //  35 Comments

Dr. Beth McGee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation / News21 photo by Brian Hooks

Dr. Beth McGee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation compares the Gulf of Mexico's oil spill to the Chesapeake Bay's nitrogen surplus during a recent interview. (News21 photo by Brian Hooks)

The broken ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico is a mirror image of the Chesapeake Bay’s dead zones and chronic decay, warned a leading water quality scientist, Beth McGee.

“Whether it’s impacted by oil, or whether it’s impacted by too much nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, there’s a lot of similarities there,” McGee, who works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told News21.

“I think it is in a sense that nitrogen is our oil,” McGee said, glancing over her shoulder at the glistening Severn River. McGee was traveling with a News21 team aboard the “Anonymous Source,” a 40-foot trawler owned by the editor of, Glen Justice.

“If you look at the big picture in terms of resources being degraded because of water quality, we have a dead zone that makes a place where animals can’t live or can stress them to the fact that they are more susceptible to disease, which is exactly what oil does,” she said.

The slow pace of the Chesapeake Bay’s deterioration, taking place largely underwater, has led to little public outrage over the gradual disappearance of the estuary’s clear waters, fish and crab.

“I think that’s why they are not outraged: because it is beautiful. You look around, and the Bay on the surface is beautiful,” said McGee. Anyone would have to drop an oxygen probe to the bottom to see the that there is no oxygen there, she added.

“We’re not outraged because it’s not in our face, like it is in the face of the folks in the Gulf, where they can’t go fishing, they can’t buy seafood, they are seeing oil on their beaches,” McGee said.

–by Sharon Behn


Governors Call for Cooperation in Chesapeake Bay Cleanup

By Kate Yanchulis  //  Cleanup, Politics, Pollution  //  44 Comments

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley inspects a floating wetlands prototype before the press conference at the Inner Harbor Maritime Institute. News21 photo by Jason Lenhart

BALTIMORE — The governors of Maryland and Virginia yesterday joined D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in renewing calls for interstate cooperation in efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

“There may be political borders that divide that watershed, but nature doesn’t recognize those borders,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, after the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council.

Representatives from West Virginia, New York and Delaware also attended, though the three bay watershed states have no members on the Executive Council, which was created in the 1983 Chesapeake Bay Agreement between Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

“When it comes to our waters, we all know, from the governor of Virginia on up, that there are no borders,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who welcomed the group. “The water runs from north to south, east to west, without consideration for jurisdiction or neighborhood or municipal border.”

But though the flags of all six states plus the nation’s capital fluttered in the breeze behind the politicians, no one from Pennsylvania was present. Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a member of the Executive Council, was meeting with the Pennsylvania Legislature about the state’s budget.

And EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the council chair, was also absent. She was in Louisiana dealing with the Gulf oil spill.

Though EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe called increased transparency a hallmark of discussion during the meeting, the meeting itself was closed to the public.

And the speakers were reluctant to discuss the consequences and sanctions that could come for failing to meet cleanup milestones next year. Each state in the Chesapeake watershed has set goals to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus, the bay’s biggest pollutants, by December 2011. Recently, federal agencies said they would establish their own two-year milestones to complement state efforts.

The leaders focused at the press conference on the successes of their governments and agencies.

O’Malley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell highlighted their state’s restrictions on harvests of blue crabs that helped cause a 60 percent rebound in the crab population from last year to this one.

O’Malley and Perciasepe spoke of the strides made in combining forces and sharing information with the public, especially the unveiling of ChesapeakeStat, a one-stop website for progress reports on restoration efforts across the expansive watershed. ChesapeakeStat is based on BayStat, started three years ago by Maryland’s government.

“I think we are entering an era of action in holding ourselves accountable for real, measurable results,” Perciasepe said. “The bay is an emotionally and culturally connected water body to the entire region, and it is vitally important to the 17 million people who live in this watershed that this multi-agency, multi-state process continue as strongly as possible.”

The level of progress toward cleanup goals has varied. Maryland has already reached its goal of maintaining 150,000 acres of no-till farming but has made no movement on its promise to transport 10,000 tons of manure out of the watershed area. But O’Malley remained optimistic even about the failures.

“There is a rhyme and a reason for picking those two-year milestones,” O’Malley said. “It’s so that all of us know where we’re succeeding and where we’re falling short, so that all of us hopefully can contribute to making sure that we hit those goals and the long-term goal of a much healthier bay.”

– by Kate Yanchulis


Bay Activists Call for Stronger Cleanup

By Alex Moe  //  Cleanup, Uncategorized  //  27 Comments
Former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler

Former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, backed by top Chesapeake Bay leaders, at the Annapolis City Dock. Fowler compared the Bay cleanup efforts to the last leg of a 400-meter race. Photo by News21

ANNAPOLIS – A small flotilla of boats sailed into the City Dock Wednesday morning, bringing a group of Bay activists, scientists and former politicians to a rally calling for new actions to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

The few dozen activists released a 25-point plan aimed at stopping the decline of the Chesapeake. The plan outlines stronger cleanup measures to reduce the amount of pollutants from agriculture, land development, septic systems and air emissions that reach the Bay.

More than 50 individuals from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania signed the plan as a demonstration of their belief that the voluntary efforts at cleaning up the Bay for the past 26 years have failed.

“We are trying to create a new day for the Bay,” said former Maryland state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, the event organizer.

The Bay Flotilla comes the day before a major meeting of officials in Baltimore at the Chesapeake Executive Council meeting.

Activists called on the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be sending a representative to the meeting tomorrow, to help the six states in the bay’s watershed.

Former Maryland state Sen. Bernie Fowler said that tomorrow, the baton will be passed to the EPA. “All we’ve got to say to the EPA,” Fowler said, “is for God’s sake, when you get it in your hand, run – and don’t you drop it. We cannot afford to lose this wonderful Bay.”

–by Alex Moe

About Us

Bay on the Brink is a multimedia reporting project examining the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. It is produced by fellows at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism as part of News21, a consortium of journalism schools. This is the fellows' blog. The full project site is here:
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