Opinion: Tangier Island needs Help no Matter how you Define its Woes by Tom Horton

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When I began a documentary film this year about climate change and the Chesapeake, I knew that even though local residents were affected by it, I’d never be able to record most of them talking about sea level rise.

They know what they see. And around Dorchester — Maryland’s lowest-lying county and the focus of our film — residents see erosion of the shoreline, high tides that seem to come more often and forests dying along the marsh edges.

It’s easy to talk past one another, we who are comfortable with the lingo and concepts of climate science, and those who are not — even while all talking about the same thing.

This was on my mind recently when my friend, James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier Island, VA, appeared on a CNN Town Hall with former Vice President Al Gore, one of the world’s foremost proponents of how humans are warming the planet.

Eskridge, who’s not convinced that this is really happening, was invited on the cable TV show because of a phone call he got earlier this summer that brought him in early from fishing his crab pots.

The caller was President Donald Trump. He’d heard about Tangier’s plight: battered by erosion that will soon spell its demise if it can’t find an estimated $25 million to $30 million to bulwark its Bay shore with rock. He’d also heard that the island of some 400 residents, with a culture harking back to 17th century England, had voted nearly 90 percent for him last November.

Ooker heard Gore out, but maintained: “I’ve lived there 65 years and I just don’t see it (sea level rise).”

I talked about the disjunct between the two men with Michael Scott, a colleague at Salisbury University and a professor of geography whose specialty is environmental hazards.

He and I are both in Gore’s camp on climate; but Scott has as good a feel as any scientist I know for explaining the nuances and complexities of such global, long-term phenomena at the level of the average citizen.

“I was upset that CNN portrayed (Eskridge) as this sort of pro-Trump nut job,” Scott said. Eskridge is not wrong at all when he says Tangier’s problem is erosion, the professor said, adding that it’s happening very quickly and is very noticeable.

“But there are really two processes going on and they are not separate,” Scott added.

The second process he refers to is sea level rise, propelled by a warmer climate that is melting glaciers. That’s exacerbated by land around the Bay sinking back to its original contours after being pushed upward by the glaciers that extended into Pennsylvania during the last Ice Age.

Add to that the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm and the potential slowing of the Gulf Stream that could back up more seawater in the Chesapeake.

Rising sea levels make erosion worse. But Scott’s not at all surprised that Tangier’s mayor said that he “didn’t see it (sea level rise).”

Sea level rise at this point, unlike erosion, “is happening very slowly,” coming up mere inches throughout Eskridge’s lifetime on the Chesapeake.

“It’s been slight enough up to now that it’s actually very difficult to measure unless you’re taking very precise scientific measurements,” Scott said.

But the overwhelming scientific consensus, he continued, is that the Earth’s temperatures have reached the point where a measurable acceleration in sea level is under way. In the Bay, it will add 2 feet or more to everyday tides by around 2050.

The forecasts for 2100 are less certain because we can’t tell how fast the massive ice sheets of Antarctica will melt. But estimates foresee everyday tides 5.5 feet above present levels, “and that’s probably on the low end . . . every time we look at it, it seems our estimates are too low,” Scott said.

A couple wrinkles disguise the coming impact further, he said.

First, it is quite possible for waters locally to shallow up as seas rise. In our filming, we’ve found examples of this in Dorchester County. The sediment eroding from shorelines and disintegrating marshes has to go somewhere, and it may fill in channels and other places where currents carry it.

The larger complication, Scott said, “is that sea level rise is not linear.” In other words, it isn’t going to happen steadily, inch by inch, over the years. That would be relatively easy to predict and respond to.

Unfortunately, the path to 2, 3, 5 or more feet of daily tide around the Bay is going to resemble a curve that steepens as average high tide levels rise.

“The trouble with an increasing curve is that for a while, things will seem as if they’re OK, but then the rate’s going to really increase and you’re going to lose the ability to adjust to it,” Scott said.

Helping localities around the Chesapeake adjust is where Scott’s passion lies; and he said we’re still at a point on the curve where we can act reasonably and cost-effectively.

“This (Delmarva) Peninsula is very precious to me and to my family . . . we want to preserve it for our children and we can do that if we are honest with what’s happening and with how we can try to respond,” he said.

He finds most people don’t care too much about why the tides and the erosion are getting worse, or about the politics of climate change.

“They want to know what is going to happen to them and what they can do about it,” Scott said. For many, the real threat won’t come in their lifetimes, and they aren’t likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars to jack up their houses.

The key he said, is to honestly acknowledge the threat and install public policies that over time guide “the way that development takes place, rearrange the way people build their homes, the way roads are maintained.

“And as we lose marshes we are going to need spaces on the landward edge for them to move into. . . . We’re going to need to buy the development rights to such places from the people who own them now . . . a very appropriate response.”

In low-lying places like Dorchester County, he said he thinks that “if we can get a hold of this in the next five to seven years, we have time to fix it that way. If we wait, then we will be in crisis mode, and things are going to happen in a very shocking and upsetting way.”

As for Tangier Island, it won’t make much difference now whether Mayor Eskridge and his townspeople vote yea or nay on closing coal-fired plants to reduce the long-term buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Tangier needs rock, pretty soon, and no change in energy policies is going to change that.

Even the best seawall at Tangier is not the same as a dike, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and realistically isn’t going to happen. Even less likely are Trump’s assurances to Eskridge that his island would persist for “hundreds more years.”

But a seawall would buy time for another generation or two of Tangier residents to continue the island’s unique culture and heritage, time enough for hundreds of thousands of us to visit and enjoy that — a reasonable investment in my opinion.

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

Maryland Oyster Season Opens with Bad News – Harvest Last Season down 42 Percent

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The public oyster harvest season began Monday, with Chesapeake Bay watermen no doubt hoping for a better haul this fall and winter than last. For Maryland watermen, though, there isn’t a lot of room for optimism.

Despite mild weather last winter, Maryland’s 2016-2017 harvest from public oyster bars was off nearly 42 percent from the year before, a steep drop from the modest decline seen the previous two years. Last season, 1,086 licensed watermen harvested 224,609 bushels of bivalves, down from a 384,000-bushel catch in 2015-2016, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Chris Judy, DNR’s shellfish division manager, attributed the harvest decline last season to lower “spat sets” of juvenile oysters since 2012, the last year in which there was good recruitment or reproduction. Spat sets since then have been poor to middling.

Disease made a dent as well last season, at least in some areas. Intensity of Dermo, one of two parasitic diseases afflicting oysters, rose last year above the long-term average for the first time in 9 years and was the highest since the last major outbreak during a drought in 2002. The survey found elevated intensities from Pocomoke Sound north to the Wye and Miles rivers. Dermo-related mortalities also increased in some areas.

MSX, the other parasitic oyster disease, increased in prevalence on bars where it had been found previously, reaching a level 20-fold higher than what it was three years ago.

The DNR team that conducts annual surveys thought that the state’s oyster population last year had reached a crossroads, either pausing briefly before continuing to recover or on the cusp of another major decline. “Only time — and weather — will determine which direction Maryland’s oyster population will take,” the 2016 fall oyster survey concluded.

In Virginia, by comparison, harvest from public bars slipped 5 percent last season over the previous season’s take. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission tallied the harvest from public oyster bars at 246,000 bushels in 2016-2017, down from 259,000 bushels in 2015-16, according to Laurie Naismith, spokeswoman for the commission. The higher salinity of Bay water in Virginia tends to yield better oyster reproduction.

Maryland’s public oyster harvest season runs through March 31, 2018, while Virginia’s extends into April. The busiest portion of the oyster season will kick off Nov. 1, when harvest methods in Maryland expand from hand and patent tonging and diving to include power and sail dredging in designated areas of Calvert, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary’s, Talbot and Wicomico counties. Virginia’s public harvest is limited in early fall to the use of hand tongs and “hand scrapes,” a rake-like device; the fishery expands in November to include patent tonging and in December to power dredging.

Of course, for many consumers, the concept of an oyster “season” has blurred, if not faded altogether, as aquaculture has gained strength in the Bay. The output of Virginia’s private oyster farmers, who harvest bivalves year-round, has matched or exceeded the public oyster harvest most years. In Maryland, the growing but still fledgling industry produced 64,609 bushels last year, up from around 50,000 bushels in 2015.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

PA legislator’s bill to privatize cleanup gets mixed review

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A Pennsylvania lawmaker wants Keystone state municipalities struggling with Chesapeake Bay mandates to let private industry take care of it. He says for-profit companies can get the job done better and more cheaply than government can. Others, though, are not so sure.

State Sen. Richard Alloway II, a member of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, introduced the Clean Water Procurement Program bill in June. It would require 850 municipalities under orders to reduce their stormwater pollution to pay $500 million over 10 years into a state-managed fund.
That fund would be used to pay private entities for making nutrient reductions to bring Pennsylvania into compliance with the federal “pollution diet” for the estuary.

“I have a fundamental feeling that government shouldn’t be shelling out money or doing the work,” said Alloway, a Republican who represents several south-central counties. “Government has been doing that for years, and we’re still behind. The private sector is going to provide the solution with technology.”

Alloway’s bill is one of several introduced in Harrisburg this legislative session that seek new strategies for financing water-quality improvements in cash-strapped Pennsylvania, which has cut environmental programs even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly warned the state that it was missing pollution reduction milestones.

Bills similar to Alloway’s have been introduced without success at least three times since 2013, all at the behest of Bion Environmental Technologies. It’s one of two companies that have built state-financed pilot projects in Pennsylvania intended to reduce farm runoff. Alloway acknowledged that the bill he introduced this year was drafted by Bion, though he bridled at critics’ suggestions that it’s a bailout for the company.

Bion and another company, EnergyWorks, underwritten in part by state loans, installed systems on two large farms a decade ago to demonstrate technologies that can convert nutrients in animal manure into marketable byproducts. The projects were touted at the time as a way to keep animal waste from fouling streams and the Bay, while also generating economic benefit. And the nutrient reductions themselves were to be salable to others required to reduce their pollution.

At the time, Pennsylvania was also developing its first nutrient trading program, initially intended to help municipalities save money on costly upgrades to wastewater treatment plants by paying farmers to curb their runoff. Advocates of the projects said the state loans they got would be repaid with income from nutrient “credit” sales.

Equipment in the floor of Kreider Farms’ dairy barn collects manure. Unable to generate sufficient revenue, the project to convert cattle waste into energy and other byproducts has shut down. (Bion Environmental Technologies)

Bion, though, is in default on the $7.8 million state loan it received to build a manure treatment system on Kreider Farms, a large dairy operation in Lancaster County. The facility has been shuttered for three years, a move Bion CEO Dominic Bassani said was needed to stop losing $25,000 a month in operating costs.

EnergyWorks also fell behind on repaying at least $11 million in state financing to build its $40 million system at an egg-laying facility near Gettysburg. EnergyWorks has renegotiated the terms of its loan and continues to make partial payments.

The two large pilot projects were betting on selling nutrient credits for $8 to $10 per pound to pay back their state-funded loans — but nutrient credits have traded at a fraction of that for the last seven years. Wastewater treatment plants were expected to buy most of the credits, but many chose to upgrade their plants instead.

“Our facility was created as a nutrient credit generator; it was not an afterthought or part of the process,” said Patrick Thompson, president and chief executive officer of EnergyWorks Group, who supports Alloway’s bill. “This is an implicit public-private partnership. We went into this [believing] that we would create a public good. And it was up to the state to create a market for this public good.”

Bion CEO Bassani said he doesn’t see Alloway’s bill as a municipality-funded bailout. Rather, he said it gives cities and towns an affordable alternative to costly projects aimed at reducing stormwater pollution. “We’re offering nutrient reductions for less,” he said. “You’re reducing such a small amount and spending a fortune. Until you can figure out how you’re going to solve this problem, stop the spending. This is taxpayer money.”

As written, Senate Bill 799 would tweak the Pennsylvania nutrient trading program with an influx of new buying power — $50 million a year — garnered from communities required to reduce polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots. Stormwater pollution is the only source of the Bay’s nutrient problems that continues to grow.

Alloway and Bassani argue that instead of investing in costly infrastructure projects, municipalities can meet their nutrient-reduction obligation by paying to have farms deal with their animal manure. By “buying” nutrient credits for practices on farms, the municipalities would be absolved. Companies like Bion and EnergyWorks would bid to get 10-year nutrient-removal contracts.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors opposes the bill, accoreding Elam M. Herr, the group’s assistant executive director. “As written, there are too many unknowns,” Herr said. Many municipalities have invested heavily in meeting their state and federally imposed stormwater control requirements. They’re also mandated to reduce sediment as well as nutrients, he said, which is not a pollutant currently covered by the state’s trading system.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation blasted a similar bill two years ago, saying it “threatens to derail current clean water restoration efforts and divert critical funding from proven science-based practices, while favoring proprietary, corporate-backed and costly manure technologies.” But B. J. Small, spokesman for the foundation’s Pennsylvania office, declined to comment on the current bill.

PennAg Industries Association, an agricultural trade group, recently wrote a letter to Alloway supporting the bill — but with a long list of questions and clarifications needed for full support. “PennAg supports the use of technologies as one of the approaches for the Commonwealth to utilize. However, there is not one standalone solution which will generate all the necessary results for Pennsylvania to meet the Bay obligations,” wrote Christian R. Herr, the group’s executive vice president.

One of the bill’s most vocal critics is David Hess, former Department of Environmental Protection secretary, who now represents the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. He contends that Alloway’s bill is too narrowly drafted, and that it would funnel more taxpayer money into specific high-tech agricultural projects. He said that he, and his clients, have problems with that.

“We need to work with Senator Alloway and others to bring more private capital to family farms to make up for the deficit in state funding,” he said, “ “but instead of bringing in a system that would benefit one technology and one solution, we encouraged him to look at these other alternatives instead of high-cost high technology.”

Alloway’s bill, which has just four co-sponsors, is pending in the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, where it’s expected to get a hearing in the next few months.

He said the bill is just a starting point, and he has invited environmentalists, farm interests and municipalities to help revise it. But he insists that private enterprise be involved, and that it have a dependable source of revenue.

“You’re never going to meet your goals by appealing to businesses to do things for the good of the environment,” he said. “When businesses do something, they do it for the good of the bottom line.”

By Donna Morelli, Bay Journal News Service

US House Moves to Keep EPA from Enforcing Bay Pollution Diet

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In a move that environmentalists charged would undermine the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this month to bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against any state in the Bay watershed that fails to meet pollution reduction goals set by the EPA six years ago.

The measure, an amendment to an EPA and Interior Department spending bill put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, passed Sept. 7 by a largely party line vote of 214 to 197. On Sept. 14 the House passed the omnibus spending bill by a similar margin.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–VA)

Three GOP House members from Pennsylvania — G.T. Thompson, Bill Shuster and Scott Perry — joined Goodlatte in introducing the amendments. Goodlatte, whose district includes most of the Shenandoah Valley, has pushed unsuccessfully before to block the EPA from enforcing its Bay “pollution diet.”

The 40 House members whose districts include a portion of the Bay watershed split nearly evenly on the controversial issue – 19 voted for it, 18 against, the latter including six Republicans. The Bay watershed delegations in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia overwhelmingly supported curbing the EPA’s authority, while those from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware did not. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, who would have opposed the amendment, was on medical leave and missed the vote. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-VA, also missed the vote. And Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District, does not have a vote.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Goodlatte said his amendment was needed to prevent a “federal power grab” over the Bay cleanup effort. “My amendment stops the EPA from hijacking states’ water quality strategies,” he said. “It removes the ability of the EPA to take retaliatory or ‘backstop’ actions against the six states . . . if they do not meet EPA-mandated goals.”

Goodlatte said that Congress had intended for states and the EPA to work collaboratively to carry out the federal Clean Water Act. But in the Obama administration, he added, “every state in the watershed has basically been given an ultimatum — either the state does exactly what the EPA says, or it faces the threat of an EPA takeover of its water quality programs.”

But Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said Goodlatte’s amendment would strip the federal-state restoration effort of needed accountability just as water quality is improving. She pointed out that the states had all agreed, after failing to meet earlier voluntary cleanup goals, to work toward the pollution reduction targets the agency set in 2010.

“However, only EPA has the ability to enforce the agreement in the event that a state fails to meet its commitments,” Coble said. “By suspending this backup enforcement authority, the Goodlatte Amendment threatens the viability of the [cleanup plan].”

The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution as called for in the 2010 plan. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials have warned they’ll take “backstop” actions. Those can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller livestock operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants.

The EPA briefly withheld nearly $3 million in grant money from Pennsylvania in 2015 after finding the state lagging badly in curbing farm runoff and stormwater pollution. The money was restored, but the agency has since warned the state it may take additional actions if it doesn’t do more to meet its pollution reduction goals.

The EPA’s authority to enforce its “total maximum daily load,” or pollution diet, for the Bay, was challenged in federal court by farming and building groups. They were joined by attorneys general for 22 states — including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, now the EPA administrator — who feared that the Bay pollution diet might inspire similar federal pressure on states to deal with nagging water quality problems elsewhere, particularly in the massive Mississippi River watershed. District and appellate courts upheld the agency’s authority in the Chesapeake case, though, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to review those decisions.

The House has yet to take a final vote on the spending bill, which would provide $31.4 billion in fiscal 2018 to fund the Interior Department, EPA and several other agencies — restoring many, but not all, of the sharp cuts proposed by the Trump White House. The Senate also is still mulling its version of the bill, which could differ markedly from the House’s.

Environmental groups have said they will urge senators not to go along with the Bay amendment. It’s far from clear if the two chambers will be able to agree on the overall budget, a standoff that would effectively kill this restriction on EPA.

MD Septic Pollution Lawsuit Cleared for Trial

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A Caroline County judge has ruled that a former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground to unchecked septic pollution, will have her day in court.

In early September, Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen denied a motion by the town and the state to dismiss the case, saying that a jury needed to decide if either bore responsibility for the pollution to Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on the 100-acre property that Gail Litz used to own.  The judge has yet to set a trial date.

In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department closed the campground’s lake to swimming, citing unsafe fecal coliform levels in the water, which were traced to failing septic systems in nearby Goldsboro.

That same year, the town signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledging that residents’ septic systems were failing. The order outlined a schedule for the town to install a public sewer system and said Goldsboro would be fined $100 a day if it did not comply.

The town never undertook the wholesale fix, and the state didn’t enforce the order. In 2010, Litz lost her property to foreclosure and filed a lawsuit, alleging the town and county’s negligence cost her the property.  She asked for $7 million in compensation.

Campen wrote that the “most significant and overarching disputed fact” in this case is whether, and to what extent, the pollution of Lake Bonnie continued after the 1996 consent order. “This factual dispute must first be resolved by a jury before other factual or legal issues can be addressed,” the judge wrote.

For seven years, across various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long to file suit.  The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for the MDE contended that they could not force Goldsboro to pay.

Those arguments prevailed in lower court hearings, but in February 2016, Maryland’s highest court said that the state’s failure to enforce the consent order could be viewed as “inverse condemnation” if Litz could prove it was the septic pollution that caused her loss. The case was sent back to Caroline County Circuit Court for a trial.

A trial was all Litz has wanted since she filed the lawsuit seven years ago. After losing her home and lake, she moved in with her son and his family in Florida, and worried that she wouldn’t have any inheritance to leave them.

“I just want responsibility taken and my children and I to be compensated,” she said. “No one can replace the home we loved and treasured.”

This summer, as the case went before Campen after the town and state filed to dismiss it, both began raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE attorneys spent much of a July hearing questioning how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town. They pointed to other possible sources, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions.

Meanwhile, Goldsboro’s attorneys, who had always argued the town could not afford the fixes, said the town was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks because they were private and fell under the county health department.

In 1985 and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted down a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but at that point, the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it. The cost to Goldsboro residents: between 39 and 62 cents a day, according to Litz’ lawyer, G. Macy Nelson.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now uses the land as a private residence. Three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government funded a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant on Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year.

by Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.

Habitat: Getting Back Home by Liza Field

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How was your summer getaway?

“Trip from hell,” my neighbors reported.

They’d headed west to escape the mugginess, traffic, politics and heat of our Eastern states, hungry for clear mountain vistas, cool breezes, hikes and fly-fishing in Montana.

Instead, haze and heat met them. The warmed trout streams of drought-stricken Montana barely trickled. “We ate smoke for days,” they said. Wildfires surrounded them — even pouring smoke down from Canada.

They drove home dispirited, not just from the loss of so much North American forest, but the loss of a vision, the mirage of some last unspoiled refuge out there in a world that no longer exists.

A coworker’s family had fled in the opposite direction, to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for a similar escape from heat and traffic, for some ocean breeze and carefree birding.

But construction workers accidentally chopped a power line to their isle — the umbilical cord to human livability there — winking out AC and shuttering grocery stores.

Our denuded coastal areas, once cooler, covered in wildlife-rich forest and flanked by fish-filled tides, are no longer habitable for long without trucked-in food and refrigerated buildings.

It’s true nearly everywhere.

Sitting in inland-bound traffic, my colleague had time to ponder our profound dependence on a power grid that wasn’t needed by our ancestors, whose landscapes were cooler, edible, livable.

This fall they’re spending their vacation refund on making their own place more alive — converting some lawn to shade tree saplings, a garden and native shrubs for those migratory birds they’ve always traveled elsewhere to see.

And the smoked-out neighbors? Alarmed by the loss of so much western canopy and groundwater, they also decided to create a rain garden, to protect local groundwater, and begin converting portions of lawn to canopy.

I find this remarkable. The two summer getaways from hell each in fact opened a way out of hell on Earth. That way leads back home. And it’s a route recommended by a growing groundswell of younger environmentalists.

Emma Marris is one. This environmental science writer/speaker encourages people to get out and explore nature in their own imperfect realm.

“I try to get [people] psyched about the possibilities of whatever kind of space they have direct control over,” Marris says. “Their backyard, or the roundabout on their street. Or their window box, if they’re in Brooklyn.…There’s a lot you can do with fiddling with your garden and making it much more biodiverse.And if you want to get into it … you could be planting the plants that certain migrating birds and insects need.”

Marris, who is “more interested in joy than despair,” is tired of the doomed-Earth news that only makes humans want to run away from our own world.

Millennial conservationist Evan Marks has a similar return-to-home ethic: “I think, ultimately, it’s probably unplugging the phone, putting your hands in the soil and just becoming a citizen [of the] planet.”

After managing sustainable farms around the world, Marks felt a call to return home and stir life, hope and community in his native Orange County, CA. Gathering helpers, he turned an old house and dirt lot into what is now a thriving ecological refuge, teeming with young and old student volunteers.

Back in my Virginia mountains, water-quality advocate Tim Miller is also helping kids and adults to feel at home in nature — and to invite nature back home.

Miller quit his indoor teaching gig to get humans back outdoors. His goal is to stir up love for the homeland and awareness of how local landscapes influence the entire world downstream.

“I work to re-establish a connection that’s been frayed between people and the natural world,” Miller told me. “If we love something, we want to protect it … a great blue heron standing in a creek, fireflies dancing on a summer’s evening, a tree growing stubbornly out of a rock.”

This love also brings humans back to life and joy. “I’ve seen middle school kids squeal with delight the first time they hold a crayfish,” he said.

Miller regularly takes hundreds of middle-schoolers into their local Catawba Creek, alongside a local cement plant. They learn stream species and water quality basics, from that mountain stream to its Chesapeake Bay destination hundreds of miles east.

Many of these kids will never in their lives get to go see the Chesapeake Bay — or an ocean, for that matter. But you’d never convince them, giddily exploring their local creek, that they aren’t on a vacation in the exact place they want to be.

Liza Field is a conservationist, tree planter and ethics teacher in southwest Virginia.

Opposition Grows to Seismic Testing For Offshore Oil Reserves

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Scientists are worried that an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year that seeks to open large portions of the mid-Atlantic and other coastal areas to oil and gas exploration would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other species that occasionally visit the Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s order, issued April 28, would reverse a 2016 policy from the Obama administration that outlawed drilling in federal waters off portions of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. The order also instructed federal agencies to streamline the permitting process to speed approval of seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves in those areas.

But the action is increasingly unpopular with many elected officials along the East Coast. In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his opposition to further offshore exploration. And the attorneys general from nine East Coast jurisdictions — including those from Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Delaware — submitted comments opposing additional surveys.

“The proposed seismic tests are themselves disruptive and harmful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “Worse, they are the precursors to offshore drilling that would put the Chesapeake Bay at risk to drilling-related contamination. That contamination would have catastrophic impacts on fragile ecosystems and important economies. This is a foolish gamble with our precious natural resources.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is the lone Southeastern governor supporting marine oil exploration, saying he “never had a problem” with seismic testing. While 127 municipalities have passed resolutions against the tests, only five are in Virginia.

But coastal Virginians’ unease with seismic tests appears to be growing. In July, the city council of Norfolk passed a unanimous resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic testing, citing threats to marine life, local fisheries and wetlands that offer vital protection from rising seas. The previous month, the city council of Virginia Beach also voted to oppose offshore drilling.

The seismic testing has raised particular concern because of its potential impact on marine life. The tests are conducted by firing seismic air guns from ships “every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at a noise level that would rupture a human eardrum,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that was among 10 organizations that filed suit May 3 over the executive order. Among the plaintiffs’ contentions is that seismic blasts “could deafen and even kill whales, dolphins and other animals.”

The University of Rhode Island, in partnership with NOAA, has created a website called “sound in the sea,” through which visitors can click to hear what seismic air guns actually sound like when heard several thousand kilometers away underwater.

Cetaceans — whales and their relatives — use specialized echolocation for almost all of their activities, including hunting, migration, courtship and communication, but they are extremely sensitive to underwater sound vibrations, scientists say. Right whales, whose population is thought to number only around 500, could be at particular risk, they say.

Last spring, 28 top marine mammal scientists specializing in right whales signed a statement declaring unequivocally that for this species, already facing a “desperate level of endangerment,” widespread seismic surveys may well represent a tipping point toward extinction.

To locate new sources of undersea oil, companies employ compressed-air guns that blast powerful acoustic waves through the water and into the seafloor. Each seismic test can affect an area of more than 2,500 square nautical miles, raising background noise levels to 260 decibels, approximately equaling the epicenter of a grenade blast. This can go on continuously for weeks or even months, according to a 2013 report released by the international body carrying out the United Nations sponsored Convention on Biodiversity.

Scientists say potential harm is not limited to large marine mammals. The testing could also harm zooplankton — microscopic invertebrates that constitute the core of the marine food chain for everything from shrimp to baleen whales. In a June 2017 study published in the journal Nature, a team of marine ecologists found that their air gun tests decreased zooplankton abundance and caused a two–to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton. The study concluded that there was significant potential for negative impacts on the ocean ecosystem’s functions and productivity.

In May, 133 environmental and civic organizations sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him not to proceed with the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling and related seismic testing, citing “unacceptable risks” to ocean wildlife and ecosystems as well as human populations on the coast.

But Zinke followed up on the president’s executive order with an order of his own on May 11, setting the seismic testing in motion. “Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” Zinke said in a statement. “Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has also proposed authorizing more than 90,000 miles of active seismic blasting which, based on the results of the Nature report, would constitute “approximately 135,000 square miles,” according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Reflection seismology, as the geophysical exploratory process is called, uses concussive compressed air to send a sudden shock of sound beneath the ocean surface. Oil deposits can be detected by a geological interpretation of sounds, or reflections, that bounce back. Reflections are gathered and collated by floating hydrophones, also called towed arrays or streamers.

“When a mammal is exposed to an audible sound of high intensity and long duration,” said Maria Morell, a specialist in marine mammal acoustics in the University of British Columbia’s zoology. “The sensory cells of the inner ear can suffer mechanical and metabolical fatigue.” This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, she said.

The seismic testing, she said, just adds to the cacophony that Atlantic’s marine mammals endure every day, including everything from ship engine noise and military activities to acoustic deterrent and harassment devices.

Ingrid Biedron, a marine biologist with the conservation group Oceana, said that Trump’s call for offshore drilling may be difficult to enact under federal law. “Current proposals conflict with the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” she said. “They also conflict with the Endangered Species Act because several endangered whale species use the area proposed for seismic air gun blasting.” Citing a federal study, she said that as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed and up to 13 million disturbed if the seismic testing is allowed.

The recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Noise Roadmap recognizes that “sound is a fundamental component of the physical and biological habitat that many aquatic animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on over millions of years.”

By William H. Funk

William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.

Pilot Project planned to Dredge Conowingo Dam Sediments by Tim Wheeler

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Declaring the sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam a growing threat to the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday a pilot project to dredge up a tiny portion of the accumulated silt and sand.

Speaking at a press conference at the dam, Hogan said the state later this month would issue a request for proposals to dredge 25,000 cubic yards of sediment by next spring from the reservoir upstream of the hydroelectric facility on the Susquehanna River.

The intent, he said, is to pin down what it would cost to dredge massive quantities of sediment from the Conowingo “pond,” as the reservoir is called, and to find out if there are viable markets for reusing the material. He said that he hoped the project would help the state determine whether large-scale dredging is feasible — even though an earlier study concluded that dredging the built-up sediment would be costly and provide little overall benefit to the Bay.

Since its completion in 1928, the 94-foot high dam has been trapping millions of pounds of sediment, as well as the nutrients attached to the particles, keeping them from flowing into the Bay 10 miles downstream. But the pond has been slowly filling, and a study led by the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that it has reached capacity and now does little to prevent material from reaching the Chesapeake.

Another concern is that major storms, and even routinely heavy spring rains, can scour large quantities of the deposited sediment from the river bottom and flush it into the upper Bay.

“Much of our efforts to protect the Bay and safeguard our environment for future generations could be wiped out by the effects of one bad storm,” Hogan said. “Simply put, this is a growing threat which must be addressed.”

Hogan’s announcement came on the heels of a brief, invitation-only, closed-door “summit” about the dam at a nearby volunteer firehouse. The meeting, the second that Hogan has held on Conowingo, was welcomed by rural elected officials who’d been invited and have long complained that the dam is a bigger pollution threat to the Bay than almost anything coming from their portions of the watershed, including farming, septic-based development or stormwater runoff.

Charles D. “Chip” MacLeod, a lawyer for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a group of seven rural counties, most of them on the Eastern Shore, called the summit “total vindication” of its position that the sediment buildup behind the dam should be made a priority of the Bay cleanup.

“We’ve lost sight of the real problem,” said Richard Rothschild, a commissioner from Carroll County, one of the coalition members.

Others are not so sure. Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who was not invited to the summit, issued a statement saying that “while dredging could be a part of the solution” for cleaning up the Bay, the Corps study indicated that the most cost-effective way to reduce pollution coming across the dam would be to carry out more runoff control practices upriver.

Hogan, though, has aligned himself with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition’s position on the dam since he campaigned for governor in 2014, claiming that state and federal officials and environmentalists were ignoring Conowingo’s threat. He recently became chairman of the Executive Council that oversees the federal-state Bay Program restoration effort, which gives him greater clout to press his case.

The Republican governor said he was gratified that scientists have come around to agree with his position on the importance of dealing with the sediment behind the dam.

The scientific assessments, though, don’t exactly concur. The Corps of Engineers study found that between 2008 and 2011, only 13 percent of the sediment coming into the Bay from the Susquehanna was scoured from what had been deposited in the reservoir behind the dam. Even during Tropical Storm Lee in 2011, a major flood, only about 20 percent of the sediment that flooded into the Bay originated from sediment stored behind Conowingo, while the rest was flushed downriver past the dam without ever being deposited.

But the diminished trapping capacity of the dam does mean that more nutrients from up the Susquehanna are washed downriver to the Bay, where they contribute to algae blooms and fish-stressing low-oxygen conditions in the water. To compensate, the Corps study estimated that areas upstream of the dam would need to keep an additional 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and an extra 270,000 pounds of phosphorus annually from getting into the river. That would require a 9 percent greater reduction in nitrogen and a 38 percent greater cut in phosphorus from now to 2025.

Dredging the sediment and nutrient buildup from behind Conowingo would in theory allow the dam to trap more sediment, as has happened in the past. But the Corps study found that this would be costly and of limited benefit to the Bay. To restore sediment levels to what they were in the mid-1990s, the study estimated, 25 million cubic yards of silt would need to be excavated. The Corps estimated that could cost up to $3 billion. And unless the flow of sediment coming down the river is curtailed, the pond would gradually fill in again. Roughly 3 million cubic yards a year, or 1.5 million pickup truck loads, would need to be dredged annually to avoid losing ground. The Corps study estimated that could cost anywhere from $48 million to $267 million each year.

Clean Chesapeake representatives maintain that the Corps study was flawed. And in any case, they suggest some short-term actions are needed now, because Pennsylvania is lagging so badly in reducing its pollution to the Susquehanna. “It’s breathing room for the Bay,” said MacLeod, the coalition lawyer.

But a recently completed study by researchers with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found that phosphorus flushed past the dam along with sediment scoured from the reservoir “would not have a large effect on the Chesapeake Bay.”

The state last year issued a “request for information” seeking preliminary proposals for dealing with the sediment behind the dam. It received 13 responses suggesting dredging and other options for using it to treat soil or create building materials. Roy McGrath, director of the Maryland Environmental Service, said the request for proposals would be more detailed.

The federal-state Bay Program is re-evaluating the progress made to date in restoring the Chesapeake’s water quality, and is finalizing new computer modeling to project what more needs to be done. Meetings are planned this fall, and states are expected to begin drawing up revised cleanup plans next year. Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s environment secretary, said state officials hope the information gleaned from the demonstration project will help shape those plans.

“We’re going to keep our fingers crossed,” said Bob Meffley, a Cecil County councilman who was among the summit invitees. He said he lives on the Bohemia River which, like much of the Bay, is showing signs of recovery, with underwater grasses seemingly everywhere and crabs plentiful — “except when we get [heavy] rain.” he added. Then, he said, they don’t see anything, because of the sediment stirred up in the water.

Others in attendance at the summit saw the dredging demonstration as a minor step, but one still worth taking.

“What it represents is a sliver of the problem,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “It’s important,” she added, “because they want to see if they can engage the private sector in (finding) innovative uses (for the sediment), but what’s equally important is to recognize that 80 percent of the (pollution) load coming down the Susquehanna is from the upstream watershed and 20 percent is from scour.”

Cecil A. Rodrigues, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting mid-Atlantic regional administrator, said federal regulators are interested in seeing the results of Maryland’s demonstration project.

“We don’t care where reductions come from,” he said, adding that if the test indicates it’s feasible, it could be factored into future cleanup plans. But whether dredging is done or not, he said, upstream pollution reductions will still be needed.

Joel Dunn, president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a conservation group, who was also invited, praised Hogan’s move. But he said it should not take away from working to reduce pollution from upriver, while enlisting private as well as public involvement.

“The sediment behind the dam is a major issue and should be addressed in the most creative way possible,” Dunn said, “but perhaps more important is a focus on reducing future pollution from coming down the river, otherwise our children will be dealing with this same issue.”

In his press conference remarks, Hogan seemed to acknowledge that. He said that dealing with the sediment and nutrients behind the dam is “just one of many approaches we must take.” But he added that he considered it “an extremely important one.”

The demonstration project will be funded by Maryland, but Hogan made it clear that if it led to more dredging, he expected financial help and cooperation from Exelon Corp. the dam’s owner, as well as from the federal government and the states upriver. Maryland has held up renewal of Exelon’s federal license to operate the Conowingo hydroelectric facility, citing concerns about the impacts on state water quality of the sediment buildup.

“This is not just Maryland’s problem,” Hogan said. And in response to a reporter’s question, he said, “If it comes to that, we’ll file suit against the EPA and the upstream states.”

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

A John Smith Historic Discovery or a Double-Cross by Tom Horton

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Coastal geologist Darrin Lowery, among the Bay region’s premier finders of ancient artifacts, tells cautionary tales about how discoveries are not always as they seem.

There was the fork inscribed “Davy Crockett” that he found poking out of an eroding Delmarva Peninsula coastline, which turned out to be a 1955 Disney commemorative product, and a 4,500-year-old spear point penetrating a castoff Frigidaire. Go figure.

“Proving anything from the archaeology of a single day is virtually impossible,” Lowery said.

The two-and-a-half inch brass cross found on Mockhorn Island was determined to at least 400 years old, but later tests showed it contained an epoxy that wasn’t developed until 1937. (Dave Harp)

But then there came the blistering, buggy day Lowery and two colleagues virtually tripped over a small brass cross as they surveyed one of the Eastern Shore’s remotest shorelines on Mockhorn Island, VA.

If the little cross was what they had reason to think it might be, it would be one of the most significant archaeological finds made around the Chesapeake.

They found it on June 20, 2010 — 402 years and 17 days after Capt. John Smith sailed into the area near the Chesapeake’s mouth. A day out from Jamestown, Smith had just embarked on his famous voyages of exploration during the spring and summer of 1608 that literally put the Bay on the map.

Smith’s map, remarkably accurate by standards of the time, was further distinguished by showing where Smith had nailed up metal crosses to mark where he and his crew had actually explored.

Before this, none of the crosses had ever been found. According to the map, though, one such cross had been placed just south of the modern-day town of Oyster, which is just across a narrow bay from Mockhorn Island. For years, Lowery had been developing a hypothesis that Smith had not gone ashore near Oyster, as historians had long assumed, but a few miles east, on Mockhorn.

An authenticated John Smith cross where Lowery’s team found it would have dramatically boosted his theory. As Lowery would have been the first to tell you —though findings since the discovery have raised at least as many questions as they’ve answered.

Katherine Ridgway, the conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, shows a cross found at Mockhorn Island and the original X-ray she made that revealed the second hole in the cross’s base. (Dave Harp)

It was a compelling discovery. As a coastal geologist, Lowery knew the sandy barrier islands lining Virginia’s Atlantic coast are among the most dynamic of all landforms, changing shapes at the whim of storms, currents and rising sea levels on time scales as short as decades.

By dating marsh sediment cores, old oyster beds, dune soils and other features around Mockhorn and Smith Island just to the southeast, he was fairly sure that John Smith had sailed into a very different landscape than exists there now.

Back then, Smith Island (named for the explorer, unlike the Smith Island in the Maryland Chesapeake, which is named for an early settler) was shaped and oriented differently from today. According to Lowery’s research, deep water flowed up the eastern side of Mockhorn, where now it would be difficult to paddle a kayak. On the island’s western side, where a broad channel now separates it from the mainland, only a narrow, barely discernible opening existed in 1608.

By Lowery’s reckoning, Smith most likely came around the tip of Delmarva and ventured up the eastern, Atlantic-facing side of Mockhorn. The island’s forested ridges, shown on Smith’s map, would have prevented his landing party from seeing that it was separated by water from the mainland (that is, the Eastern Shore).

Darrin Lowery, right, discusses an artifact with Norm Brady in Lowery’s study. (Dave Harp)

But it all happened a long time ago, in a dynamic, ever-shifting environment. And other than the map, there is no record or description of the 24 or so crosses that Smith said he nailed up (or, in places, carved into tree trunks) throughout the Chesapeake and its rivers.

But despite Lowery’s published theory, and close to a hundred visits to Mockhorn, which is rich in artifacts from 13,000 years of human habitation, the geologist said he was never on a “cross hunt.”

“We were just doing coastal archaeology, surveys under contract to the state of Virginia . . . doing our business,” explained Norm Brady, a retired arborist and longtime sidekick of Lowery on his expeditions. “We’d kid about it sometimes: ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we found the cross?’ But not seriously.”

Then, in June of 2010, Brady recalled, he literally stepped on it. He was walking along the shore ahead of Lowery and another assistant, and never noticed the ancient-looking brass cross lying there. It was about 2.5 inches in height and width, blackened by exposure and showing the imprint where a barnacle had been attached.

Lowery, coming up behind, plucked it from Brady’s boot print. “They caught up and said, ‘Norm, you just stepped on John Smith’s cross’ ” Brady remembers. “I wasn’t happy because I’d broken it.”

Now, seven years later, Lowery often seems to wish he’d never found the cross. Even the moment of discovery that day in 2010, he explained, was not the “eureka” moment the casual beachcomber might assume.

“I guess after finding tens of thousands of artifacts over the decades, I don’t get excited much anymore, especially when I find an object that is outside of my knowledge base (i.e. historic vs. prehistoric),” Lowery said in an email. “As always, you have to go back home and put all the pieces together before you know what you have.”

Lowery notified Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, which agreed that he should seek to have it tested for possible authenticity. That was when things did get exciting, he said.

In 2011, testing by the Smithsonian Institution found that the cross was old enough to be from John Smith’s time. It was about half copper, a quarter to a third lead, mixed with tin, zinc and iron in lesser amounts. Subsequent research indicated it might even date to the 9th century — possibly a “pilgrim’s badge,” worn by someone making a religious pilgrimage. A hole in the top of the cross might have enabled someone to insert a metal ring and wear it.

Lowery was advised by Virginia officials to hold onto the cross. It was 2014 before he would turn it over to the state, which by law owns artifacts found on public lands like Mockhorn. More testing by Virginia’s historic resources department would confirm the Smithsonian’s finding about its age.

“We had people on both sides of [whether the cross was authentic], but it seemed a real possibility that it might be John Smith’s cross,” said Michael Barber, Virginia’s state archeologist. “It was exciting.”

Last October, though, that excitement turn into something that Lowery said he felt bordered on accusation. He and Brady were in Williamsburg to present results of contractual survey work to archaeologists. The day before, the two had uncovered some previously unknown archaeological sites on Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Brady mentioned to Barber that “he wouldn’t believe” what they had found.

“I probably won’t,” Barber replied, according to a lengthy account of the cross affair Lowery has recently published online, called “Coastal Geomorphology and the Search for John Smith’s First Landing Site.” Lowery said he thought the comment “odd, but I shrugged it off.”

Later that day, Barber showed Lowery and Brady an X-ray of the cross done as part of Virginia’s further authentication process. It showed a hole in the bottom of the cross, which had been filled, apparently to conceal it. The X-ray analysis determined that the bottom hole, the same diameter as the visible top hole, was as old as the rest of the cross. But what had been used to fill it was not. More tests had revealed the hole had been plugged with a mix of clay and a modern epoxy, invented in Germany in 1937 and still in use. In fact, epoxy coated the whole cross.

“The meeting took on the aura of an investigation,” Lowery wrote in his online account. He recalled that Michael Madden, a federal archeologist present with Barber during the discussion, advised him that “we know you have a lot of enemies in archaeology and you should find out who might have planted the metal cross.”

In an interview, Madden said, “[Being tricked] has happened to other archaeologists. People screw with people all the time, and archaeology is no different.”

Barber, in a separate interview, added: “All we can say for sure is the science was done, and the cross didn’t stand up as authentic. We’re done with it — time to move on.”

Lowery acknowledged that his “bubbly personality,” as he puts it, has rubbed some people the wrong way in the relatively small and sometimes competitive world of Chesapeake archaeology. “The one course I failed miserably in all my years of training” — he holds a Ph.D. in coastal geology — “was kiss-ass 101,” he said.

His friends will confirm that. “Darrin is from Tilghman Island,” said Brady, “and down there they say what they think, and if you’ve got an ego, you might get pissed off.”

Could someone have played a nasty trick? Brady and Lowery both think it’s wildly unlikely someone might have taken a John Smith era cross, cleverly altered it so that it would eventually be found a fake, and then actually have been able to “plant” it in a wave-washed shoreline zone on remote and inaccessible Mockhorn Island, so that it would be discovered that day.

“There was no one else in sight that day,” Brady said. “No one even knew we’d be out there looking then.”

Lowery wondered out loud in his online paper whether the cross might have been altered once it passed from his hands for testing. The Smithsonian appears to have no documentation of how it did its analysis, and the woman who did the tests retired soon thereafter to Boston. Brady says he was told she was ill, and his attempts to contact her have proven fruitless.

Katherine Ridgway, a conservator with the Virginia archaeologist’s office who handled the state’s analyses, says the Smithsonian testing was a non-invasive process (i.e. it wouldn’t have required drilling a hole or destroying a sliver of the cross). She said it would not have necessarily revealed the second hole or the epoxy.

The epoxy finding, she said, was made by Winterthur, a DuPont museum of decorative arts in Delaware that has “some of the best” facilities for such an analysis.

“Their finding is solid,” Ridgway said, “and unfortunately it means there is no way that cross can ever be linked to John Smith.”

No one has ever publicly suggested the almost unthinkable — that Lowery might have obtained and planted the cross, not knowing of the epoxy in it. He has always been a prolific discoverer of artifacts, and from time to time one hears that Lowery seems uncommonly “lucky.”

My own observation, based on trips afield with Lowery over the last couple decades, is that for both work and pleasure he spends more time exploring the region’s coastal edges than most. He uses his considerable expertise in coastal processes, such as erosion and sea-level rise, to deduce where Americans Indians likely ranged through the millennia. He knows where to look and when — after big storms have exposed new soils, for instance.

“I’ve asked Darrin, what is it he looks for to find artifacts — shapes, colors, textures.” Brady explained. “He basically seems to just integrate it all at once. . . . Sometimes I’ll try to fool him, bring him an artifact I showed him years ago, and he always recognizes it.”

Barber said that Virginia will hold onto the cross, “put it with the bottle caps and other detritus of history.” Lowery and Brady, who tried unsuccessfully to get it back for more testing, seem resigned.

“I’ve moved on,” Lowery said. “You find lots of weird stuff along the shoreline…let’s just call it that.”

By Tom Horton

Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.