Hot Line: The Feds Are Considering Shipping Spent Nuclear Fuel Through the Howard Street Tunnel. Are They Playing With Fire?

TEST_RAIL_CAR_CARRYING_SPENT_NUCLEAR_FUEL_SHIPPING_CASK

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Sept. 12, 2001

(Photo: commons.wikimedia.org, image of a test rail car carrying a spent nuclear fuel shipping cask.)

For a few days in mid-July, a few dozen train cars carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials burned out of control beneath the city. After a century of barely being known even to Baltimoreans, the Howard Street tunnel was suddenly in the national spotlight.

As an event, the tunnel fire was both scary and enthralling. Local residents and commuters were inundated with news of gridlock, a water-main break, and possibly toxic smoke. TV sets all over the country glimmered with images of menacing plumes and flooded streets, coupled with reports that the too-hot-to-fight inferno was disrupting not only rail traffic, but Internet services via cables that also run through the tunnel. But as normalcy was restored in the ensuing days and weeks, coverage tailed off. Today, for most folks, the fire is just a memory.

Lost in the immediacy of the moment and the disinterest of its aftermath are two questions that may ensure the Howard Street tunnel fire’s lasting legacy: What if nuclear waste had been among the freight in the hottest part of the fire? Could radioactivity have been released, contaminating people and property in the heart of a major East Coast city?

The question isn’t merely theoretical. A long-studied proposal for handling the nation’s growing inventory of nuclear waste by carting it from points around the country to a permanent repository in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is expected to reach President Bush’s desk later this year. If the project gets a presidential thumbs-up and survives the resulting legal challenges, spent nuclear fuel will be a frequent passenger on the nation’s highways and railroads for the next three or four decades, en route to the Nevada desert. Plans drawn up by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) call for carrying used-up fuel assemblies from Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Southern Maryland by train through the Howard Street tunnel.

When it comes to managing the potential of large-scale risks such as nuclear accidents, examining extreme hypothetical situations–the possibility, for instance, of nuclear waste in the Howard Street tunnel fire–is crucial to finding ways to avoid disasters. Thus, nuclear-transportation experts have started to examine and debate what they have dubbed “the Baltimore fire.” Until the actual conditions of the fire–the top temperature reached, how long it stayed that hot–are established, much of the talk is necessarily speculative. But the central questions posed by the fire are already known: How sturdy are the containers used to transport nuclear waste? How foolproof are the methods of moving them safely by train?

Critics contend that the containers, called “transportation casks,” haven’t been tested enough to know their true strength; cost, rather than safety, is the chief priority in designing nuclear-transportation plans, they say. The nuclear-energy industry points out the exemplary safety record of waste shipments and outlines the stringent measures taken to guard against reasonably foreseeable dangers. However the argument turns out, it’s a good bet that as the Yucca Mountain Project heats up, the Howard Street tunnel fire will be national news once again.

Sitting in her Mount Washington home July 18, Gwen Dubois listened anxiously to reports of a tunnel fire downtown. Her teenage son had already left on the light rail for a double-header at Oriole Park. “On any given day, he’s as likely to be at Camden Yards as he is to be home, despite what’s happened to the Orioles this season,” she says, recalling her worries in an interview later that month. Knowing that freight trains often carry chemicals that can produce toxic smoke when burned, Dubois was “concerned about whether his health was at risk.” When “later on I found out that he was stopped on North Avenue and came home, I was greatly relieved,” she says.

Dubois’ relief about the fire was short-lived. An internist, she sits on the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit group based in Washington that works to raise public awareness of nuclear issues. On her house hangs a large banner reading nuclear-free zone. Attuned as she is to nuclear risks, her thoughts quickly broadened from the chemical fire to larger issues.

“Within hours,” she says, “I was thinking, If this were a train carrying radioactive waste, what kind of exposures would there be? Who would be monitoring? Would we even know? What about the psychological impact on people who are afraid that they’ve been exposed? So, as bad as this fire was, I thought it would have been just truly a catastrophe if the train had carried nuclear waste. . . .

“As time goes by, the other issue is, it’s going to become more and more likely that trains will contain nuclear waste, and nuclear waste carried in containers that haven’t been adequately tested. And also, this train wreck–the temperatures were extremely high, high enough to cause burning of nuclear waste and make some of the radioactivity airborne and carried over a wider area,” she continues. “So all of the specifics about this train fire–the temperature, the difficulty getting to it, the fact that it was in an urban area where a lot of people were potentially exposed–all of these factors are so relevant. If the cargo was radioactive, the implications would have really been just mammoth.”

Dubois’ mind was not the only one turning to the potential nuclear risks posed by the Howard Street tunnel fire. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)–the Senate majority whip and, like every other elected official in Nevada, a strident opponent of the Yucca Mountain plan–took to the Senate floor the day after the fire began to offer his take on the dangers.

“People think hydrochloric acid is bad, which it is,” Reid said, referring to one of the hazardous materials carried by the burning train in Baltimore, “but not as bad as nuclear waste. A speck the size of a pinpoint would kill a person. And we’re talking about transporting some 70,000 tons of it all across America.”

Reid enlisted the aid of Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes in promptly convincing his colleagues to do what politicians often do when drastic accidents occur: order a study. On July 23, as charred rail cars were being removed from the Howard Street tunnel, the Senate voted 96-0 to attach an amendment to the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations bill requiring DOT to conduct a top-down assessment of the nation’s system for transporting hazardous and radioactive waste.

Reid’s actions in the wake of the Baltimore fire caused a flurry of interest–back in Nevada. “Baltimore’s experience should be reason enough to comprehend that Yucca Mountain isn’t just Nevada’s problem, it would be a land mine for any city or town that had the misfortune of being located near the path that would take nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain,” the daily Las Vegas Sun editorialized on July 25 under the headline “Baltimore derailment a bad omen.”

Also quick to pick up on the nuke-train angle was the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a Washington-based activist group. The organization’s nuclear-waste specialist, Kevin Kamps, shot off a press release on July 21, revealing that a U.S. Department of Energy assessment of the Yucca Mountain Project included route maps that showed nuclear-waste shipments going by rail from Calvert Cliffs through the Howard Street tunnel. Kamps spent the next two weeks touring the country, garnering news coverage of this new twist to the Yucca Mountain debate.

Pro-Yucca forces dismiss attempts to play up the Baltimore fire as a nuclear-waste-transportation issue. The day after Reid made his speech on the Senate floor, the industry issued its response. “It is really unfair for Sen. Reid to use this as an opportunity to make a case against Yucca Mountain by scaring the public,” said Mitch Singer, a spokesperson for the D.C.-based Nuclear Industry Institute (NEI). Sarah Berk, spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), told reporters that Reid’s response to the tunnel fire is “a misguided and misinformed effort to connect something that should not be connected. The fact of the matter is, if that train had been carrying nuclear components, it would have been protected in containers that would have prevented this sort of a spill.” Berk stressed the nuclear-power industry’s “phenomenal safety record” and its ongoing efforts “to develop safe and responsible methods to handle nuclear waste.”

The NEI’s Web site (www.nei.org) points out that nuclear-waste shipments are small, carefully managed, and do have a remarkable safety record: In nearly 40 years of transporting spent nuclear fuel, there have been 2,900 shipments and only eight accidents. Only one was serious, and none resulted in a radioactive release.

In Maryland, shipments of high-level radioactive materials have occurred without incident. Twenty-eight thousand pounds of radioactive material passed through Maryland in four shipments during July and August 2000, according to the Maryland State Police, which is notified of such hauls, and since 1996 approximately 15 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were trucked through the state in five separate shipments.

In addition, an NRC report shows that between 1993 and 1997 154.8 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel were shipped out of state from the Dundalk Marine Terminal, Calvert Cliffs, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Another 17.1 kilograms were sent to Dundalk for export.

The key to safely transporting spent nuclear rods is the survivability of the casks. The NRC, according to NEI’s Web site, requires that transportation casks “pass a series of hypothetical accident conditions that create forces greater than the containers would experience in actual accidents. The same container must, in sequence, undergo 1) a 30-foot free fall onto an unyielding surface, 2) a 40-inch fall onto a steel rod six inches in diameter, 3) a 30-minute exposure to fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit that engulfs the entire container, and 4) submergence under three feet of water for eight hours.”

What the NEI site doesn’t point out is that never has an actual, full-size cask been subjected to this battery of assaults. Quarter-scale models have been used as the basis for computer models that predict how an actual cask would perform in extreme circumstances. But no actual full-scale testing has been conducted, because subjecting a 130-ton cask to those conditions is logistically challenging and very expensive–probably near $20 million per test. Thus–as Yucca Mountain Project critics like to point out–there is no real-life basis for concluding the casks can survive such extreme circumstances.

The third element in the NRC’s list of standards–the 30-minute, all-engulfing fire at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit–is the one that turned attention to the Baltimore blaze. Firefighters here reported whole train cars aglow from the heat of the tunnel fire. On the second day of the fire, Baltimore City Fire Department officials told the press that the temperature in the tunnel was as high as 1,500 degrees. If the hottest part of the fire rose above 1,475 degrees for more than 30 minutes–as appears likely, though technical analysis has yet to prove it–then the Howard Street tunnel fire achieved a rare intensity that gives pause to nuclear-waste- transportation experts.

Questions to NEI’s press office about whether casks are designed to survive a fire as intense as Baltimore’s was reported to be were referred to Robert Jones, a Los Gatos, Calif., nuclear engineer who designed casks for General Electric for 13 years and now works as a nuclear-industry consultant. Jones was skeptical about whether the Baltimore fire actually exceeded the design standard for casks. If it did, he says, it would be a singular event. Jones cites a government study showing that the probability of an actual railroad fire exceeding the regulatory conditions is less than 1/10 of 1 percent.

“I’ll wager that 1,500 degrees did not exist totally for a day and a half” in the Howard Street tunnel, Jones says. He acknowledges, though, that if it did, “there’s a potential for some release. But we’re not talking about this thing blowing up.” Rather, he explains, “the leakage, if it was to occur, is likely to be a radioactive gas that would be dispersed.”

Daniel Bullen, who sits on the federal Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board , concurs with Jones. “Would there potentially be a release? Yes,” says Bullen, an Iowa State University engineering professor who used to run that school’s now-closed nuclear-reactor laboratory. Foreseeing the questions his answer raises, he fires off a quick interview with himself: “Would it be a significant release? Probably not. Would it be hard to find? No, because radiation is pretty easy to find. Would it be difficult to remediate? Maybe. You might have to move a lot of dirt and clean up a lot of surface and stuff. But would it be significantly life-threatening? Probably not.”

“Oh, this guy’s just shooting from the hip,” Marvin Resnikoff says upon hearing Bullen’s characterization of the effects of a long-burning 1,500-degree fire. Resnikoff, a physicist, heads Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in analyzing nuclear-waste safety. The state of Nevada recently hired him to look at the Howard Street tunnel fire and report on its implications for safe transport of spent nuclear fuel. The report is due to be completed this month; when it’s released, Resnikoff asserts, “we’ll have much more definitive answers.”

In the meantime, Resnikoff offers a glimpse of what he’s learning. If the fire turns out to be as hot as reported–and his analysis will establish whether or not it was–then a potential release would include other materials besides radioactive gas.

“There are particulates,” he says. “We are concerned about cesium 137 because it is semivolatile. And we are concerned about cobalt 60, to a lesser extent, because that material is on the outside” of spent-fuel assemblies and could be released more quickly in the event of a leak. Cesium 137 and cobalt 60 are radioactive carcinogens that have half-lives of 30 and five years, respectively, so they represent a long-term cancer risk. They emit gamma rays, which, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, “can easily pass completely through the human body or be absorbed by tissue, thus constituting a radiation hazard for the entire body.” Based on the weather conditions that existed during the Baltimore fire, Resnikoff estimates that a radioactive smoke plume exiting the southern terminus of the tunnel would have spread perilously close to Camden Yards.

Until the report is concluded and released, Resnikoff declines to give any more details of his concerns about what could have happened if nuclear waste had been in the Howard Street tunnel fire. Robert Halstead, transportation adviser for the Nevada Office of Nuclear Projects, which hired Resnikoff to study the Baltimore fire, is much more candid.

If the fire was hot enough for a long enough time to compromise the casks and cause a leak, Halstead says, “you are going to be concerned with this plume of smoke carrying cesium and some other fission products. Obviously it’s bad if you breathe it, but also, because it is a big-time emitter of gamma radiation, there is direct radiation from the plume. If anything’s been deposited on the ground, it’s irradiating the area also. It would cause a very big cleanup problem.

“So you basically would face this terrible choice,” Halstead says. “You could easily spend in excess of $5 [billion] to $10 billion to clean the area. Or you could simply quarantine the area. The real answer on this is that you are probably going to have a situation where you’ve spent money rather than lives. There probably aren’t going to be thousands of latent cancer fatalities, but you are going to have to spend hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to prevent that. That’s a pretty fair ballpark [figure].”

If Resnikoff concludes that the Baltimore fire actually could damage a nuclear-waste-transportation cask enough to cause a radiation leak, the question becomes how to ensure that nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else, for that matter) is never subjected to such an accident. This opens up a whole other area of debate–some experts contend the shipping risks are minimal, while others assert transportation is the weakest link in the nuclear-waste-management chain.

Jones, the cask designer, points out that rail shipments of spent nuclear fuel are made on dedicated trains, hauling only nuclear-waste casks. That reduces the probability of waste being in a contained, inaccessible environment, such as a train tunnel, along with volatile chemicals and other materials that, when burning, can create extremely high temperatures for a long period of time. (The train that caught fire under Howard Street, for example, was loaded with wood and paper products.) Furthermore, shipping schedules can be coordinated to eliminate the possibility that a dedicated nuclear-waste train and a mixed-freight train with hazardous materials are in the same tunnel at the same time.

“You know, railroads don’t just cut things loose and say we’ll see you at the other end,” Jones says. “They’re very good at tracking these things. So the circumstances that would have to exist in order to have an environment where a spent-fuel train would be in that Baltimore tunnel fire or its equivalent is just extraordinary. A billion to one. It virtually isn’t going to happen, just because that’s the way the business is structured.”

Resnikoff counters that “there is no regulation that says that nuclear-waste shipments will be by dedicated train. It would all be voluntary on the industry’s part. If they’d like to sign a requirement that it will be by dedicated train, that would make a big difference. It costs more money to have a dedicated train. Do they want to put up the money? [That] is the question.”

“It’s perfectly credible that you could have one or two casks of spent fuel in a mixed-freight train going through that Baltimore tunnel,” Halstead maintains. His reasoning is based on cost. In all likelihood, dedicated trains will be used to make large hauls of nuclear waste. But the small amount of waste at Calvert Cliffs–930 metric tons, about 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel–may well end up on trains carrying a variety of other materials.

“A contractor working for the Department of Energy who got [its] contract on a low-bid basis would be tempted to shave nickels and dimes by transporting a small number of casks a short distance on a mixed-freight train–say, from Calvert Cliffs maybe up to Harrisburg [Pa.],” Halstead says. There, he speculates, the Calvert Cliffs casks would be transferred to a dedicated train carrying other waste from other reactors in the region.

Calvert Cliffs spokesperson Karl Neddenien cautions that “at this point there is no plan whatsoever as to where and how the shipments will go. It’s wide open.” He notes that Calvert Cliffs is right next to the Chesapeake Bay, so “it may turn out to be safer to put it on a barge to go down to Norfolk, Va., to a railhead. We don’t know.” He acknowledges that Yucca Mountain planning documents do show a proposed route through the Howard Street tunnel but says nothing is set in stone.

And Bullen, of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, suggests the proposed route may be changed in light of this summer’s events. “I’d be surprised if they let them use that tunnel after the fire,” he says.

Another problem with shipping waste by train is that “there are no federal regulations that govern the selection of shipping routes for rail,” Halstead says. “There are for trucks, and the highway routes are generally selected to minimize shipments through highly populated areas, but there aren’t any equivalent regulations for rail.” He suggests laws that prevent the use of two-way tunnels and require circuitous routing and dedicated trains.

“Why in the world would we allow spent fuel to be shipped in mixed-freight trains in the first place?” Halstead says. “And, secondly, if they were in mixed-freight trains, who would be stupid enough to run them through dangerous areas? Congress should just say, ‘Bang, you will not ship any spent fuel in mixed-freight trains.’ My god, what could be more common sense than that?”

His harsh critique of the existing waste-transport system notwithstanding, Halstead says he is not against nuclear power. “I personally think that there is a very good green case to be made for nuclear power,” he says. But after years of studying the industry and how it’s regulated, he says, he finds it “just pathetic that the people running this business are incapable of doing it technically and in a way that would have public confidence.”

The public is going to have plenty of opportunity to express its confidence, or lack thereof, in the Yucca Mountain Project as it winds through the approval process. Based on NRC’s assessment of the site’s scientific and technical feasibility, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and President Bush are expected to give the plan the green light later this year. Then Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and that state’s legislature will have an opportunity to veto that decision–something they’re assured to do. Once Nevada rejects it, Congress gets the final say by a simple majority vote of both houses. Along the way, lawsuits brought by the state of Nevada and coalitions of environmental groups will throw up roadblocks. All together, this level of contention is bound to attract big media attention and raise Yucca Mountain’s profile as a national issue.

In the meantime, a major snafu has cast a shadow over Yucca. In late July, the Las Vegas Sun reported that for the last six years, the same Chicago law firm that the Department of Energy has been paying to provide legal services in support of Yucca Mountain has been lobbying on behalf of the NEI to get the project built. The firm, Winston & Strawn, and the NEI severed their relationship shortly after reporters called for comment on the apparent conflict of interest. “This situation,” Guinn wrote to Abraham in an Aug. 1 letter, “presents serious issues concerning conflict of interest and possible bias in the site evaluation process” for Yucca Mountain.

Around the same time, in an incident seized upon by anti-Yucca forces to bolster their case, a leaking cask was discovered on a truck carrying low-level nuclear waste through Nevada. No radioactive material escaped, but the July 30 incident served as a reminder of a leaky container found on a truck in Arizona in 1997–and that one did release radioactivity, leading to a suspension of additional shipments until corrective measures were put in place. Guinn promptly fired off another letter to Abraham: “It appears DOE’s protocol for the transportation of nuclear waste is seriously ineffective in protecting public health and the environment.”

Critics’ concerns about the Yucca Mountain Project aside, most everyone agrees that the technology doesn’t exist today to allow the waste to be stored on-site at the nation’s 72 nuclear-reactor sites for 10,000 years, until it has cooled off enough to be relatively safe. “It’s gotta go someplace, it can’t just stay around forever where it is,” says Robert Jones, the former GE nuclear engineer. As the nation has already invested $6 billion to $8 billion in the Yucca site, Jones contends, we should move forward with it. But it will cost another $50 billion to bring the Yucca site online; rather than continue throwing good money after bad, Nevada’s Sen. Reid contends, the Bush administration should scrap Yucca and start anew, finding another site or developing strategies to safely keep the waste where it is.

It remains to be seen how exercised the public will get over the potential hazards of transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. But as bad press, including the doubts about safety posed by the Baltimore fire, feeds into the collective realization that shipments are going to pass within a mile of an estimated 60 million U.S. residents over the course of 30 or 40 years, grass-roots opposition is bound to coalesce. If Resnikoff demonstrates that the Howard Street tunnel fire actually did burn at or about 1,500 degrees for more than a few hours–potentially enough to break a cask and cause a radioactive release–Yucca’s opponents’ arsenal will be stocked with a credible, real-life incident that raises serious doubts about the current framework for shipping the waste.

“The issue of waste transportation to Yucca Mountain is lurking on the national horizon,” Nevada Agency for Nuclear Waste Projects executive director Robert Loux wrote in an Aug. 16 guest column in the Las Vegas Sun, “like a thousand-pound gorilla waiting to pounce.”

Pardon Our Filth: City Sewage Keeps Flowing Into The Bay While Baltimore’s Sewer System Gets a Billion-Dollar Fix

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 19, 2007

David Schmidt is president of a marine-supply company in Hanover, Pa., who keeps a boat in a slip at Canton Cove Marina, where Linwood Avenue ends at the harbor. As he approaches the marina gate and gangway on Sept. 12, he notices me and another paddler holding back gags as we nose our kayaks toward the storm water that empties into the harbor beneath the waterfront promenade in front of two condominium buildings there. Schmidt sees us look down at the gray-colored water we’re floating in, into the darkness of the tunnels where it’s coming from, and then back down at the water.

“It’s raw sewage coming out of the storm drain,” Schmidt says flatly as he walks along the dock. “I’m down here all the time for the last five years, and it’s been going like that the whole time. It’s not always this bad, but it’s always bad. God forbid anybody fall in. You should see it when it rains.”

There’s been no rain to speak of for weeks, and yet here is enough sewage to turn the water at the marina a striking shade of gray and to thoroughly stink up the surrounding blocks. It’s entering the harbor out of a drain outlet, or “outfall,” that’s designed to funnel runoff from city streets and pavements when it rains, not the waste water that the city’s sewage system funnels to its water treatment plants. If there had been a good, hard rain, then one might expect some sewage in the storm drain; the sewer pipes running down streambeds tend to get hit by large objects in storms, sometimes getting blown open and causing nasty messes downstream. But there had been no storm. There had to be some other explanation.

Schmidt keeps talking. He’s indignant but resigned, complaining that he pumps out his boat sewage so it won’t get in the Chesapeake Bay, as the law says he must, and the city should, too. But apparently, he concludes, the city would rather keep paying fines than obey the law.

Schmidt has many ways to complain about the odor, perhaps because that’s the main topic of the conversations he has with others who rent slips here. “I got my boat sealed up so I can go down below and get away from it,” Schmidt says, and points to other boats similarly protected. “But you never really can. That restaurant”–he points at the nearby Bay Café–“keeps its patio awnings zipped up on this side because of it. That pool next to it [at Tindeco Wharf] is hardly used, most of the time. Look at all those condo windows,” he says, gesturing at the Canton Cove building. “Nice weather, but they’re closed up tight. Same thing. It’s the smell.”

Schmidt walks onto his boat and goes below, and we glide away in our kayaks, marveling that fish are jumping just 50 yards away from the foul outfall. What’s more, a quarter-mile away, at the bulkhead of the Korean War Memorial Park, men are fishing for those fish.

The Linwood Avenue outfall has been polluting the harbor with sewage, on and off, for a long time. Schmidt’s account confirms what I’ve occasionally observed firsthand while kayaking or walking by here since the late 1990s. The federal Clean Water Act calls for all U.S. waters to be returned to swimmable and fishable conditions, and while fish sometimes jump near here, swimming, while never advisable, would at times be suicidal. So the next day, I call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, which enforce the Clean Water Act, to find out whether or not the sewage coming into the harbor from under Linwood Avenue is somehow allowed. After a couple of short back-and-forths about what was observed, it quickly becomes clear that it is not.

“We’d be very interested in investigating,” adds Angela McFadden, a high-ranking pollution enforcement officer at the EPA, in a Sept. 24 phone conversation, “because I am not aware of any continuous discharges of untreated sewage going on.”

The EPA and the DOJ are the plaintiffs, along with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in a Clean Water Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court filed against the city of Baltimore a decade ago over its illegally leaky sewer system. Five years ago, a “consent decree” was entered in the matter. Under the decree, the city must spend almost a billion dollars over 14 years, starting in late 2002, to get its sewer system into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. So far, with less than a decade to go, the city has spent nearly $260 million and has repeatedly raised water-and-sewer rates to pay for it.

A few weeks pass of phone tag punctuated by short conversations with the EPA and DOJ, and as September turns to October, I file a request to look at the EPA’s consent-decree records and periodically return to the Linwood Avenue outfall. The scent of sewage becomes less intense over time, but it still has that unmistakable reek, especially right after it first starts to rain and whatever’s pooled up in the pipes during the dry weather gets flushed out.

Meanwhile, the city’s 311 system for logging citizen complaints and service requests steadily registers calls from along Linwood Avenue as it heads north from the waterfront into the city. The 311 system is alerted seven times about sewer odors along the Linwood corridor during September, and another nine times for the 12 months prior to that. Some of the calls are quite specific about the source, describing “a strong sewer smell coming from the storm drain in the street,” for instance, or “a very strong sewer odor coming from the inlet.” On Election Day, Sept. 11, the day before Schmidt talks to us in our kayaks, someone reports that it “smells like sewage inside and out” of a house on Linwood, two blocks north of the outfall.

Citywide, 31 other complaint calls came in to 311 operators in September about sewer odors. “There is a strong sewer odor in the area,” the city is notified by a caller from the Northwest Community Action neighborhood, on the west side near Walbrook Junction. Another caller points out that there is a “strong odor of sewage in the air” at East North Avenue and Broadway, near the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. A “bad sewer smell” is reported at Gay and Lombard streets, a block off the harbor downtown, and a “very powerful sewer smell” is noted in Waverly. “A very strong sewage smell is coming from the pond” in the woods behind Uplands, another caller notes, giving the location where Maiden Choice Run begins its rough-and-tumble journey through Southwest Baltimore before it reaches the Gwynns Falls just above Carroll Park. The list goes on.

Aside from the sewage stench rising from below the streets, the 311 system also logged a myriad of complaints that sewage was flowing in city streets, sidewalks, alleys, and into storm drains in September, which was an extremely dry month with less than half an inch of rain. As the weeks passed, the city responded to a total of 19 calls described as reporting “sewer overflows” and “sewer leaks,” and numerous other calls that described sewage flowing in the streets. When sewage runs on the streets, it enters storm drains and, ultimately, enters the Chesapeake Bay. How to estimate that flow–especially at a storm-drain outlet like the one at Linwood Avenue, which is designed to be partially submerged in the Patapsco River’s tides–is anybody’s guess.

The consent decree requires the city of Baltimore to estimate the amount of sewage released in leaks the city deems reportable, so if anyone’s trying to guess how much Baltimore City sewage is leaking, it’s the city’s Department of Public Works. It looks like DPW is lowballing it.

Whenever an “unauthorized discharge of wastewater” from the city’s sewage collection system into “any waters” of the United States, the consent decree dictates that a written report must be provided to EPA within five days. In the report, the city must describe the cause, duration, and volume of the flow, as well as “corrective actions or plans to eliminate future discharges” at the site and “whether or not the overflow has caused, or contributed to, an adverse impact on water quality in the receiving water body.”

Once DPW estimates the amount of sewage that leaked and reports it, the city is subject to fines based on the number of gallons of sewage that the city says leaked. Since January 2003, EPA records reflect the city has been levied fines totaling $416,200 (the payments are split evenly between EPA and MDE) for 255 reported leaks.

The sewer-leak reporting also forms part of the quarterly reports that the city must prepare and submit under the consent decree, to keep all the plaintiffs up to date on progress in improving the sewer system’s performance. The tally of reported leaks listed in the quarterly reports since December 2002 is 419, releasing a total estimate of nearly 190 million gallons. The smallest reported leak was 12 gallons lost to Western Run, which joins the Jones Falls near Mount Washington, on a rainy day in April 2004. The largest was the July 2004 bulkhead failure at Braddish Avenue behind St. Peter’s Cemetery in West Baltimore, which released a rush of sewage into the Gwynns Falls initially estimated to be 36.25 million gallons, though online MDE records put the guess at 1.5 million gallons.

The trend on paper has been fewer leaks reported as the consent decree progresses, with 143 reported for 2003 and 72 reported for 2006. By the end of June this year, summary details on 31 leaks were included in the quarterly reports, so 2007 appears headed for an even lower total.

As of Nov. 7, when I went to Philadelphia to review EPA’s consent-decree files, the city of Baltimore had not notified the agency of any reportable sewer leaks occurring in September 2007. There were some reported in August and some in October, but none in September. Thus, whatever spewed raw sewage out into the harbor at the end of Linwood Avenue in September, and whatever prompted citizens citywide to lodge complaints about sewer leaks, overflows, and odors over the course of that very dry month, it wasn’t sewer leaks reported by the city under the consent decree. It must have been something else.

Oddly, the 311-calling public appears to be more attuned to sewage leaking in Baltimore City when the leaks aren’t reported under the consent decree than when they are. A year before, in September 2006, when at 7.5 inches there was nearly twice the historic average rainfall for that month, the situation was reversed. The city reported five sewer discharges totaling 39,255 gallons, occurring in Waltherson, Grove Park, Cherry Hill, Violetville, and the state’s Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street downtown. But on 311, not a single call about a sewer leak or overflow came in all month long.

“The consent decree requires the City to report releases from the collection system that reach receiving waters or storm sewers,” EPA spokesman David Sternberg writes to City Paper in a Dec. 7 e-mail. “It does not require the City to report releases that don’t meet these criteria (i.e., basement backups).”

Perhaps September’s citywide sewage funk that had residents reaching for their phones–and sewage contaminating the marina where Schmidt keeps his boat–was due to something as routine and hard to stop as a whole lot of basement backups occurring during what amounted to a drought. And perhaps the absence of 311 sewer-leak complaints in September 2006, when heavy rains prompted the city to report one big leak and grease clogs caused four smaller ones to be reported, is attributable to the fact that the leaks the city detected were in areas where residents didn’t see or smell them.

But one thing is clear, based on the September flow out of the Linwood Avenue outfall: Sewage from Baltimore City is getting into the storm drains and, thus, into the bay–a lot more sewage than the amounts being reported by the city under the consent decree.

“The harbor is being polluted with sewer overflows, especially at Linwood Avenue,” Phil Lee explains. As a founder of the Baltimore Harbor Watershed Association and an engineer, he’s being asked to comment about the Linwood outfall and its impact, and he says he’s spoken with environmental authorities about it over the years. At some point, he says, he was told that an “illicit connection into the storm-drain system upstream” was contributing to the problem. “I don’t think they’ve fixed it,” he observes, adding that “it’s still like Old Faithful.”

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Lee’s not the only one who’s been keeping track of the Linwood Avenue outfall. A man whom Lee calls “a one-man army” in the cause of tracking sewer problems, Guy Hollyday, has been telling authorities about it for years.

Hollyday’s group, the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition, targeted the Linwood Avenue outfall as an “acute” sewer problem–one of three it had identified citywide–during a meeting held for city officials at Loyola College in November 2005. The group, formed in 2000 when four Baltimore watershed groups combined and coordinated their ongoing efforts to keep sewage out of city streams, issued its annual report for 2006 in May this year, updating the situation.

The report pinpointed an illegal sewer connection to the storm-drain system at the site of Pompeian Inc., an olive oil bottling company located on Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, about two miles away from the outfall as the crow flies. It’s not clear whether the illegal connection has anything to do with Pompeian or if it just happens to meet the storm drains under the company’s property; attempts to contact Pompeian for comment were unsuccessful. Based on information from the city, however, the group’s summary explained that 300 feet of sewer pipe upstream had been lined to try to keep the sewage from entering the storm-drain system there, but as of September 2005, with sewage still entering the storm drain, the city had resolved to replace the next section of sewer downstream, too.

“It’s still not fixed, as far as I know,” Hollyday says over lunch at nearby Kiss Café in late November.

He’s right. In a Dec. 10 e-mail, DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher identifies the illegal connection at the olive oil company’s property, and explains that “the city is awaiting this company’s final plan for plant expansion,” which “will include a new proposal for the relocation of the sewer line” that’s been causing problems. “The city has continued to keep [MDE] informed on the status of this project,” Kocher adds, though apparently EPA has not been in the loop. Nothing about it appeared in the voluminous EPA files reviewed by City Paper, and the EPA’s Angela McFadden had not heard of the sewage appearing at the Linwood Avenue outfall, much less where it might be coming from.

In all likelihood, sewage will from time to time continue to contaminate the harbor at the Linwood Avenue storm-water outfall. Citizens, whose rising water and sewer rates are paying for the billion-dollar sewer-system overhaul, will endure the fouled water and reeking air until the sewer is fixed at Pompeian Inc. If the sewage still flows then, the city likely will seek out and fix other sources of sewage in the storm drains as more years pass. Perhaps it will turn out to be an never-ending battle, and there always will be sewage flowing into the harbor beneath Linwood Avenue, for as long as people flush toilets and have basement backups in Baltimore.

But none of that changes the course of progress. DPW is deeply proud of its work so far under the consent decree, and is bound to stay that way. “As of this date,” Kocher wrote in his Dec. 10 e-mail, “all but 5 of [39] construction projects [required under the consent decree] have been completed and 54 engineered [sewage] overflow structures have been eliminated.” Up next are sewershed studies and sewer flow monitoring across the city, he continued, which aim to root out the sources of unpermitted sewage discharges. “The current estimate of the program at $900 million,” Kocher concluded, “continues to be a reasonable estimate at this time,” adding that once the upcoming studies are completed “the City will be able to better refine that estimate.”

Because of the progress that has already been made, and because of more progress that’s required before the consent decree expires, Lee believes in swimmable, fishable harbor water by 2020–that’s what the law has set out to do. His optimism is commendable and was likely shared widely in 1972, when the original Clean Water Act first passed, calling for swimmable, fishable waters by 1983. But 2020’s a long time away, and hundreds of millions of dollars still has to be spent in a little less than a decade on sewer improvements. Lee seems truly to believe it’s doable, and he sees the sewage flowing beneath Linwood Avenue, while a longstanding condition, as a temporary one requiring patience before the city finally puts an end to it.

When it comes to water-quality issues, Darin Crew has to be nearly as adept at understanding sewersheds as he is at understanding watersheds. He came to Baltimore to take a job at the Herring Run Watershed Association, aiming to improve water quality in the Northeast Baltimore watershed, which is a tributary to Back River in Baltimore County. That was 2003, and in February of that year, the Herring Run hosted what was immediately billed as one of the worst sewage spills in city history. An estimated 36 million gallons of sewage was released after two massive sewer lines embedded in the stream became blocked.

Four months later, in June 2003, an estimated 35 million gallons of sewage leaked out of a damaged manhole along Herring Run, poking a hole in the largest-in-city-history theory about the first one. The following May and July brought two more 30 million gallon-plus gushers at Braddish Avenue, affecting the Gwynns Falls. For Crew, knowing about the weak links in the sewer system in Herring Run’s drainage area was to be a major part of his new job.

“It’s right down here, directly beneath this bridge,” Crew says as he pulls up in his pickup truck. The Mannasota Avenue bridge spans Herring Run, connecting the Belair-Edison and Parkside neighborhoods, and Crew promises to show me and a City Paperphotographer that sewage is running out of the storm drain constructed in the bridge foundation. We follow Crew as he scrambles down the stream bank and goes under the bridge. Concrete was used to channel Herring Run as it passes beneath the bridge, and the clear water coming out of the storm drain splashes on it and runs, pooling here and there, into the clear running stream. There’s no odor of sewage.

“It doesn’t always smell,” Crew explains. “You can tell that sewage is a likely component of what’s coming out of here by the gray scum that collects on the surfaces wherever the water is for any period of time. It’s just gray scum. Other than that, you can measure ammonia in the water. That’s a pretty good indicator. And the ammonia levels are always pretty high here. This flows about a gallon a minute, and that works out to be 60 gallons an hour–you do the math. It’s a constant flow, except when it rains. And this low-level kind of thing, by itself, doesn’t really do much damage, water quality-wise, given all that’s already getting into the stream. But it’s still a problem.”

“What about that one over there?” the photographer asks, pointing across Herring Run to another outfall coming out of the opposite stream bank. “I don’t know, let’s go see,” Crew suggests. Again, the water is clear. But this time the sewage odor hits while approaching the opening. “Whoa, that’s definitely sewage,” Crew says of the smell. But there’s no telltale gray scum. Turns out, there’s another outfall beneath the one the photographer spotted, and down there–it takes some effort and contortions to see it–there’s plenty of gray scum forming as the clear storm-drain water courses out of the pipe and into Herring Run.

“Taken all together,” Crew concludes, “these types of small, steady sewage leaks do become a serious water-quality problem. It’s not as serious as the 30 million gallons that came down here a few years ago, but it’s a problem, and I think it’s about time we kicked up the enforcement effort on this kind of thing.” He shows us one more example, under a bridge on Hillen Road next to the Mount Pleasant Golf Course, and gets back to work.

On Nov. 30, the photographer and I go to the 4500 block of Fairfax Road in West Baltimore’s Windsor Hills, looking for a plumber. A&A Plumbing is listed at an address on this block, and, since no one from the business had returned a phone message, we came to knock on the door. Once there, we found three men in baseball caps standing beside three pickup trucks, backed up toward the entrance. They know nothing of the plumber listed at that address.

“What, are you bondsmen?” one asks, and everyone laughs.

I explain that we’re almost as unwelcome, under most circumstances: the press. But when it becomes clear that the story has to do with the city’s efforts to fix its chronically leaky sewer system, and that this area has a particularly rough history of sewer problems, and that a plumber’s anecdotes of Windsor Hills sewage nightmares was sought, the three men grow friendly and relaxed. One, a 40-year-old truck driver from Randallstown who introduces himself as Rick Edwards, steps up and starts talking.

“I keep my boat down at the harbor,” Edwards explains, “at Canton Cove Marina at the end of Linwood Avenue. Been keeping it there like four or five years, and there’s sewage coming out of the storm drain there, stinking things up so bad I hardly even use my boat anymore. Can’t even go sit on your boat down there, can’t entertain or have friends down, because it smells so bad.” The infamous outfall’s reputation apparently remains intact all the way across town in Windsor Hills.

We take leave of the men to check out the sewer-main stacks protruding up from the streambed next to the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, at the end of the block. We return a half-hour later to announce there’s no sewer odor, but the water coming out of the storm drain shows evidence of the likely presence of sewage: gray scum on the rocks and concrete where the water runs.

“The boats down at the marina,” Edwards says, “you have to clean gray scum off of the bottom of them, just like the stuff you see on them rocks. It’s the same stuff. I’ve had it scrubbed and cleaned off, and it looks like it grows off the bottom of the boat, literally. It’s just this muck.

“There’s sewage coming out all over. But what’re you gonna do? I talked to a city worker about it, he said the pipes are so old, it’s just always going to leak, and they’ll just keep on trying to catch up with them all. The leaks up here, on this street, they don’t go to Linwood Avenue, but it all ends up in the same place eventually.”

Edwards is standing seven miles away, in a straight line, from the Linwood Avenue outfall. Sewage that leaks here travels downhill to the end of Fairfax Road, where it drains downstream into the Gwynns Falls and, having joined up with more sewage-laden water as it goes, reaches the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River right near the BRESCO waste incinerator. From there, it joins the Patapsco’s North Branch–better known as the Baltimore harbor–at Fort McHenry. Right across the harbor from Fort McHenry is the Canton Cove Marina, where Edwards wishes he no longer kept his boat, and where David Schmidt complained in full three-part harmony that September day to two kayakers about the powerful dose of sewage coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall. Everything, as they say, is connected.

“It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to be on the bay at all,” Edwards says of what the sewage, and pollution in general, is doing to his boating habits. “At this point, I think I’d rather be in Ocean City, any day.”

We say goodbye and drive up the hill from Fairfax Road onto Talbot Street, pulling over to speak with a gentleman raking leaves on the curb. “Sure, I know about the sewer problems over the years,” he says. “They did a lot of work trying to fix them in the ’70s and ’80s, and they did more in the ’90s. Used to hear the heavy machinery down in the Gwynns Falls, and now they’re doing more under the streets here. As for the details, I’m probably not the best person to ask. That house right there”–and he points to one across the way–“David Carroll lives there. He’s some kind of environmental expert. You should ask him.”

“David Carroll,” he announces, when he picks up the phone at his Towson office in early December. Carroll is the director of the Baltimore County Department of Environmental and Resource Management, an agency that manages a sewage system under a consent decree much like Baltimore City’s, which went into effect in 2005 and involves the same plaintiffs. He’s held similar high-level public positions as an environmental manager in Baltimore City and in state and federal government over the years, including a stint as MDE secretary under Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the 1980s and ’90s. This impressive résumé qualifies Carroll, in the words of his neighbor in Windsor Hills, as “some kind of environmental expert.”

But Carroll is also a longtime resident of Windsor Hills, where sewer leaks have historically plagued the city’s underground pipes, and that gives him some personal perspective on the impact of sewage on city neighborhoods, and the challenges of making improvements to sewer systems.

“Frankly, we haven’t tracked it all that closely,” Carroll says of the Windsor Hills community’s sewage-leak monitoring efforts. “We got together and started the Windsor Hills Conservation Trail, there at the end of Fairfax Road, and people out on the trail have been reporting leaks there for the last 10, 15 years. There have been lots of leaks reported over the years, but it’s been pretty sporadic, given the fact that we’re not really monitoring it in an organized fashion.

“The community association in the neighborhood has been working with the Windsor Hills Elementary School,” he continues, “to use those sanitary stacks sticking up in the stream along the conservation trail as education tools. And that’s important, because the neighborhood kids actually do swim in the Gwynns Falls. And, in fact, the effort’s working. There was an environmental festival for the schoolchildren down along the stream, and some kids jumped into a pool of water in the Gwynns Falls, and another kid said, `Get out of there! There are fecals all in there!’ He was talking about fecal coliform, and that kid understands it’s in the water and it’s dangerous, and he’s telling other kids that. That’s good.”

Carroll has heard of the ongoing stench and foul water coming out of the Linwood Avenue outfall–“that one’s pretty infamous,” he says–but he’s not convinced, even with all the expensive sewer reconstruction and extensive efforts to curtail the sewage entering the harbor, that the harbor will ever improve to the swimmable, fishable standard set forth in the Clean Water Act.

“When we get all the pipes working as they should, we’ll still have all this organic matter in the system–crap from geese and dogs and cats, dead animals, the grease and oil and food scraps and trash that gets washed off the streets, all the rest of it. And we’ll still have a problem. And then what are we going to do? But the first thing you got to do is get the human stuff out of there. And as this gets done, there will be major improvements in the amounts of raw sewage going into our streams.

“As for the city,” Carroll continues, “it’s just this network of really old sewers, and there’s a lot to do. Blockages occur in the main sewer lines, and the resulting backups usually cause leaks–that, or a standing [sanitary] stack gets severed, or a pumping station fails. Grease collecting in the lines and clogging them–that’s a big problem. The way we do it, every time that happens, if there’s anything at all that leaks–anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s a gallon or not–we have to report it to MDE and EPA, even if it doesn’t reach the waters of the state. It’s anything that leaks. Zero tolerance, that’s the threshold.

“But it’s not the amount of sewage spilled that matters,” Carroll emphasizes. “It’s the impact it has on water quality on an ongoing basis. And the big overarching context here is this–you want us to get swimmable and fishable waters, but how do you do that? Where has it worked? I’ve got sunfish in the Gwynns Falls, but is it really ever going to be safe to swim in it? Because there’s still going to be a lot of things that make the water yucky that are still going to be there, after all this work on the sewers is said and done. And that’s what the public, who’s paying for all of this, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s not the message they’re getting. They’re hearing that all this billion dollars of sewer improvements is going to make the harbor clean, but that’s simply not the case.”

City Paper awaits the outcome of the investigation EPA says it’s conducting into the sewage that comes out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall. Also pending are full responses from EPA, MDE, DPW, and DOJ to two November letters from City Paperabout a variety of consent-decree compliance issues that jumped off the pages of the EPA’s records. As a result of numerous 311 complaints describing what sound very much like sewage leaks that are discharging into city streets, gutters, and storm drains, and yet aren’t reported under the consent decree, a major question was whether the city has been routinely failing to report leaks as required. DPW provided a partial response in a Dec. 7 e-mail.

“The majority of the [311] complaints listed in your letter pertain to sewage in basements,” the statement reads in part. “These types of complaints are not applicable to reporting under the consent decree. At some locations listed, the 311 complaint code was characterized as a sanitary sewer overflow, however, there was no associated report sent to the regulators. This is due to a variety of reasons,” but in most cases “it appears that [DPW] corrected certain problems but did not observe a reportable discharge.”

In essence, the statement says DPW reports all sewer leaks, as required, without exception. Yet the Baltimore Sanitary Sewer Oversight Coalition’s Guy Hollyday says he’s been pointing out ongoing sewer leaks to DPW for years, and DPW’s been confirming that they exist and continue leaking, and yet many remain to be fixed. The group’s 2004 annual report, for instance, states that during that year DPW confirmed the existence of 17 ongoing sewer leaks around the city, yet they weren’t repaired. Some, Hollyday says in late November, still haven’t been.

The last time I checked, on the evening of Dec. 10, turbid, brown, debris-laden water was coming out of the Linwood Avenue storm-drain outfall, but it didn’t stink of sewage. The next day, Rick Edwards, the Randallstown truck driver, calls. That gray scum is building up on the hull of his boat, he explains, and he repeats that he’s about had it with all this sewage in the harbor.

“It smells like sewage half the time,” he says. “Everyone is talking about it–it’s a common issue.”

By all appearances, the stench in the harbor is not going to go away anytime soon, so everyone can still go on talking about it until it does–be that 2020, or beyond.

Stronger Than Strong: In a Showdown Over Landfill Problems, Public Works Director Prevails Over Mayor’s Friend

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By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Dec. 6, 1995

The November dismissal of Ken Strong as the city’s top garbageman is a tale of alleged government mismanagement, mixed political loyalties, and the frailty of personal friendship in the upper reaches of power. This personnel move, carried out by Department of Public Works (DPW) director George Balog with the approval of Strong’s childhood friend, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, provides a telling glimpse into the netherworld of city politics.

Balog’s official explanation for removing Strong as head of the Bureau of Solid Waste (BSW) was that he needed someone with a more technical background and greater field-operations experience. Strong, who has been widely praised for his innovation and efficiency during his one and a half years as BSW head, believes instead that his demise has more to do with his recent questioning of DPW’s handling of problems at the Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill. Strong also asserts that “Balog wanted to get rid of me long before” the landfill dispute, perhaps because the DPW director wanted “to protect himself from my finding out how he operates.”

Surrounding these conflicting interpretations of the event is a larger conflict about what happens in mayoral politics when personal loyalty is pitted against professional power. Strong and Schmoke have been friend since both joined the Lancers boys’ club as teenagers.

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Strong has coordinated volunteers for all of Schmoke’s campaigns and served in the state’s attorney’s office and on the Planning Commission before moving to BSW. Most recently, he mobilized BSW forces to clean the city during an election year, an accomplishment recognized by mayoral spokesperson Clinton Coleman in the days following Strong’s dismissal. “I would say that having a cleaner city certainly helps [the mayor with re-election]. And we are in fact a cleaner city,” Coleman said.

George Balog is the director of the city’s largest department, overseeing some 6,000 city workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts. As a member of the Board of Estimates, he has one of five votes in approving the way the city spends most of its money. His power and influence in city matters – and his ability to attract contributions to fund re-election campaigns – are vital cogs in Schmoke’s political machine. Thus, when Balog decided it was time to move Strong out of BSW, the mayor quickly conceded, despite the merits of Strong’s record and his concerns about the landfill. Strong, for his part, is considering a lawsuit charging that his firing violated the state’s whistleblower statute.

On November 16, prompted by a reporter’s questions about a possible link between Strong’s dismissal and alleged problems at the landfill, Balog convened a press briefing in his conference room. During the two and a half hours that followed, Balog made his case. On hand to aid in the effort were DPW staff attorney Deborah Skupien, several other department officials, DPW spokesperson Vanessa Pyatt, and a consultant expert in landfill design.

At issue is the landfill leachate pond, where contaminated water that has percolated through the 25-acre clay-lined landfill is collected before being pumped into tankers and shipped to Patapsco River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The pond, which is lined with clay and asphalt, has been out of commission since July 1994, when a 13-ton front-end loader was used to help remove sediment that had built up on the pond bed since its construction in 1984. According to DPW memos, the weight of the loader cracked the pond and created a need for extensive repairs. In August 1995, repairs were finally completed by a contractor, L.F. Mahoney. Strong, BSW engineers, and state officials have since expressed concerns about the repairs and DPW’s oversight of the contractor’s work.

The crux of Balog’s argument, though, is that Strong, far from having legitimate concerns about repairs to the landfill leachate pond, is himself to blame for the problems there. In Balog’s eyes, Strong, by virtue of being BSW head at the time, is not only responsible for the 1994 cracking of the pond bed but also for failing to bring the pond back into service immediately after the August 1995 repairs. Balog says that failure will cost the city $41,000. Mahoney’s bid for repairing the pond was $23,030.

In Strong’s opinion, Mahoney “treated our leachate pond like a pothole”; he believes payment to the contractor should be withheld until the repairs are done properly. In addition, Strong and others are concerned about unrepaired damage to the flume, through which leachate empties into the pond. The flume has been plugged for more than a year as the pond has awaited repairs, but warm, odorous liquid has been leaking from cracks and holes surrounding it.

As for Balog’s steadfast contention that the contractor’s work was good, Strong says, “I don’t believe he’s interested in the truth of what’s happening [at the leachate pond]. I believe he’s interested in protecting himself and his staff and his contractors” from being held responsible for the pond’s problems.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he is working assertively to solve the problem,” Strong continues. “He is working very aggressively to assign blame.”

In late October, Strong brought his concerns about the pond to Edward Dexter, chief of field operations for the Maryland Department of the Environment’s sold-waste program. On November 7, Dexter submitted a formal letter to DPW requesting detailed information to document that the repairs were adequate. As of December 5, he was still awaiting a response.

Early in the morning on Sunday, November 18, after word of the problems at the leachate pond had started to spread throughout city government, City Council members Martin O’Malley (D-3rd District) and John Cain (D-1st District) led a fact-finding mission to the landfill. Joining the legislators were two environmental activists, Terry Harris of the Sierra Club and Dan Jerrems of the Baltimore Recycling Coaltion and the Baltimore Parks Coalition. The legislators inspected the pond, concentrating on the damage around the flume, and declared their intent to scrutinize the matter, further, possibly through a formal council investigation.

Schmoke’s position on the issue of the leachate pond has evolved somewhat. On November 19, he said, “I accept Mr. Balog’s explanation, pointing out that “I’ve seen memoranda back and forth about it and I think Mr. Balog has adequately described the problem and is dealing with it.” Ten days later, he reserved judgment: “Without having firsthand experience or being an expert on environmental matters, for me to reach a conclusion based on the memoranda themselves is certainly difficult, so I have asked the law department to look into the matter and provide me with their analysis of it.” Leslie Winner, a contracts specialist in the city solicitor’s office, has been assigned the case.

Balog maintains that he did not remove Strong as BSW head as a result of his adamant stance and crusade of memos about the pond repairs. Rather, Balog credits Schmoke with the inspiration for moving Strong out of the position.

“I met with the mayor and the mayor, in this term, he wants to emphasize doing things,” Balog says. “He said, ‘We’ve been doing planning and all, and I want all the emphasis to be put on doing things.’ So I have Ken Strong at solid waste. His background is in English and he’s like an environmentalist. He’s been involved in communities and stuff like that. … And I look around my department, I got a guy named Leonard Addison. He’s been with the department 25 years. A civil engineer, terrific field man … so that’s when I said to the mayor, ‘Look, I got somebody that I think’s really good and I think we should give him a chance of being a focal point with the hottest bureau and see what he can do.’ And that’s how it happened.”

Schmoke says he doesn’t recall such a conversation with Balog, but says he approves of Strong’s dismissal. On November 20, Strong met with Schmoke to discuss the situation, which both say has been a strain on their 31-year friendship.

“It has been a difficult experience,” Schmoke says. “It’s somewhat awkward anyway to be in an employer-employee relationship with somebody that you’ve been friends with for quite a long time.” The mayor adds that the episode hasn’t “irreparably damaged” his friendship with Strong “becauswe we’ve had some very frank conversations about this situation, and he understands that I have supported a lot of the work that he has done.”

Schmoke, who points out that Strong declined an offer of a civil-service position at DPW, has agreed to be a reference for Strong as he looks for new employment. “I identify [Strong] as a person with a real concern for community,” Schmoke remarks. “He’s a person that things that what happens in neighborhoods in this city is very important, that we ought to pay attention to people’s concerns neighborhood by neighborhood. He looks at both the big picture and the small blocks and has a great deal of concern about both.”

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Schmoke’s high regard for Strong, along with Strong’s publicly recognized record of service for the mayor, has led many observers to wonder why the mayor would so easily defer to Balog in moving Strong out of city government. O’Malley, for one, sees the situation as “one big power struggle.” Cain sees it as “city politics in microcosm, a metaphor of the way things really are.” Both believe Strong’s dismissal got the nod from the mayor because Balog has a significant edge over Strong in terms of raw power in city government.

Although Strong mobilizes get-out-the-vote forces for Schmoke – a valuable contribution to the reelection process – his role was not powerful enough to help him prevail in a showdown with Balog, a critical rainmaker during the campaign season. O’Malley suggests further that Strong, whose support among community leaders is well known, presented a direct threat to Balog’s authority. “Maybe Ken was the heir apparent, moving up to be DPW director,” the council member contends.

There are no indication that Strong was in line to replace Balog as DPW director. Balog says he has never felt threatened by Strong’s special relationship with the mayor and long history of community involvement.

Records of campaign contributions show that DPW contractors and empoyees gave large amounts to the Schmoke reelection drive. Thirteen DPW contractors who were mentioned by Balog in interviews about the leachate pond or who made bids to repair the pond collectively have given $42,965 to the Schmoke campaign committee since July 1994. (According to the integrated financial report of the city, these 13 contractors got more than $16 million worth of business from the city in the first 11 months of the 1995 fiscal year.) A group of 24 DPW employees and five of their family members, identified in the campaign records by matching their names with the city telephone directory, has given $9,150 since August 1994. These amounts are just a small part of the total DPW-related fund-raising picture, which includes a large community of contractors and a potential giving pool of about 6,000 employees.

“I seriously doubt that these contractors contribute to incumbent mayors because of their political philosophy,” O’Malley contends. “They contribute because they receive contracts, and no person in city government has greater knowledge of that process than Mr. Balog.”

Asked about his role as a major impetus for political giving, Balog says, “I never asked anybody to give any money, if that is what you are asking. I’ll take a lie-detector test on that.”

Strong was extremely surprised by the large amount Schmoke raised from the 13 contractors related to the leachate pond. But he makes no specific allegations of Balog pressuring contractors and employees to give to the Schmoke campaign, noting, “It’s more by rumor and reputation that [Balog] brings money into the campaign.”

While Strong says he is dismayed by the role money plays in politics generally – “The outcomes of it are pretty well documented,” he says – he contends that the overarching theme of Balog’s leadership is not his role as a political fund-raiser, but “the ways in which he is working to maintain his own power rather than serving the interests of the city.” By way of illustration, Strong says he was “infuriated” when, during the inauguration of the Clean Sweep program (which targets specific areas of the city for regularly scheduled, intensive cleanups), Balog made a casual reference to a “Dirty Dozen” of the city most in need of the program. The Dirty Dozen idea was not a preplanned part of the press conference, so Strong says “we had to create that on the spot.” Strong, who had been heavily involved in planning Clean Sweep, concluded that Balog “was jealous of this program, so in the last minute he comes up with this oddball aspect, the Dirty Dozen, which was what the paper ended up writing about.”

Confirming reports from DPW staff who did not want to be quoted for this story, Strong says Balot’s ongoing reorganization of the department has many managers on edge, worried about their job security as successive waves of changes come down the chain of command. Balog states he’s been reorganizing the department for “several years,” while Schmoke says he’s satisfied that, in so doing, Balog’s building a better DPW.

But one manager says, “I don’t know why there’s all these changes being made. My hope is that it is to improve the department, but I’m not so sure that’s the case – not so sure at all.” Strong, who on December 3 attended a surprise birthday party held for him by many of his former DPW underlings, says he came away from the gathering feeling that “people seem to be under growing pressure back at the department,” in part because “every time you turn around there’s another reorganization.”

Strong recalls a moment early in his DPW career that to him defines the culture that Balog is breeding at the department. Balog denies the conversation ever took place, but Strong insists that it occurred during one of his first meetings with the director, in 1991. Strong had just made the jump from the state’s attorney’s office to DPW. “[Balog] said, ‘One of the problems with people like you who come over from the state’s attorney’s office is that you think in terms of right and wrong. We don’t do that here. We just get things done.’ To me,” Strong concludes, “that just explains a lot about how he operates the department.”

Strong is consulting with an attorney to assess his chances of proving in court that he was dismissed in retribution for his stance on the pond-repair problems; in the meantime, he vows to press on in publicizing his concerns about the landfill. At the December 6 Board of Estimates meeting, for example, he plans to protest the proposed approval of the $41,000 expenditure to complete the pond repairs. And he says he will cooperate fully with the proposed City Council review of the situation.

“I think this story provides some important lessons to be learned about how government operates and how it should operate,” Strong says. “I will support whatever will open it up to some deeper analysis.”

 

The Eternal Flame: Waste incinerators win the political debate again

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 25, 2011

The heat generated by waste incinerators pales next to the fiery politics they tend to ignite—though these battles usually end with industry victories. Another in a long string of wins was chalked up on May 19, when Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) rejected environmentalists’ calls for a veto and signed Senate Bill 690, a measure that will help the state reach its clean-energy goals by reclassifying trash-burning power plants as renewable-energy sources, like wind and solar.

With the stroke of a pen, Maryland now can start counting the kilowatts generated from waste-to-energy (WTE) plants as part of its renewable-power mix, which by law must account for 20 percent of the state’s energy sources by 2022. The bill’s enactment is a potential boon for the cash flow of WTE generators, and may lead to more plants being built, since the reclassification makes these sources more attractive to power companies looking to take advantage of credits for buying renewable energy.

In making his decision, O’Malley asked whether WTE generation was “better for the environment” than “the combination of coal and land filling, based on the best available science,” according to a statement. “The answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’”

Environmentalists—already stung by a 2011 legislative session that handed them a string of defeats, including on an off-shore wind-power project proposed by O’Malley—are in a snit. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters issued a statement calling O’Malley’s move a “step backwards” that would detract from efforts to increase the use of “true, clean energy sources like wind and solar” in the state’s energy mix. In an interview before the bill signing, WTE-bill opponent Greg Smith, director of the nonprofit Community Research, said that O’Malley “wants to be seen as a green governor, and here he is wrapping his arms around a bad technology.”

The green lobby in Baltimore has found incineration to be an especially hardy opponent. A generation ago, a proposed expansion of the since-closed Pulaski trash incinerator was so maligned that the city passed a five-year ban on incinerator construction. But the courts struck down the moratorium law, and a subsequent effort to revive it in the state legislature was dead on arrival.

In the late 1990s, environmentalists failed to stop the city from helping a controversial and financially strained medical-waste incinerator in Hawkins Point, whose polluting smokestack had long been a bane to communities in Baltimore’s southern reaches. The city changed the law to enlarge the incinerator’s “catchment area”—the legally set geographical boundaries within which it could collect fuel—from the immediate Baltimore area to a 250-mile radius. After a failed legislative effort in 2005 to rein in the radius, last year the city one-upped the favor by dropping the geographical restriction entirely.

While acknowledging that incineration technology has improved over the years, environmentalists point out that burning waste remains a major source of airborne pollutants, including mercury, particulates, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and lead. O’Malley, in his statement about signing the WTE bill, called mercury emissions “the most worrisome aspect” of WTE plants, and promised that his administration would “strictly regulate the amount of mercury emanating from both existing and proposed waste-to-energy facilities” and propose legislation to help “remove mercury from the waste stream altogether.”

O’Malley’s main tool for keeping a lid on incinerator pollution is the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), but the agency’s oversight of a WTE plant in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood—the landmark Wheelabrator facility, whose smokestack stands sentry over I-95—has been called into question by a national environmental group. The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), along with the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Clean Water Action, successfully intervened in Wheelabrator’s permit-renewal process last year, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to order MDE to strengthen the plant’s pollution-monitoring requirements.

EIP lawyer Jennifer Peterson explained the situation in a May 10 e-mail to Westport community leader Linda Towe, executive director of the nonprofit Project T.O.O.U.R. (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility) Inc., who was concerned about pollution coming out of Wheelabrator’s smokestack.

“We have serious concerns regarding the adequacy of the Clean Air Act operating permit for the facility,” Peterson explained. The permit requires it to “meet mercury limits at all times,” for instance, yet “only requires . . . an annual stack test to measure mercury emissions,” she continued. “This is like showing up once a year to take a speeding test. If you pass on that day, you’re in compliance for the entire year. Adequate monitoring is particularly important for incinerators because the air emissions can vary significantly based on the composition of the trash.”

MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said in an e-mail that a revised Wheelabrator permit is in the works, and EPA spokesperson Bonnie Smith said that after MDE makes the revised permit “available for public comment”—which she expects to happen in a matter of weeks—“it then comes to EPA for a 45-day review” before becoming final.

But EIP’s Peterson suspects the agencies are dragging their feet. She wrote in her e-mail to Towe that EIP has “taken the first steps to sue EPA for their failure to act (in light of MDE’s failure to issue a revised permit) by sending a notice of intent to sue letter.” Wheelabrator did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Meanwhile, in South Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula, the construction of another WTE plant is expected to begin soon. If built as planned by Energy Answers International, it will burn 4,400 tons of waste per day to generate 145 megawatts of electricity—more than twice as much as Wheelabrator’s 2,000-ton and 60-megawatt capacity. Thanks to a special agreement with MDE, its construction got the go-ahead last year from the Maryland Public Service Commission without the normally required refuse-disposal permit—a waiver granted over the strident protests of environmentalists and Wheelabrator, who were united in casting the arrangement as “illegal.”

O’Malley, at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Energy Answers plant last October, extolled the incinerator project as emblematic of “where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.”

Community Research’s Smith, though, sees the project as another example of relying on dirty technology “whose benefits get inflated, and whose damaging impacts get slighted, whenever it is debated.”

In Maryland, though, history shows that whenever incineration gets debated, it keeps winning.

Trash Talk: Troubles for Baltimore’s Newest and Long-Delayed Waste-to-Energy Plant Are Mounting

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, July 22, 2014

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Drivers approaching the entrance of the former FMC Corp. chemical-making complex on Baltimore’s industrial Fairfield peninsula are welcomed by a large and well-lit green sign mounted on a landscaped terrace: “Future Home of Fairfield Renewable Energy Power Plant.” They’ve been so welcomed since at least June 2011, when Google Street View captured images of the same sign and the 90-acre site, where the only visible changes since are the removal of a smokestack and the installation of a series of metal beams on the property’s eastern edge.

On a recent visit, a car and a motorcycle were parked behind the closed gates at the entrance, the only signs of human presence. Other than two large buildings, the security post, and a few trailers, the property is a yawning expanse of concrete and grass pocked by a few tanks and the occasional pile of rubble.

This is not how the defunct FMC site, which the company mothballed in the mid-2000s, was supposed to look in the summer of 2014. By today, it was meant to house the largest waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator in the country by far, and the first new one constructed in the U.S. since 1995. Each day, more than 230 trucks were supposed to be delivering 4,000 tons of refuse-derived fuel for incineration in boilers capable of generating nearly 160 megawatts (MWs) of power, enough to satisfy the electrical demands of more than 130,000 homes and more than double the WTE-generation capacity of Maryland’s three existing incinerators. Construction of the plant was supposed to have already generated 1,300 jobs, with another 600 derived from its operation, including almost 150 positions at the plant itself, where the annual payroll would be $12.5 million.

The still-dormant site must be a bit of an embarrassment for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D), Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), U.S. Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), FMC Corp. president and CEO Pierre Brondeau, United Steelworkers vice president Fred Redmond, former Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition executive director Carol Eshelman, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe—and a source of great frustration for Patrick Mahoney, the president and CEO of the Albany, NY-based Energy Answers (EA), the company that wants to build and operate the plant on FMC Corp.’s property.

On Oct. 18, 2010, after EA’s proposed plant had gotten all the necessary regulatory go-aheads, each of those leaders sat on a temporary stage at the FMC Corp. site and rose, one by one, to a podium, giving grandiose speeches at the project’s ceremonial kickoff event, portions of which are memorialized in a video on EA’s website. They extolled the virtues of a technology that, as the WTE industry group Energy Recovery Council claims in its publications, each year in the U.S. burns more than 30 million tons of trash that would otherwise go to landfills in order to sell vast quantities of electricity while recovering hundreds of thousands of tons of metals for recycling.

O’Malley, declaring that “Maryland’s economy is an innovation economy,” stood to say the plant “fits directly into this innovation economy and where we’re going in this fight for a cleaner, greener, more sustainable future with more jobs.” Rawlings-Blake said, “I’m proud, very proud, to have this project in Baltimore City,” and deemed the event “truly a great day in Baltimore,” claiming it would provide “jobs for skilled union workers” and serve as “a national model for green, renewable energy.” After Ruppersberger said that “this is the way that we need to do things in our community, in our country,” Perciasepe added that “it’s projects like this that show the right thing to do for the environment is also the right thing to do for the economy. We don’t have to choose between the two.”

On the day of the event, coverage of the project showed up on the trade website Waste Business Journal, announcing that “construction of the power plant is expected to begin in December 2010, with completion and commencement of commercial operations by December 2013.” Today, EA’s brochure about the Fairfield project predicts it will be in operation in the spring of 2016.

Beset by construction delays, financing difficulties, and an ongoing permit violation for which fines are currently mounting at the rate of $25,000 per day, EA’s Fairfield project is now suffering a public-image threat. A vocal, impassioned group of students at a nearby high school has targeted the project as fundamentally unjust, and they’ve gotten a lot of attention by invoking human rights when arguing their community has enough pollution already without an additional load from EA’s proposed new smokestacks, which will be allowed to emit more brain-damaging mercury than all of Maryland’s coal-burning power plants combined.

The planned and permitted incinerator’s problems continue despite Maryland’s best efforts to help: In 2011, O’Malley signed into law a measure making EA’s prospective product–WTE-generated electricity–a preferred commodity on the energy markets, as it is in most states around the country. Even with this boost, though, proposed WTE generators in Maryland have struggled to come on line. In addition to EA’s long-delayed Fairfield project (the planned plant is pictured above), plans for a proposed WTE incinerator in Frederick that earlier this year finally received its permit now seems on the verge of collapse.

City Paper asked EA to explain the project’s current status and how the company is handling community opposition, but received no response. By delving into the public record and talking to people knowledgeable about the project and WTE in Maryland, though, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental dilemma with the technology: It needs special treatment from the government to work, yet, by working, it competes with cleaner alternatives. Its special status on the electricity-supply markets puts it in direct competition with non-polluting renewables, and its raw material is trash, of which it needs a large and constant supply, and that’s precisely the resource that the recycling and composting industries need to thrive.

Greg Smith, a longtime anti-burn advocate who heads a Takoma Park-based nonprofit called Community Research, offers a nuanced counterpoint to Perciasepe’s win-win rhetoric: “If you do the right thing environmentally, you’re likely going to be able to do the right thing fiscally and economically, but if you do the wrong thing environmentally, you’re more than likely going to have a really hard time doing the right thing fiscally and economically.” While O’Malley says WTE fits in with Maryland’s innovation economy, maybe, without new WTE capacity, Maryland will have a better chance of growing cleaner, greener ways to innovate on the waste-management and electricity-generating fronts than building more mercury-emitting trash-burning plants.

 

At first, it seemed that EA’s Fairfield project was wired for success.

Certainly, the display of impassioned support from government, union, and community leaders at its kickoff ceremony in Oct. 2010 gave that impression. The show was all the more impressive because it came right on the heels of serious controversies over the project at the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), which cleared it to proceed with an August 2010 order granting a required “certificate of public convenience and necessity.”

The PSC’s order had prompted a lawsuit by some powerful national and local players in the solid-waste arena: the National Solid Wastes Management Association and Wheelabrator Baltimore, the owner of the city’s existing trash-burning incinerator, commonly known as the BRESCO plant. They contended, unsuccessfully, that a July 2010 settlement agreement between the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Research Project (PPRP), and EA illegally gave the company waivers from legal requirements that prohibit solid-waste incinerators from being built within a mile of a school and that require such facilities to obtain a refuse-disposal permit, like Wheelabrator has for the BRESCO plant. While they dismissed the lawsuit a few months after filing it, their point was clear: EA was getting preferential treatment.

Then came O’Malley’s 2011 decision to sign the bill making WTE part of Maryland’s renewable-power mix as a Tier I resource under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This was key, since Maryland’s RPS program gives power-supply companies credits for buying electricity from renewable sources, and by law the amount coming from such sources must increase in stages to 18 percent by 2022, with an additional two percent coming from solar energy by 2020. As a Tier 1 resource, WTE now gets counted the same as—and, in essence, competes with—power generation from wind, biomass (such as burning chicken manure), landfill gas, and small hydroelectric power.

After these successes for EA, on December 29, 2011, the first signs of trouble emerged. Under the conditions of the PSC order, the Fairfield project was required to start construction by Feb. 5, 2012, and EA didn’t think they could make it. As EA’s Baltimore attorneys, Todd Chason and Michael C. Powell, explained in a PSC filing made that day:

“Energy Answers has worked diligently and in good faith to construct the Fairfield Facility, but to date has been able to enter into contracts for some, but not all, of its electric output and fuel requirements. Until additional contractual commitments are secured, financing cannot be obtained. Efforts to sign contracts are ongoing, but may not be finalized until after the deadline.”

Though EA’s energy-sales contracts weren’t enough to qualify for financing, the filing explained that EA “has made progress” by “executing a deal for 25 MWs with the Baltimore Regional Cooperative Purchasing Committee.” The committee is a group of local-government entities—Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, and Carroll counties, as well as their respective public-school systems, along with the City of Annapolis—organized under the Baltimore Metropolitan Council to make purchases together to get better deals on goods and services. In addition, the filing said EA had gotten “a Letter of Intent with Maryland’s Department of General Services for up to an additional 10 MWs,” while it had “secured a waste/fuel sourcing agreement with the Maryland Environmental Service,” a self-financed government agency that serves as an environmental contractor for other government agencies and private entities.

Clearly, agreements from public agencies to purchase about 15 percent, or possibly 20 percent, of the Fairfield plant’s expected generation capacity, together with another agreement to get an indeterminate amount of refuse from another public agency to serve as fuel, was not enough to impress whatever financiers were thinking about backing the plant’s construction.

Yet, the filing continued, “since first coming to Maryland in 2008, Energy Answers has spent millions of dollars developing this project and continues to do so,” while also “working to reform Maryland’s energy policies to promote the Fairfield Facility, including participation in last year’s successful effort to make refuse-derived fuel a Tier 1 resource.” In other words, paying engineers, lawyers, and lobbyists to plan the project, navigate the regulatory framework, and urge the passage of favorable laws is expensive.

Ultimately, after environmental groups, the NAACP, and local government leaders in Anne Arundel County weighed in, on Dec. 10, 2012, the PSC gave EA an 18-month extension on its construct-start deadline, to Aug. 6, 2013.

At this point, the resilience of EA’s Fairfield project to the near-death experience started to prompt amusing observations among regulators. One of the key players is the PPRP, which advises the PSC as to the suitability of proposed new power generators. PPRP’s administrator for atmospheric sciences John Sherwell, an old hand at the agency who has been there since 1993, wrote an email to colleagues in early Sept. 2012, summing up the sentiment: “EA just keeps going—like the energizer bunny’s evil twin.”

“The governor,” Sherwell explains in a recent interview to give a bird’s-eye view of the project’s progress, “has been pushing renewables, waste-to-energy, which is now considered to be a renewable energy source, and he had been encouraging Energy Answers to come and build this facility. The official goal for the companies actually delivering electricity to your door is to be 20 percent from renewables by 2022,” he says, “and the regulations allow the renewable energy sources to be from outside Maryland, but as much as possible they would like for them to be from inside Maryland–and the Energy Answers plant would be big for a waste-to-energy facility, roughly twice the size of BRESCO, a big undertaking. So they are very keen to support that, though wind and solar, particularly offshore wind, are the preference.

“But it was a controversial project,” Sherwell continues, “as these always are wherever they are proposed, and it’s been start-and-stop ever since. A lot of the delays were due to working through the issues to get the emissions lower, because when the permitting first came along for Energy Answers, Maryland was regulating emissions for coal plants more strictly than for waste-to-energy, so there was a push for stricter controls, and now they are lower than the industry standards. Then, after the company got an extension for starting construction, they were right on the edge of needing to get another extension when they began construction on one of the boilers last summer.”

Sherwell then starts to explain the next hang-up for EA’s Fairfield plant, saying “they failed to obtain the necessary emission offsets recently,” but points out that “I’m not sure how MDE enforces that. We’ll see what they can work out.”

Turns out, those emission offsets Sherwell mentioned are a big deal.

Under the terms EA agreed to before the PSC granted its order to proceed, the company needed to purchase about 1,500 tons of the offsets, covering nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide, prior to starting construction of the Fairfield facility. The offsets, in essence, are tradable units of pollution rights created under the federal Clean Air Act, allowing a polluter who ceases polluting in one location to sell them to a proposed polluter in another location.

On June 2, an offset seller in Texas, the chemical company Sasol North America, contacted MDE to report that EA had failed to exercise its option to buy nearly 80 tons of emissions offsets from Sasol, according to a June 19 letter to EA from Roberta James, an assistant Maryland attorney general representing MDE’s Air and Radiation Management Administration. That failure, the letter explained, violates Maryland air-quality laws, so EA “must discontinue all construction operation” at the Fairfield site until the company “is able to demonstrate to the Department’s satisfaction that it has replaced all the emissions offsets for which Energy Answers had an option to purchase from Sasol.”

While James’ letter points out that EA could be on the hook for $25,000 for each day the violation continued, it also offered “an opportunity to resolve, in advance of litigation, a civil penalty claim” over the issue. According to a July 14 email to City Paper from MDE spokesman Jay Apperson, “we verified that construction did stop,” and “we have offered the company the opportunity to pursue settlement,” but “no settlement has been reached” and “the company still must satisfy the requirement for offsets before construction can resume.”

“This certainly indicates that there is a problem,” says Leah Kelly, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) who has made PSC filings over EA’s Fairfield project and monitors the WTE situation in Maryland. “For us, it’s a really big concern,” she adds, pointing out that the offset purchases are “a key provision of the Clean Air Act.” And, since Baltimore is beset with ozone-laden air that impinges on public health and aggravates asthma sufferers, EA’s “failure to obtain the offsets is very important for us, and anyone else concerned about air quality.”

To Community Research’s Smith, EA’s failure to purchase the offsets, in conjunction with the construction delays—“they were supposed to have started construction by last August, and now it’s a year later, and they’ve begun work on one of the burners?”—makes it seem like the Fairfield project “doesn’t have any legs.” The Maryland coordinator of the national environmental group Clean Water Action (CWA), Andy Galli, who was the first outside party to file a notice of interest with the PSC after EA’s initial May 2009 filing to seek permission to build the Fairfield project, agrees. “It makes it seem that they are struggling financially,” Galli says.

“When this came out,” Galli adds, “I heard from allies in Puerto Rico, where Energy Answers is trying to build another project, and they were happy about what was happening here because it seemed like the company was struggling.”

For the Fairfield project’s public image, news of the offset violation came at a particularly bad time. A group of students at Benjamin Franklin High School, a Curtis Bay public school located about a mile west of the planned plant, began attracting public attention last fall over concerns about the incinerator’s allowable emissions. The students argued that EA’s plant would pose additional public-health risks in a community already beset with pollution sources, including from the nation’s largest medical-waste incinerator, operated just a few miles away on Hawkins Point by Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services.

The students’ voices had been resonating louder and louder as fall and winter gave way to spring and summer. Press coverage by City Paper, Baltimore Brew, the Real News Network, the Baltimore Sun, and local television stations focused public attention on their campaign, which included hundreds of supporters marching from the school to the Fairfield site in December, testimony in support of an environmental-justice bill before the Maryland General Assembly in February, and a May 27 presentation to the Baltimore City public-schools board that included rap performances and a Shakespearean soliloquy and  drew a standing ovation from board members. Despite the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition’s formal support for the project under Eshelman, who has since retired and did not respond to City Paper’s effort to contact her, the students’ efforts were giving the distinct impression that the locals were turning against the project.

 

“The real voice of the residents is being heard now—the students,” says Rebecca Kolberg, a science-savvy citizen activist from Anne Arundel County who lives on the Patapsco River near the Brandon Shores coal-burning power plant. Kolberg says that last November she and Mary Rosso, a former state delegate and longtime environmental activist, “met with the kids on a Saturday out in front of the incinerator site, and we were so impressed that that many would turn out on a cold weekend day. The community’s early backing of Energy Answers may be dissipating now. People are beginning to realize that it’s about the dirtiest kind of power you can produce, plus you have a bunch of diesel trucks that’ll be hauling the trash in there. The kids know their stuff.”

The students began looking into the planned EA incinerator after Greg Sawtell—a social-work student and former Peace Corps volunteer who works for United Workers, a Baltimore-based human rights group that advocates for low-wage workers—came to the high school about three years ago to start a human-rights study project called Free Your Voice (FYV). It has since grown to include about 15 core student leaders who meet every week at the high school, Sawtell says, with “a network of students, parents and teachers that they have built that’s much larger.” City Paper tried unsuccessfully to reach Destiny Watford, an 18-year-old Benjamin Franklin graduate now studying at Towson University who has emerged as FYV’s strongest voice, and so has relied on Sawtell’s input to learn about the group.

“We didn’t start the incinerator project as an anti-incinerator campaign,” Sawtell explains, “but a human-rights project that focused on this issue.” As the students dug in on the topic, he says, “they realized that Maryland was allowing the nation’s largest trash incinerator to be built right down the street from the high school, and they wanted to understand how that decision was made, since this is already an overburdened community that has the biggest medical waste incinerator in the country and there are 18 other schools that are three miles away or less. The students started to look at the issues of waste and energy in a way that is more comprehensive: We’re going all in on this giant incinerator project rather than looking at zero-waste strategies that would create recycling and composting jobs that would make it unnecessary. So they began trying to stop it.”

They wouldn’t be the first. As Smith told a Maryland General Assembly committee during a hearing on an anti-incinerator bill in March, “I’ve done this work for 25 years,” and “I’ve never encountered a local community, once they’ve began to learn about the potential impact side, say, ‘Yeah, come give us this large polluting industrial facility so we can make our kids sicker.’” Instead, he added, “they typically try to fight these off, and they’re doing it on a very unlevel playing field.” PPRP’s Sherwell points out that WTE proposals tend to draw opposition, and he says EA’s was delayed in part by “other parties taking pot shots at the project.” Among them were established environmental groups: EIP, CWA, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and Environment Maryland, which all filed public comments during the PSC proceedings.

But FYV was coming in late in the game, years after EA’s permits were issued and public-comment periods in regulatory proceedings were closed. So the students came up with a different, nuts-and-bolts strategy: try to undermine the incinerator’s business plan.

 

Energy Answer’s lawyers, in their December 2011 PSC filing asking for an extension to the start-construction deadline, referred EA’s 25 MWs energy-buying contract with local government entities organized as the BRCPC. The students started to target that contract, telling the Baltimore City school board, for instance, that they could opt out of purchasing the power if EA’s plant didn’t start delivering electricity to them within 48 months of the agreement. According to Sawtell, that deadline arrives next April, well before EA’s current forecast for starting operations at the end of 2016.

Baltimore City school board member Cheryl Casciani says the students’ late-May presentation at the school-board meeting was “very impressive,” that they “had a command of the facts” which made her think, “good for them, they deserve an audience.” As for students’ request the school system opt out of the electricity-purchase contract with EA, she says “we don’t have a position on this right now” because “we are still very much in the information-gathering mode.” The contract “was part of this larger purchasing consortium,” she adds, and there are “a lot of factors involved in the decision to enter into it,” so there is “a lot more work to understand the contract, and we are doing that.”

Opting out of the purchase contract with EA was not the only proposition the students made during their presentation, Casciani says. The other was an invitation to a site visit, and “within a few weeks, a few of us made a very good site visit to Curtis Bay,” she adds. In addition to meeting the students to take a look around the neighborhood, they went to the Fairfield site, and Casciani says she was struck because “Energy Answers, when you are standing at the site, unless I was missing something, there’s no evidence of construction.” Then, Casciani recalls, “the day after our site visit, the articles appeared” in the press about EA’s failure to purchase the emission offsets, prompting her to think, “what’s up with Energy Answers missing all these deadlines? What does it mean?”

Other than serving as a Baltimore City school-board member, Casciani also chairs Baltimore City’s Commission on Sustainability, which, along with city’s Office of Sustainability, is tasked with conceiving and implementing the Baltimore Sustainability Plan to guide the city’s efforts to grow in an environmentally and economically sustainable fashion. Casciani says some of the FYV students have also gained an audience with the commission and, as with the school board, the commission is following up on their concerns. In particular, with respect to the Fairfield project’s delayed construction, Casciani says the “commission is asking the regulatory bodies, what does this mean for the ongoing viability of this plant? And we’re waiting to hear back.”

In the big picture, though, Casciani says, “I wish the commission had taken a position” on the 2011 bill making WTE a renewable form of energy, “which I consider to be a very key decision that opened a door for this kind of thing, so I regret not being more active in Annapolis on that. We have found our sea legs on this stuff now, but on this one, we didn’t.” While there “is nothing in Baltimore’s sustainability plan to say the way to solve our issues is incineration,” she continues, “it does call for relying more on renewable energy, and now it is considered part of that. We are very much leaning toward a more zero-waste strategy for the city, with a much more aggressive, progressive approach to waste management, which would make this moot because it would starve incinerators. But this bill changed the equation.”

The question is whether a student-led anti-incinerator campaign, along with broader misgivings about WTE generation in Maryland generally, can change it back.

 

When O’Malley signed the 2011 WTE-as-a-renewable bill, he issued a public statement.

“Despite the success of recycling programs in our State,” he explained, “the reality is that Marylanders generate tons of solid waste each and every day.  If there is no waste-to-energy facility available, these tons of trash are simply dumped into landfills, no value is derived from the waste, and our State continues to rely on coal-fired generation to account for 55% of our energy needs. Therefore, the question is not whether waste-to-energy facilities are better for the environment than coal-fired generation or better for the environment than the land filling of trash, but rather whether waste-to-energy facilities are better than the combination of coal and land filling, based on the best available science.  The answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’”

The “qualified” aspect of his approval of the bill had to do with mercury emissions, which he called “the most worrisome aspect of waste-to-energy facilities.” But clean-energy and sustainability advocates point to what they consider a fundamental flaw in the governor’s reasoning: that waste not burned for energy would end up in landfills.

“It’s a false dichotomy that it’s either burn it or landfill it,” says EIP’s Kelly. “You should put in better requirements for recycling and waste reduction and composting before incineration is turned to as a waste-management practice,” she adds.

What Kelly is referring to is a zero-waste strategy, and the O’Malley administration nominally embraces it. In April, MDE issued a draft document entitled “Zero Waste Maryland: The O’Malley/Brown Administration’s Plan to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle Nearly All Waste Generated in Maryland by 2040.” It explains that “zero waste is an ambitious, long-term goal to nearly eliminate waste sent to landfills and incinerators,” and quotes the Zero Waste International Alliance’s advice that getting to that goal will require “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.”

Clearly, the zero-waste strategy is at odds with O’Malley’s pro-burn policies to support WTE. The document ignores this conflict by openly embracing WTE as a preferred alternative landfilling.

City Paper asked the campaign of Maryland lieutenant governor Anthony Brown, the Democratic contender of governor in the coming November elections, “what are Anthony Brown’s policy views of WTE as an answer to Maryland’s energy needs, and do they differ from what O’Malley pursued as governor?” The answer came from Jared Smith, Brown’s deputy campaign manager, in the form of a statement attributed to Brown that avoided the question.

“Renewable energy will remain a critical part of our effort to create jobs for Marylanders while building a strong and sustainable future for our state,” the statement reads. “We will work in partnership with the private sector to expand Tier 1 renewable energy production in Maryland while ensuring that local communities have a strong voice and input throughout the process. And as we look to the future, I am committed to neighborhood-focused sustainability that helps grow our economy and gives consumers affordable, environmentally friendly energy options.”

The campaign spokesman of Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, Adam Dubitsky, engaged in an off-the-record discussion of the topic with City Paper, but it did not result in an attributable statement.

No wonder, then, that while WTE opponents’ arguments for cleaner, more sustainable approaches would seem to invite more job-creating innovation than simply burning mountains of trash, not all of them are holding their breath for Maryland to ratchet back its legislated preference for WTE generation.

“We can’t fight climate change by incentivizing emissions producers,” says Smith, but “I’m not prepared to say the tide is turning” because “we keep having to work hard to stop some really bad pro-burn legislation brought by Energy Answers or Covanta,” another WTE company that runs the Montgomery County Resource Recovery Facility. For an example, he points to a 2013 bill that he says sought to assure additional trash flows to plants by penalizing counties that failed to send all of their post-recycled trash for WTE incineration. As it stands, he says, “hundreds of thousands of tons of compostable and recyclable resources are getting burned every year in Maryland, destroying dollars and jobs, because composting and recycling would produce more local jobs than either landfilling or incinerating.”

Galli harbors hopes that a bill to repeal the Tier 1 designation for WTE will arrive in Annapolis, or perhaps a measure that would “move it back to Tier 2 over time,” where it will not command the preferred credits that Tier 1 renewables do, “or maybe have an efficiency standard that plants would have to meet to be eligible for Tier 1.” In the meantime, Galli says he’d like to see the legislature pass a measure similar to a Delaware law that prohibits the siting of new incinerators within three miles of homes, schools, or hospitals.

Such a law would stop EA’s Fairfield plant in its tracks. But in Frederick, a long-proposed WTE plant appears to be on the rocks even without restrictive legislation. It has been in the works since the mid-2000s, and early this year received its permit from MDE—but then, in April, Carroll County, which had signed on to be a 40-percent partner in the project with Frederick County, decided to pay a $1 million penalty to withdraw from the deal. Now, come July 31, Frederick County could follow suit without penalty, according to a recent editorial in the Frederick News-Post.

“If we had to bet,” the editorial states, “our money would now be on this highly controversial project not going forward. If it plays out that way, it will be due in large measure to those many in the community who worked long and diligently to expose the weaknesses in this plan, the financial liability that Frederick County could incur, and the many health, safety and environmental issues they believed it presented.”

Carroll County, Galli explains, “has commissioners who are politically conservative, but they became advocates against the incinerator, saying how unwise that investment was, that we don’t have to do this, do some of these other things, like reduce, recycle, reuse, instead. Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

“It’s a sleeping giant, though,” Galli continues. “Companies continually suggest and propose to build these things, and you have to be in these battles for the long haul, because the companies have the ability to keep it going at a slow pace.”

As for the EA Fairfield project, Galli says, “Free Your Voice is making great inroads,” and “the company floundering the way it has has added to the idea that this might not be the way to go.” Kolberg, meanwhile, suggests that, thanks to FYV, it’s EA that should be worried about what lies ahead.

“If I were Energy Answers,” she says, “I’d know I’m in it for the long haul, because these kids ain’t going away.”

The Oyster Counters: On the water with the scientists on Maryland’s 75th annual Chesapeake Bay oyster survey

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 11, 2014

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It’s dark outside, and the pre-dawn Monday morning traffic in Baltimore’s Harbor Tunnel is light. I just made a mad dash out of bed, into my truck, and to the ATM and gas station, thinking I’d overslept to make a timely 7 a.m. arrival for my date near Taylor’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I was to jump on a boat with a host of state-employed oyster experts. As I emerge from the tunnel and head toward Interstate 97, I glance at my phone—oh, right, the clocks changed back over the weekend. Knowing I’d be early, I slow down, put on the cruise control, relax to some tunes, and start to think about oysters.

The men I’ll be meeting carry on what they and others have been doing for 75 straight years: conducting Maryland’s annual oyster survey, a running measure of the size and health of Maryland’s wild population of Crassostrea virginica, better known as the Eastern oyster, the only oyster species in the Chesapeake Bay. From aboard the 48-foot, diesel-powered research vessel Miss Kay, they dredge samples of oysters off their colonies, or bars, from the same locations all over the Bay every year, and sort, count, and measure the catch, saving some to take to a lab to study for disease, and putting the rest back overboard. After a few months, the resulting data ends up released and summarized in the widely anticipated “Maryland Oyster Population Status Report.”

When the survey started in 1939, Maryland watermen landed more than three million oysters; in 2013, the commercial harvest was 341,000 oysters—about a tenth of the historic take, but the largest in a dozen years. The survey has yielded good news in recent times, as the incidence of disease among oysters has been low and their survivorship high, though the measure of their reproductive success—the amount of “spat,” or baby oysters growing on shells—has been uneven. The generally positive trend tentatively indicates a depleted fishery on a bit of a mend, a sign that nearly 200 years of regulation of the fishery, and significant modern public investment in recovery efforts, are bearing some fruit.

As Eric Schott, a University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science biologist at University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, told me over the phone recently, the oyster survey is “seeing historically low disease rates with high recruitment rates, and this last year was really a blockbuster,” trends that he attributes to “oyster restoration efforts that are fantastic now.”

I’m hungry and under-caffeinated, but determined not to hit some franchise along Route 50 East. So I hold off as I leave Cambridge, faithful that there will be a stalwart back-roads survivor that serves the locals as I head westward on Route 16, which, as the convenience stores and housing tracts give way to farmland, pine stands, and salt marshes, eventually becomes Taylor’s Island Road.

Sure enough, as the sun starts casting a few dim rays on the tops of the pines, I come across a roadside building that houses both a U.S. Post Office and the Woolford General Store, where a big sign outside advertises kits for growing your own Chesapeake Gold oysters, sold by an aquaculture outfit in nearby Hooper’s Island. This reminds me of a simmering cultural and economic conflict between traditional Maryland watermen, who rely on healthy wild stocks to make their living, and a new breed of science-savvy oyster farmers, whose caged stocks form manufactured reefs on leased stretches of bay bottom. The watermen tend to see the rise in oyster aquaculture as an unsightly threat to their freedom to fish, but the ecological benefit of live oysters, the more the better, is hard to argue against: Each full-grown one can filter many gallons of water a day, helping to cleanse the bay’s polluted waters and thereby boosting the fortunes of all its fisheries.

A couple of dudes in camouflage and wearing muck boots are walking out of the Woolford General Store, carrying coffee and brown bags as they get in their lift-kitted pickups. Inside, munching on bacon-egg-and-cheese-on-ryes and watching the political ads on the local TV station, I note the wares for sale: guns, fishing equipment, beer. I’m less than 10 miles from the strip malls of Cambridge, and only about 90 miles from Baltimore, but places like this remind me how rural much of Maryland is. A rooster crows nearby as I get back in my truck to leave.

Heading west from Woolford, the road crosses the upper reaches of Madison Bay, Woolford Creek, and Parsons Creek, where dead pine trees at the edges of the salt marshes stand as testaments to one of the many changes the Bay’s habitats are undergoing: The intrusion of brackish water from inexorable sea-level rise is killing off the pines at the edges of marshes. A bald eagle lights from one of them as I drive by, and I remember past trips to Taylor’s Island, when, while kayaking, I drifted close by as dozens of eagles feasted on huge rockfish, too busy using their talons to tear apart the fish flesh to be bothered by me. The dead pines apparently make good habitat for hungry eagles, as they can perch atop them and watch for passing fish.

Slaughter Creek Marina, where I’m to meet the oyster-survey team from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is providing a temporary berth for the Miss Kay, but it’s the permanent home of Palm Beach Willie’s Restaurant and Bar, an unlikely Key West-style party spot in a tiny community that boasts a population of 174. I’m quite early, and totally alone, so I change into my foul-weather gear, sip my coffee, and wait. The Miss Kay is at a slip, basking in the rising sun, amid a spare combination of working boats and yachts that bob in the wind-driven waters of the marina. Finally, right at 7 a.m., a white pickup truck with state-government license plates arrives, and two men get out and walk the pier to the Miss Kay. They seem not to notice me, so I tentatively follow.

“You the reporter?” asks Dave White, the pony-tailed, clean-shaven captain of the Miss Kay. He’s wearing a U.S. Navy cap and khakis and he and his mate, Thomas Wilson, are busying themselves with starting the Miss Kay’s engines, booting up the navigational systems, getting a pot of coffee going, and preparing the deck for a day of work on the water. I try to stay out of the way, feeling very much the landlubber despite my bright-yellow nautical attire.

Soon, the scientific team arrives: leader Mitchell Tarnowski, head of monitoring and assessment for DNR’s Shellfish Division; two biologists who work under him, Robert Bussell and Mark Homer; Chris Judy, the former Shellfish Division director who now runs a DNR citizen-involvement aquaculture program called Marylanders Grow Oysters (MGO); and Steve Schneider, also with MGO. Tarnowski, Homer, and Judy have known one another for nearly a quarter-century, while Bussell’s been around with them for about a decade, and Schneider joined in four or five years ago, Tarnowski explains later, calling Homer the “old guy” and Schneider—the only beardless one of the bunch—the “newbie.” All of them, it becomes apparent over the course of the day, enjoy the kind of in-the-field camaraderie that grows from mutual respect earned over time spent in their common cause: understanding and trying to heal the bay’s struggling wild oysters.

This is “probably the longest-running oyster survey in the country, if not the world,” says Tarnowski, adding that its 75th anniversary makes it “sort of a special year for us.” He also points out that “you came out on a good day,” because “two of the most knowledgeable guys on oysters in Maryland” are on board: Judy and Homer. Judy’s MGO program—which promotes the placement of caged oysters off waterfront property, strictly for their ecological benefits, not for eating—is “going like gangbusters,” Tarnowski explains, and Homer has a Ph.D. and has been “working on oysters for 25 years,” so “you’ve got two guys who really, really know their stuff.”

 

The men wear hats, put on oilskins, and get work gloves at the ready, for warmth and protection from the cold, wet, dirty work ahead (except for the long-haired Homer, who goes bare-handed and hatless, wearing a green parka over his Orioles T-shirt). Bussell wears nothing on his feet but Teva-style sandals, and, faced with remarks about what must be his remarkable circulatory health, quips that his toes “died years ago.”

“First station’s right out here,” announces  Tarnowski over the roar of Miss Kay’s engines, as he points up Slaughter Creek to an unmarked spot. “All right, let’s get going,” announces White from the helm, and starts to maneuver the vessel out of the marina.

Minutes later, White slows down the Miss Kay as Bussell, Wilson, and Schneider ready the power-dredge rig, which sits on the vessel’s stern and releases the dredge over its starboard aft. The first of the day’s data-gathering rituals is set to begin.

The dredge is a 32-inch-wide heavy-chain basket attached by lines to a powerful hydraulic winch. At 14 locations all over the Little Choptank River during the course of the day, it will be lowered onto the bar below and dragged for a short distance before being winched back up, filled with whatever was in its path. Once hoisted out of the water, the dredge will be guided back aboard, and, as it hovers over a platform fitted on the Miss Kay’s aft deck, Wilson will pull its release lever, causing its bottom to open and its contents to dump onto the platform.

Once a dredged batch of oysters is on the platform, Bussell uses two hands to scoop them into a half-bushel bucket, takes the full bucket to another platform on the port side, just outside the Miss Kay’s cabin, and dumps them out. Now, after buckets of bay water are poured over the oysters to give them a quick cleansing, the sorting, counting, measuring, and inspecting begin in earnest.

Judy, Homer, Schneider, and Bussell dig into the pile of oysters and start calling out things like “two markets,” “small box old,” “oh yeah, gaper, market gaper,” and “market spat,” as they plunk them into metal buckets. They also call out the names of other creatures found in the batch, like “mud crab,” “sponge,” “barnacle,” “mussel,” and the name of a small fish that Homer describes as “beautiful” and explains is “one of the few true reef fish that only live on reefs.” He releases it overboard, saying, “I don’t think he’s going to make it to the bottom, probably get eaten on the way down.” After separating larger from smaller oysters, the men use little plastic rulers to measure their length in millimeters, sounding out a chorus of numbers such as “98, 77, 82, 90,” and “92, 117, 106, 112.”

As his crew calls out their findings, Tarnowski sits nearby with a clipboard and a pencil, madly scribbling on a legal-sized sheet of paper that is printed with boxes, rows, columns, and checklists designed for the survey, turning the chorus of code words and numbers into meaningful data. He has an interesting and efficient way of marking out counts of 10: First he makes four dots, then he connects them with four lines to make a box, and finally he marks an “X” in the middle.

“We look at how many are alive, how many dead, their sizes, and fouling organisms like barnacles and crabs,” Tarnowski explains—as well as large numbers of “sea squirts,” ball-shaped organisms about the size of marbles that cluster around the oysters, and which Tarnowski says “are more closely related to us than they are to the oysters.” Market-sized oysters of 76 millimeters (three inches) or more are called “markets,” while “smalls” are less than market size and “boxes” are dead oysters whose shells have not yet separated from one another, indicating they died relatively recently–though there can be new boxes with clean shells inside and old boxes, which tend have things living in them. A “gaper,” Homer explains, is “a dead oyster that still has meat in it. You don’t want to smell it, very disgusting.”

Thus, an endemic oyster culture infuses the whole enterprise, as the terminology, Schneider explains, is specific to the survey, while the oyster bars sampled have names such as Cason, Ragged Point, Butter Pot, and Grapevine, says Tarnowski, that arose from age-old local traditions.

The oyster-eating tradition, though, is not universally shared by the survey crew. Judy, who opened up a couple for close examination over the course of the day, only likes them cooked, but Schneider happily slurps a raw one down, and recalls long-ago days in Louisiana when he could get them so cheap “you could make a meal out of them for less than 10 bucks, beer included. It’ll never be like that again.” They all seemed to like my description of a P.S. Mueller line-drawing cartoon I’ve always remembered, though, in which a man holds an oyster on the half shell, and the thought-balloon over the man says, “I wonder if it’s alive,” and the one over the oyster says, “I wonder if he’ll chew.”

 

After finishing up the tally at the Slaughter Creek site, White throttles up the Miss Kay and heads up the Little Choptank River toward the Cason bar, passing two large barges on the way, one bearing a crane and the other filled with fossilized oyster shells brought up from Florida. These are part of an ongoing, high-dollar effort by DNR to construct hundreds of acres of oyster reefs in the Little Choptank and two other tributaries, Harris Creek and the Tred Avon River, and all told the price tag could come to more than $70 million. At one of the Little Choptank sites the Miss Kay crew visits, fossilized oyster shells came up in the dredge, along with “marl,” the calcium-carbonate substrate in which the oyster fossils were embedded.

Local officials have questioned the oyster-reef projects, worrying that its potential future benefits come at the expense of current fishing. But perhaps a more fundamental issue is whether the Little Choptank and its tributaries, which are showing signs of a natural rebound thanks to being oyster sanctuaries where harvesting has been banned since 2010, are appropriate sites for reef-building, rather than other places where oyster populations have collapsed. I make the point that unproven investments made in places where success is likely, should they succeed, will enhance the public’s willingness to make similar investments elsewhere in places that have greater need. Tarnowski agrees, saying later that “other people have other opinions, but it makes more sense to get the momentum going to prove the concept, so we can get to the other areas that need it.”

Once at the Cason bar, a slight controversy comes aboard with the dredged catch: “hatchery spat,” they call it. Over about 1,600 acres of Bay bottom, the nonprofit Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) has planted about five billion baby oysters on shells, after they’ve been raised from seeds at the Horn Point Laboratory’s hatchery at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s campus in Cambridge. The ORP’s efforts have been quite successful—monitoring reports by University of Maryland’s Paynter Laboratory found survivorship among ORP’s planted spat to average around 35 percent over the past few years, much higher than in years previous—but an apparent breakdown in coordination between ORP and DNR’s survey team has resulted in hatchery spat being planted on part of the Cason bar.

“Generally speaking, it hasn’t been that much of a problem,” Tarnowski explains later, “but I was surprised that it was on Cason that they planted, because that’s one of our main bars.” The difference between natural spat and hatchery spat is easily spotted: “Hatchery spat tend to be clustered in large numbers,” he explains later, “and you can also tell by the shells, which are from shucking houses, so they have nicks on them. There are one or two oysters per shell in natural spat.” The issue can be cleared up, he says, with “a meeting of the brain trust” to avoid ORP planting on bars that are part of DNR’s annual survey. “In the beginning of the year, they just need to say ‘we’re going to plant here, here, and here,’” he concludes.

Another sample is taken at another part of the Cason, untainted by hatchery spat, and, after the sorting, counting, and measuring, Tarnowski is enthused, saying, “that’s a nice haul.” Overall, he says, the day’s survey is showing about 250 market-sized oysters per bushel dredged, and a bushel sold usually contains about 350 oysters, “so we can say roughly two-thirds is just oysters, and that’s very nice, so this river’s doing good. It’s coming back all on its own.”

Two years ago, Tarnowski continues, “we got a lot of spat, and we can see that they’ve grown up,” though “they’re not reproducing” like they did in 2012 and 2010. “Recruitment—that is spat set—was poorer than in previous years, but there’s very good survivorship, not many boxes,” he adds, and that’s “very encouraging” given that “this is a river where there was 92-percent mortality 12 years ago” due to disease.

 

Back in the Miss Kay’s cabin, while en route between locations, the conversation among these professional oyster counters tends toward the jocular and trivial. Killing time is an art form, and among these guys, with their long histories together, it’s been perfected.

Tarnowski asks who recorded the most popular version of Donovan’s song ‘Season of the Witch,’ and eventually gives up the answer: Steve Stills and Al Kooper on their “Super Sessions” release, and Homer points out that Jimmy Page played guitar on the original. They work out that the H.L. Mencken-inspired character in the movie version of “Inherit the Wind,” about the Scopes monkey trial, was played by Gene Kelly, that Stills’ accordion made a cameo in the Ridley Scott movie “Prometheus,” and that it’s strange that there are many people named “Viola,” but probably none named “Violin.” Tarnowski is a huge Joseph Mitchell fan, given the writer’s detailed journalistic treatments of marine-biology subjects, including oysters, while Bussell and Homer proudly recollect their work on a short video about the precipitous collapse of Maryland’s razor-clam population, a prized bait-fishery for crabbers, and especially reminisce on their creative use of music in it, including snippets from Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” I contribute my bit about how I once caught my very pretty cat carrying on amorously with a baby rat, and that it turns out there’s a scientific explanation for such oddball behavior on the part of the rat—but not the cat, who’s just incredibly dumb.

As the day wears on, the breeze eases and the temperature rises with the sun. At the mouth of the Little Choptank, James Island is visible, a shrinking, sinking island whose contours I mapped by kayak in 2007 and 2013, using a handheld GPS, showing it had lost 67 percent of its acreage in six years. It looks like it’s lost even more in the past year, as has the farm on Oyster Cove on the northwest tip of Taylor’s Island whose fields have been falling into the Bay in huge chunks, once again reminding me how real sea-level rise is. Nearby, divers are collecting oysters from the bottom, working off of two boats outside the sanctuary boundaries, and Judy remarks on the incredible dangers they face. As for the dangers the bay faces, Judy says he’s “an optimist. You got to just keep grinding and working, and there are setbacks, but hopefully we can get the job done.”

 

The oyster-recovery job has really only just begun, despite generations of earlier efforts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on it for the last 15 or 20 years, but its coordinated master plan for Maryland and Virginia, the latest draft of which was put out in 2012, calls for restoring 20 to 40 percent of the bay’s historic oyster habitat and protecting it as sanctuary. The cost, covering about 20,000 to 40,000 acres of habitat restoration in 19 targeted tributaries, is estimated to range from $2 to $8 billion. Citing scientific literature to provide a baseline for the hoped-for rebound, the Corps says the bay’s oyster abundance has dropped 92 percent since 1980, and 70 percent of its habitat has been lost in that time. It’s a big, big project, but it’s now begun: The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, signed in June this year, calls for 10 reef-building projects like the ones in the Little Choptank to be completed by 2025.

The Miss Kay heads back to the Slaughter Creek Marina, and I jump ship, as do Bussell and Homer. The rest, though, head back out to do a few more dredges on their way to Oxford, where they’ll drop off the bags of oysters they saved for lab work at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory, an oyster-studying facility run jointly by DNR and the federal government, to see if they are suffering from any diseases.

Though it’s too soon to say that setting up sanctuaries, planting hatchery spat, and building new reefs are actually leading to a self-sustaining and rebounding oyster population, what’s known so far about this year’s oyster survey—that, as Tarnowski puts it, “we’re still seeing good survivorship, but not much spat set”—indicates that it’s another decent showing, especially if the disease work, which won’t be completed for another couple of months, continues to show a healthy population.

 

Three days later, I talk to Tarnowski over the phone, and he’s again enthused at what the survey is showing. “We had a shit-load of oysters today on Harris Creek,” he says, “and also on Broad Creek, which is open to harvesting, including dredging. And on one bar at the mouth of Harris Creek, we saw 28 boats dredging.” Thus, what’s shaping up to be another good year for DNR’s oyster counters may also be another banner season for the watermen. And you know what that means: more Chesapeake Bay oysters to eat.

Aquageddon: A disappearing island shows what rising sea levels mean for the Chesapeake Bay

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2013

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My trusty handheld GPS helps keep me safe while kayaking, letting me know precisely where I am on a map. But bringing it along on kayaking trips, it turns out, can serve more than my own personal safety: It’s also a useful tool to map the land-devouring effects of sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay.

On April 21, 2007, I kayaked around James Island (pictured), at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The outing, for which I made camp at the nearby Taylor’s Island Family Campground, was part of my research for an article about exploring the Chesapeake Bay’s vanishing islands (“Wetlands,” Feature, May 23, 2007), about 40 of which oceanographer William Cronin had chronicled in his 2005 book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.

As Cronin pointed out, sea-level rise in the bay had been estimated at 3 feet per millennium until about 1900, but then, over the course of the 20th century, a 1-foot rise was observed-an acceleration that washed away at least three notable islands and was eating away at the rest.

As I circumnavigated James Island in 2007, hugging the shoreline as closely as possible while dodging fallen pine trees partially submerged in the murky water, my GPS recorded my route, laying it out like a bread-crumb trail on its map. In the end, I’d mapped the contours of the island’s shore-or, rather, the coastline of its three islets, since James is no longer a single island.

 

In 1914, J. Fred. Hunter of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) studied several of the Chesapeake’s fast-eroding islands near the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers, including James Island. After chronicling the land-loss facts based on available evidence, Hunter hazarded a guess: James Island “should disappear in about 150 years,” while adding the blanket caveat that “numerous other factors may enter to disturb the present conditions and rate of erosion.”

Interestingly, should James Island’s land-loss rate of the past six years continue apace, Hunter’s prediction that it will have vanished by 2064 would prove quite prescient. If it continues to lose about 67 percent of its acreage every six years, by 2064 only a third of an acre would remain.

Since I can’t paddle over land, and wasn’t willing to trespass on the Oyster Creek farmland to walk the edge of its cliffs with my GPS, it’s anybody’s guess how much of its acreage has been lost-and how much more will calve off into the bay in the future. But more will; as James Island’s destruction continues, the shore it protected from the waves will take ever-worse beatings and more direct hits by wind-driven waves.

Meanwhile, Hunter’s caveat in making his prediction about James Island’s disappearance-the “other factors”-recently entered into play. The fact that the Chesapeake region’s land continues to subside, thanks to a combination of long-term regional settling of the Earth’s crust after the glaciers last melted, starting about 18,000 years ago, and the more recent drawing down of groundwater as population swelled, only compounds the sea’s accelerating encroachment on land. And that encroachment, based on recent science, is becoming more and more worrisome.

In a paper appearing last June in Nature Climate Change, USGS researchers identified a 1,000-mile long “hotspot” on the East Coast between Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and just north of Cape Cod in Massachusetts – which includes the bay – where sea-level rise has accelerated at three to four times the global average over the last 20 years. This discovery was followed in October by a Geophysical Research Letters paper by a two-man, British-American team of oceanographers who found that the bay’s sea-level rise may have sped up from 1 to 3 millimeters per year in the 1930s to 4 to 10 millimeters per year so far in the 2000s. If the 10-millimeter high end holds true in the future, then the bay’s water will rise a little bit more in the next 100 years than it did in the 1,000 years prior to 1900.

In short, scientists recently started to detect a “hockey stick” shape to the sea-level-rise curve for the Chesapeake Bay, which would spell faster-arriving impacts from the already-expected inundation resulting from climate change. No wonder, then, that James Island’s land loss has been appreciably faster in the last six years than in the preceding period back to 1848. It’s just one example of a near-endless litany of anxiety-inducing repercussions that faster-rising seas are expected to have on the bay.

Stevenson, who says he first came to live on and study the bay in 1972, says that “when I first started talking about sea-level rise, people thought it was just sort of flat-it was increasing but it wasn’t accelerating. But now it is inflecting upwards, and that spells trouble. You just get much more erosion since the water level is higher and higher in the flood plain, and the wave attack is much, much higher, and places that once were underwater only a few hours a day get inundated much more of the day, so they just keep getting this wave action that just keeps beating on it. If sea level is inflecting upwards, then it’s all just going to happen a lot quicker than we had seen in previous centuries of sea-level rise. And that, in a nutshell, is what a number of us who are concerned about sea-level rise are worried about.”

Not surprisingly, such worries have been getting high-level attention.

On Dec. 28, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed an executive order that, had it been read at the time by Marylanders trying to enjoy a holiday break from their routines, would likely have caused some to choke on their eggnog.

It’s purpose was dry enough-that state agencies incorporate the risk of inundation from coastal flooding and sea-level rise into all planning for future state-capital projects, that agency construction projects be built at least 2 feet above the 100-year flood line, and that additional recommendations for safely building or renovating state structures in light of sea-level rise be devised quickly. But its preamble-the “Whereas” section-cited the recent USGS “hotspot” study to tick off a list of current and anticipated problems sea-level rise entails. Among them were:

-“The State of Maryland is currently losing approximately 580 acres every year to shore erosion.”

-“Alarmingly, thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost.”

-“Future changes in sea level threaten to increase the State of Maryland’s vulnerability to storm events, causing more shore erosion and severe coastal flooding, inundating low-lying lands, submerging tidal wetlands and marshes, and resulting in additional salt-water intrusion, and high water tables.”

-“The State of Maryland has approximately 450 existing State-owned facilities and 400 miles of roadways within areas likely to be impacted by sea level rise over the next 100 years.”

-“Billions of dollars of investments in public infrastructure will be threatened if the State of Maryland fails to prepare adequately for climate change.”

In the neighboring state of Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell (D) got into the act in January, with a “state of the state” address that envisioned a future so threatened by rising seas-and especially the hurricanes that come with them-that the time has arrived to do triage on what can and cannot be protected. Calling last fall’s Superstorm Sandy a “wakeup call,” Markell said that Delaware must start “strengthening dikes and dams, conserving wetlands, improving drainage, or nourishing beaches,” but “the need for this infrastructure exceeds the resources available,” so the state must have a “frank conversation” about how to “prioritize and finance projects, so that we protect what we can and make realistic choices about what we cannot.”

There have long been such frank conversations about restoring the bay’s vanishing islands with dredging spoils, 3 to 4 million cubic yards of which are scooped out of the bay’s channels each year to keep the Port of Baltimore accessible to ships. Since 2006, James Island has been one of the islands selected to be built back up this way, as part of something called the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration Program, which would provide new uplands and wetlands as wildlife habitat and also recreate a buffer to help protect the Little Choptank River coastline from ongoing loss of land. But other than studies-many of them have been conducted, providing a wealth of details about James Island’s history, ecology, and geology-there’s been no further action.

The project is “unfortunately stalled,” says Maryland state Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-District 37B), who represents several bay-facing Eastern Shore counties and strongly supports the program. The reason, she says, is that it relies on “federal money that has not been dedicated other than to planning.” Still, she stresses the need to “shore up those islands” to provide a buffer for communities and landowners to the east.

“The longer we put it off,” she says, “the more expensive and harder it is to rectify.” She says that on Hooper’s Island, just south of Taylor’s Island, “gravesites have been going into the water” and notes that “it’s amazing, the cliffs that have been created” by the gouging action of the waves hitting the shore.

At Taylor’s Island Family Campground, owner Bruce Coulson has a front-row seat to the damage wrought by sea-level rise. He and his group, the Dorchester County Shoreline Erosion Group, have long promoted ways to reduce the force of the waves pounding the shoreline in these parts so the bay’s increasingly ravenous appetite for nearby land will be slowed. He has good reason: The bay’s been stealing away his land-though not as fast as it’s been taking it from other nearby landowners, thanks to the huge chunks of concrete he’s placed along his shoreline. Each weighs 15,000 to 20,000 pounds, he estimates, yet the waves of Superstorm Sandy still managed to move them. Of the 15 acres of land that once comprised this parcel, 11 remain. “The other four is out there in the bay,” he says.

The land loss on Taylor’s Island and other parts of the Little Choptank River waterfront, including a lot of farmland, “just keeps adding pollutants and nutrients and sediments to the bay,” he says. “It’s terrible. It’s chewing off everything. You can sit there and do all you want to clean up the bay, but until you control something like this, you’re just not doing the job.”

One option, he says, is offshore breakwaters to reduce the force of the waves hitting the shoreline. Do that, he says, and coastal property owners might stand a chance to establish “living shorelines” that are being promoted as an environmentally sustainable alternative to lining the shore with heavy rocks. If there were breakwaters, which he estimates would cost about $70 million, based on studies from the late 1990s, “then you can probably put in your living shorelines up and down the bay, but you’ve got to stop that force from coming at you first.”

Another idea Coulson tosses out concerns the imminent problems at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, which since the 1920s has been holding back huge volumes of sediment that otherwise would have entered the bay. It is nearing capacity, and when it does, new sediments coming down the Susquehanna will simply enter the bay unimpeded, unless something is done. “They’re talking about dredging it,” he says, “and I’m thinking, put it all on barges and dump it off at James Island.”

“If you put that island back in there, you’ve built a breakwater,” Coulson says. Without it, he says, “when James Island is completely gone, up here at Oyster Cove it’s going to really nail us with the northwest wind. There’s farmland that’ll go, but what’s next is the road, and then the county’s going to have to spend a lot of money.”

Until something is done, though, Coulson’s campground will continue to take a beating, protected by the concrete chunks. Erosion has gouged out a cove just south of his property, and during a visit, a stiff breeze was slamming waves relentlessly into the roots of the adjacent pine forest. The bay’s water was thick and gray with sediment, which was being carried northward in discolored tidal currents as downed pine trunks pounded around in the surf.

This is what active, everyday erosion looks like, and it’s not pretty. It looks like what it is: pollution. As the seas continue to rise, scenes like this will become more and more commonplace along the bay’s shores, eating away land and further undermining the bay’s health.

Stevenson knows Coulson and says he “has a lot of good common sense, and he’s a good observer.” But Stevenson is not as sold as Coulson is that rebuilding James Island or building offshore breakwaters is a solution. “I don’t think we can solve it,” Stevenson says of the inexorable erosion caused by winds and waves carried by rising seas. While agreeing that the active loss of large amounts of farming may be a serious pollution issue for the bay-“there’s a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous associated with farmland,” he says, “and 30 acres has a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous that’s going into the bay, as well as the sediment itself that makes the water murky”-he’s essentially gloomy about the whole problem. “We might be able to protect some things and slow it down,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s a fix.”

The bleak outlook seems uncharacteristic for a man whose career has been dedicated to finding smart ways to reverse the long decline of the bay’s ecological health. Yet there it is: “I think that we’re just going to get submersion of land,” he says. “And we’re just going to see more open water.” He holds out a depressing fact for consideration: “We’ve looked at how much marsh is being formed versus how much we are losing-for every 10 acres that we’ve lost, we’ve only gained one over the last 30 years. I’m pessimistic.”

The very real prospect of climate change driving sea-level rise at a quickening pace, and more so in the bay than most other parts of the world, has Stevenson very worried, and he wonders about the wisdom of attempting to concoct technological fixes for the symptoms rather than treating the disease, which he says is clear: the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, in the modern era. “If you really look at the expense for the whole Eastern Seaboard and maybe part of the Gulf Coast” for preparing for more rapidly rising sea levels, “it’s maybe better to do something about containing greenhouse gases. But that argument doesn’t seem to have much resonance.”

Major hurricanes – not like Isabel in 2003 or Agnes in 1972, but ones like the one that stormed up the bay in 1938 and is etched in the Eastern Shore’s collective memory – are what make Stevenson “pull my hair out with worry,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time” before one hits, he says, “and it really will be formidable. There’s a lot of places that now exist that won’t. Baltimore is not immune either, with the surge amplified as you go up the bay. It may come in at 3 to 5 feet at the mouth of the bay, and reach 10 feet as you get up to Baltimore. Sea-level rise keeps adding to your base water level, and then you get the storm and what used to be a problem is now a mega-disaster.”

The technological fixes for that kind of threat are truly huge public-works projects, he says, and he has at times brought them up, “arguing that maybe we really start to think about a tidal gate” across the Patapsco River. “That’s what it’ll take, if you really want to keep the infrastructure that you’ve got around the Baltimore harbor, especially if we get this acceleration in the sea-level rise,” he continues, “but it’s billions of dollars for something like that, and then you have Annapolis and Norfolk to worry about too.

“We’re on the edge of a major change, I think, and it’s almost getting to be inevitable,” he continues. “Even the bay cleanup, I think, is at risk, because you see all the pollution just from the erosional processes that we’re going to have to take care of, even more so than in the past, and I don’t know if we can really spend that much money on it. I don’t know what the willingness to pay is to keep the bay in good shape, as global warming and sea-level rise really has a major, growing impact, and I think it’s going to get harder and harder to control the forces we’re unleashing.”

Like most people, Stevenson says he “would like to leave something for the next generation, and I always thought that we could make a big dent here, in terms of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.” In the early 1980s, when the bay cleanup program really got into gear, “I thought at that point, Well, they’re probably a little trigger-happy, trying to do too much too quickly. But I thought we had a chance to make a dent. After 30 years, I’m not so sure right now. I think sea-level rise is going to bite us in the ass.”

By the time that happens, James Island will likely have already been bitten out of existence. As long as it’s still around, though, its shrinking, sinking acreage can serve as a reminder that, at the very least, people and leaders around the bay need to prepare for an increasingly inundated future.

Wetlands: Exploring the Shrinking, Sinking Islands of the Chesapeake Bay

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, May 23, 2007

Taylor's Island House 7

The white strip along the Barren Island shoreline looks like a sand beach nestled in front of a stand of pine trees, a perfect place to rest after the two-mile crossing of Tar Bay by kayak from the Eastern Shore’s Upper Hooper Island. Upon arrival, though, the beach turns out to be an eroding, wave-battered heap of old oyster shells that’s been spread along the island’s edge. The Chesapeake Bay has been licking away at the shell mound, unearthing its contents. Ten minutes of beachcombing yields a handful of weathered pottery shards and an arrowhead with a broken-off tip, likely artifacts of the Nanticoke Indians who once feasted here. Not bad for a brief and unexpected treasure hunt.

In time–a time that’s likely not far off–the treasures of Barren Island will be buried again, this time a yard or so beneath the surface of the bay. The island is going the way of Atlantis, sinking in rising seas like the rest of the Chesapeake coast. Scenes of destruction are dramatic where land is swallowed up in big bites: remnants of old buildings and bulkheads succumbed to storm and tide, forest edges tumbling directly into the bay, small soil cliffs formed at the water’s edge where fields and salt marshes surrender chunks of acreage to Neptune. This inexorable process, seen up close from the low-lying comfort of a shallow-draft paddling craft like a kayak or canoe, is eerily fascinating.

At Barren Island, which has historically lost an average of five acres a year, the seas have claimed tracts that the maps still show as part of the island, and visitors can paddle over what had been land just prior to the last heavy storm. The land loss here and elsewhere along the bay, seen firsthand from the water, is more palpable than on the many TV shows and documentaries that have been made about the effects of the Chesapeake’s rapid rise. One can literally reach out and touch the evidence, or stand on the bay’s bottom where, until recently, dry land had been.

Submerging islands like Barren and its northward neighbor, James Island (pictured), eventually will join sunken ones, like Sharps Island. North of James and a few miles west of the Choptank River’s wide mouth, Sharps used to house a hotel, a small farm, and a steamboat pier. For about 50 years now, the erstwhile island has been underwater, nothing but a shallow stretch of the bay marked on the charts as a nautical obstruction. (Which it is, judging by the 712-foot cargo ship that was stuck in Sharp’s shallow muck for a week this past winter.) Barren Island’s last human residents abandoned its farms, stores, school, and church a century ago; if nature continues its course, Barren, too, soon will be a patch of shoals.

A vessel, a destination, and a willingness to negotiate the logistics of getting there are all one needs for an outing to witness the action of the Chesapeake’s diluvial tendencies. The first part is the easiest for those who own or can borrow a kayak or canoe. Others must seek outfitters, a list of which can be found on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources web site at dnr.state.md.us/outdooradventures/guideeast.html. The last two parts–picking a destination and reaching it–are where the adventures begin.

William Cronin’s The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake is a good place to start when thinking about where to go. The book chronicles the histories of 42 bay islands as they’ve grown smaller and is illustrated with A. Aubrey Bodine photographs showing how things looked a half-century or so ago, more recent images of coastal destruction, and maps new and old to demonstrate erosion’s unrelenting hand. For more inspiration, Bodine’s books of photography, especially 1954’s Chesapeake Bay and Tidewater, are worthy companions when choosing a spot to head for. Having narrowed it down to an enticing destination or two, a copy of Delorme’s Maryland-Delaware Atlas and Gazetteer (Delorme.com, [800] 561-5105) will help pinpoint what roads to take to the closest boat ramp, and the location of a nearby campground to use as a base.

Once on the water, a portable, waterproof GPS device is useful. Not only can it (along with a handheld marine-frequency radio) serve as a crucial tool for nautical safety, but it will mark paths on its map screen to show the routes traveled. When kayaking around James and Barren islands, the GPS bread-crumb trails dotting the topographic map will appear largely over land. Paddlers using a GPS while hugging an island’s perimeter function as amateur cartographers, drawing its most up-to-date boundaries and thereby creating striking imagery of the impacts of sea-level rise on the bay’s coastline. Lacking a GPS, a nautical chart is an essential co-pilot.

The Eastern Shore’s Dorchester County is an obvious destination, as the effects of sea-level rise there are particularly dramatic. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is Dorchester’s main outdoors attraction, where extensive salt marshes are rapidly giving way to open water, and many old homes lining the county’s low-lying roads have been abandoned due to the Chesapeake’s intrusion. Just west of the county’s bay-facing shoreline are Barren and James islands, which are relatively easy to paddle to, weather conditions permitting.

Camping in Dorchester County is limited to three private campgrounds that mostly function as trailer parks, and two of them are on Taylor’s Island. Given its tiny marina–a mere notch on the coastline–the Taylor’s Island Family Campground ([410] 397-3275) is most convenient for a trip to nearby James Island, and it’s but a short drive to the put-in for paddling to Barren Island. Its small area for tent camping is in the marshy pine woods behind the last row of trailers, a short walk to the showers, a convenient store with a liquor license, a pool room, and a shack filled with video-poker machines. The most prevalent patrons here are beer-drinking men in baseball caps telling fish tales by fire pits, their boats nearby, hitched to pickup trucks. But paddlers are more than welcome to join in the fun.

The bay regularly beats up on Taylor’s Island, with land-moving equipment and piles of rubble along the campground’s battered bulkhead serving as reminders of the constant effort to hold back the tides. Just south of the campground, the coast is rimmed with pine trees fallen out of the woods hugging the high-tide line. North of the campground, miniature coves have been gouged out of the tide marsh by the lapping waves. At the end of the peninsula at the mouth of Oyster Bay, another mile northward, an abandoned, weather-beaten house is awaiting a storm to carry it away, and the farm fields next to it end at the water, with a sharp precipice: a smaller, darker cousin of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

Bald eagles seem to like this stretch of Taylor’s Island coastline. They perch in high, dead pine trees, or on a ramshackle pier near a crude duck blind, pulling apart rockfish. When visitors get too close, they fly off, wheeling majestically in the air. Eagles are so abundant here, they quickly become a dime a dozen, and a pair of diving loons soon surpasses them as a more unusual sight.

James Island is about a mile into the bay from Oyster Cove, and from that distance, it looks to be forested. Author William Cronin found that it had first been settled in the 1660s, when it covered 1,350 acres and was attached to Taylor’s Island, but as of 1998, James was split up into three small remnants totaling less than 100 acres. It’s even smaller today, as becomes apparent while crossing the passage to it at the mouth of the Little Choptank River. Its remaining pine stands are sparse, and a recent storm knocked many of them into the bay, their needles still green as they soak on their sides in the brackish water. Some of the still-standing trees are gray and dead. Where the island’s salt marshes have fallen away en masse, one can imagine that the embedded pilings and timbers at the edges are all that remain of what was once a pier. So little remains today that it takes an active imagination to envision the island as having been inhabited once.

One of the James Island maps available on-line at Maptech.com shows a cemetery, and Cronin reports that 20 families lived on James in 1892. But the burial plots likely are underwater now, or the grave markers have sunken into a marshy area. The remaining landmass is too small to support the Sitka deer population that was imported to James in the early 20th century.

Gunkholing the coasts of the three little islands that now make up James is a telling erosion tour, but also part of the story are former pieces of the island that are now submerged off the coasts. The waves washing over them call them to attention, and one, a couple hundred yards offshore, is extensive and shallow enough to stand on. A sand-and-shell crescent beach on the north-facing side of the middle remnant is a draw for picnicking locals, and for beachcombers it yields occasional pottery shards and “mermaid’s tears,” pieces of sea glass worn by the waves.

Barren Island’s storied history involves family farms and commerce, like James’ does, but adds the dash of modern politics. The late, long-term Maryland comptroller Louis Goldstein, who died in 1998, once owned the island, and former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel was entertained at the since-submerged Barren Island Clubhouse. Cronin’s book has two photographs of the hunting lodge, one taken around 1950, looking grand with two tall pines standing as sentries at the base of the wide staircase at its entrance. The other, taken in 1987, shows it collapsing into the bay. He reports that its foundation still lives on, underwater, though so much of the island is now submerged it is hard to say where to find it.

Barren, which is home to heron rookeries and is visited by scads of migrating ducks, is now owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal government has designs on Barren and James islands–a plan to save them from Sharp’s fate by building new bulkheads and filling the shallows behind them with dredging spoils from the Chesapeake’s shipping channels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last fall advertised its latest report on the plan, which would create a combined total of more than 2,100 acres of new land at James and Barren.

If the government’s plans end up forestalling the ultimate submergence of these islands for a while, Cronin’s book still describes 40 other disappearing bay islands to tour. Paddlers won’t soon run out of stops on an erosion tour. And someday, the rising tides will create new islands to explore in what today are uplands. In the meantime, the archeologically inclined can still try to claim those arrowheads before Neptune does.