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.