Opposition Grows to Seismic Testing For Offshore Oil Reserves


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.

Where the Sun Is Shining on Solar in Kent County by Janet Christensen-Lewis


The proposed Urban Grid solar farm site on Morgnec Road near Chestertown. Photo Credit: Tyler Campbell

A pattern is emerging for several utility-scale renewable energy projects that are moving forward, or not, in Kent County.  The reason for the forward momentum or stall in all three seems to be the same: the willingness of the energy developers to cooperate with local laws and plans.  The score so far:  one positive, that is, project moving forwards3, one mediocre, and one negative.

Positive: OneEnergy’s Blue Star Solar LLC solar project in Massey is set to move forward after receiving final site plan approval from the Planning Commission. The project is located in a zone where utility scale solar energy generation is allowed. Washington College is currently negotiating to buy some of the energy produced. OneEnergy plans to install native plantings for increased water quality and has agreed to comply with Kent County’s Forest Conservation Ordinance (FCO). (This after the Public Service Commission (PSC) upheld the Public Utility Law Judge’s ruling on appeal that the company needed to meet the Power Plant Research Program (PPRP) condition of afforestation and compliance with the county’s FCO. The FCO is based on the state’s mandate under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) requiring anyone needing a major site plan (approximately 1 acre) to contribute to the reforesting of Maryland, regardless of whether trees are removed on-site.  The application of the FCA has benefits for the environment and Chesapeake Bay. OneEnergy’s project will have other direct benefits within the County while being in compliance with all local laws.

Two other projects proposed for Kent County have sought repeated suspensions of their applications for Certificates of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) with the  PSC, a necessary part of the process OneEnergy has achieved long since.

Mediocre: Community Solar, Massey Solar LLC, is also located in Massey within a zone where their project is an approved use. That’s a positive. Yet, this corporation has asked the PSC for another CPCN delay in its quest for exemption from compliance with Kent’s FCO, which the state’s PPRP has made a condition for receiving the CPCN. Instead of paying lawyers to carry on their battle to relitigate the PPRP’s condition, Community Solar should just decide to comply, get their site plan approved by the Planning Commission, their CPCN from the PSC, and start construction.

Negative: The other stalled applicant, Urban Grid, Morgnec Road Solar LLC, has plans for solar development on Kent County property zoned Rural Residential and Community Residential in the designated growth zone for Chestertown (with accessible water and sewer hook-up paid for by taxpayers). Urban Grid has proceeded despite opposition from Kent County, Chestertown, and Kent Conservation, all of whom have filed as interveners in the PSC case. The basis for opposition is simple. The project is direct violation of County zoning and it is not in compliance with either the county’s or the town’s comprehensive plan – the same reasons that Apex’s solar project in Chesterville was denied a CPCN by the PSC last January (as was a similar project in Allegany in February).  Maryland’s General Assembly has since added language to the PSC’s enabling law directing the PSC to give “due consideration” to “consistency of the application with the Comprehensive Plan and zoning,” buttressing existing language requiring consideration of the opinions of local government.

Urban Grid’s requested delay for another 90 days in order to dress up its project with another redesigned landscape plan (we note that Urban Grid hired a Virginia-based company for their plan, not a Maryland firm, much less a local one) does nothing to explain how the fundamental issue is to be resolved, namely that industrial, utility-scale solar at this location does not comply with local plans and zoning.

We can now also report that the myth of job creation post-construction by renewable energy projects in Kent County can be put to rest. In a report on Urban Grid’s similarly sized project in Queen Anne’s County, the company stated, “no fulltime employees would be required in its operation.”

Meanwhile 143 rooftop and on-farm solar projects have been registered in the PJM GATs (Generation Attribute Tracking System) since Massey Solar, LLC first filed their application in November 2015. PJM is a regional electric power system based in Pennsylvania and serving 13 states and the District of Columbia.

Janet Christensen-Lewis

Chair, Board of Directors

Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance

Sky-Watch August – The Great Solar Eclipse of 2017 is Almost Here! Monday Afternoon, Aug. 21, 1-4 pm


Monday afternoon, right here in Maryland, weather permitting, you can see the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017, though it won’t be completely total here. In Maryland, it will be about 83% but still it should be a fantastic sight. The eclipse runs from about 1:18 pm until 4:00 pm.  The peak of the eclipse will be at about 2:43 pm. Remember not to look directly at the sun unless you have purchased special sun-viewing glasses, ordinary sunglasses aren’t enough to prevent eye damage.  After 4:00 pm, the eclipse will be over.  Don’t miss it!

The first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States in 99 years will occur (August 21st, Monday).  Though only about 5% of the surface area of the United States falls along the path of totality (the line of the Moon’s shadow), millions of us will gather along that path to witness one of God’s greatest wonders.  My wife and I and two college friends have planned to meet in Tennessee along that path to see it, and each other.

What happens for a solar eclipse, is that the Moon passes directly in front of our Sun and blocks all of its light for a period of from one to seven minutes.  The August 21st eclipse will have a totality period of 2 minutes and 41 seconds maximum.  The reason for the short length of totalities is the fact that the Moon is small and casts a small shadow (only about 165 miles in diameter).  The reason we do not have eclipses every month is that the Moon orbits us in a path that varies by about 5 degrees to the Earth/Sun line (our orbit around the Sun).  The geometries of all these motions establish “eclipse seasons” which are six months apart, and which drift 11 days earlier each year.  Another pattern involving eclipses is the Saros, which even ancient Greeks and Babylonians noted.  Exact eclipse conditions repeat after 18 years and 11 days.  One particularly long eclipse of nearly seven minutes in Baja California on July 11, 1991, was followed by another 6 1/2 minute totality eclipse on July 22, 2009.

There will be no eclipses at all in 2018, one in Chile and Argentina in 2019 and again in 2020.  In 2021 Antarctica will see one; 2022 has none at all, and in 2023 an eclipse of only one-minute totality hits a remote region of Mexico.  But on April 8, 2024, an eclipse of 4 minutes totality will pass over several large cities in the USA, starting in Texas and going northeast over Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.

For those of us who stay in Maryland, the eclipse will still be seen, but no amount of totality will be visible.  It will start here at home at 1:18 pm and reach maximum coverage at 2:42 pm.  83% of the Sun will be blocked, with the Sun looking like a crescent across the top of the Sun’s disk.  The eclipse ends, when the Moon passes completely away from the Sun at 4:01 pm.

Let me remind everyone that looking at the eclipse, THAT EYE PROTECTION IS NECESSARY TO AVOID DAMAGE TO THE EYES.  Sunglasses are not enough.  Approved filters and special sun-viewing glasses are required.  These can be ordered online.  With 83% of the Sun blocked, also take a look around you and notice the reduced light on the ground and look for odd shadows of crescents on the ground as sunlight filters through tree leaves.  But look often during the afternoon over the 2 3/4 hours of the passing of the the Moon over the Sun.  Watch it advance and retreat over that period of time.  But again, the eclipse in Maryland will not be fully total.  You must look with approved eye protection.  Not just sun glasses.

While the eclipse will only be total over a narrow strip of the US, the sun will visibly darken over much of America.
As far north as Massachusettes the eclipse will cover up to 70-80% of the sun.  To the south, the sun in Florida will be 80-90% covered.

Sky-watchers should also remember that August gives us 31 nights of worthy celestial sights in addition to the eclipse.  Jupiter dazzles in the southwest sky after dark and does not set until 11 pm.  Saturn also rides up in the southern sky some 30 degrees above the horizon and offers wonderful views for those who have telescopes to use.  The summer Milky Way, when our line of sight in the evening is toward the galaxy center gleams as our eyes scan from the southern horizon up and over toward the northeast, passing from Sagittarius, through Cygnus, and on toward Cassiopeia.  This is especially delightful to see when using binoculars.  Venus is 20 degrees up in the eastern sky before dawn and unmistakable at –4.0 magnitude.  On August 19, it sits just above a very thin crescent Moon.  And the Perseid meteor shower, always one of the year’s best peaks on the early morning of August 11 and 12.  Even though the bright waning gibbous Moon will be in the sky then, the Perseids are bright meteors, and we should still be able to see some.  Look northeast anytime from midnight to dawn.

            The one thing we cannot plan is the weather.  A cloudy sky will change all our plans for viewing the eclipse on August 21, but we still look forward with great anticipation and hope for clear skies.  May it be so!

Pilot Project planned to Dredge Conowingo Dam Sediments by Tim Wheeler


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.

Teachers Investigate Human Impacts by Land and Sea at Pickering Creek


“Every time I do a workshop with Pickering Creek it’s always diverse, interesting, and hands-on,” Cathy Bornhoeft, Environmental Science teacher at North Caroline High School, said after participating in the two-day Audubon Watershed Experience teacher professional development workshop this summer.

Now in it’s fifteenth year, the Audubon Watershed Experience (AWE) program, funded by Chesapeake Bay Trust, has connected thousands of high school biology and environmental science students to local conservation efforts on the Eastern Shore through hands-on and investigative in-class lessons and field experiences at Pickering Creek. Although the students are the focus of this successful program, another equally important and engaged group at the program’s center – teachers – experienced their own exciting and experiential AWE program this summer.

Environmental Science teachers from Talbot, Wicomico, and Caroline Counties look on as Dr. Dave Curson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon MD/DC, demonstrates a bird monitoring protocol

The theme of 2017’s summer workshop was “Investigating Human Impacts by Land and Sea.” Day One took place at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and focused on the impacts of rising seas on critical habitat for bird populations that rely on local salt marshes. Throughout the day, teachers from Wicomico, Caroline, and Talbot Counties played interactive games, practiced using data and scientific evidence to support arguments, and took home hands-on activities and resources to use in their classrooms.

Dr. Ariana Sutton-Grier, Director of Science for the Maryland/DC chapter of the Nature Conservancy and an Associate Research Professor at the University of Maryland, presented her research on “blue carbon” and salt marshes. In the afternoon, Dr. Dave Curson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon MD/DC, toured the teachers to several Refuge areas where Audubon is working closely with Refuge staff on projects to help local salt marshes adapt to a changing climate and rising seas.

With strong coffee in hand, the teachers started Day Two at 6:00 AM for a trip to the Chester River Field Research Station in Chestertown to experience bird banding up close. Maren Gimpel, Field Ecologist for Washington College’s Center for Environment and Society, toured the group around the 228-acre Chino Farms migration banding station; demonstrated how birds are caught, banded, and released; and shared research findings from the banding station’s records. Similar to Pickering Creek Audubon Center, Chino Farms has a long history of agriculture and a recent history of conservation and restoration efforts to improve and protect bird habitats.

Maren Gimpel shows teachers a recently banded Blue Jay at the Chester River Field Research Station

Using data collected from the banding station, teachers practiced a lesson investigating the impacts of weather, land management, and local habitat changes on Northern Bobwhite Quail and Grasshopper Sparrow populations. Following their morning at the banding station, the teachers boarded Washington College’s research vessel Callinectes for an afternoon on the Chester River. Emily Harris, Watershed Coordinator for the Chester River Association (CRA), demonstrated water sampling techniques for fresh and brackish water; discussed restoration, behavior change, and policy initiatives to reduce pollution; and introduced projects CRA works on with landowners, homeowners, and legislators to improve local water quality.

Teacher professional development workshops with Pickering Creek Audubon Center introduce teachers to new activities, resources, and lessons for their classrooms, and connect teachers directly with scientists working in the field. When asked what they found most valuable about the two-day workshop, one teacher commented, “Interacting with the scientists and hearing first hand the importance of the experiments they were conducting. This allows me to better explain these things to my students and show actual work.”

For more information on Pickering Audubon Center please go here


Bay Ecosystem: Lake Bonnie Pollution Saga back in Court


A former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground from unchecked septic pollution, will find out soon if she’ll finally get her day in court.

Last week, in the latest twist of Gail Litz’s 7-year legal quest, a Caroline County Circuit Court judge heard arguments from attorneys for all sides on whether to set a trial date for the lawsuit – or dismiss the case.

ce the central attraction of an Eastern Shore family campground, Lake Bonnie was ordered closed to swimming in 1996. The Caroline County health officer declared it contaminated with unsafe levels of fecal bacteria from failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro. (Litz family)

The litigation centers around Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on more than 100 acres of land that Litz’s family owned for several decades and operated as a campground. 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.

A brochure for ‘Lake Bonnie campsites’ promotes fishing, boating and swimming. Business fell off after the Caroline County health department declared the lake contaminated by septic pollution. A state order to clean it up went unenforced for decades. (Litz family)

But the town never undertook a wholesale fix of its system, 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.

Over the next seven years, in various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long under Maryland law to file suit. The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for 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.

Since then, Litz’ attorneys, Phil Hoon of Chestertown and G. Macy Nelson of Towson, said they have attempted to settle the case, and even brought Litz up from Florida — where she now lives — because they thought they were close. MDE attorneys Matthew Zimmerman and Patrick Smith declined to talk about the case, but MDE secretary Ben Grumbles said that he would like to settle it.

“We need to agree to the facts,” he said. “I want to move forward. I want to bring closure to this.”

But the state is now raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE’s attorneys at the July 20 hearing questioned how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town – and, by extension, on the state’s failure to enforce its consent order.

The MDE attorneys pointed to other possible sources of pollution, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm, which they argued could have contaminated the lake. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions — such as taking out a loan against the campground to make improvements to her home — and not because of contamination.

“The state denies that Goldsboro was the proximate cause. The data simply isn’t there,” Smith said.

Nelson, Litz’s lawyer, was incredulous, pointing out that the state’s consent order had blamed the pollution on Goldsboro’s septic tanks, as had the 1996 warning from the Caroline County health officer, who said that the town desperately needed a fix for its sewage problems.

“From the very first pleading in this case, the state admitted that the septic systems were a cause. They admitted it. Now they are reaching back into the past. You can’t walk that back,” Nelson argued.

Joseph B. Wolf, the town’s lawyer, said that the municipal government of the small community of 400 or so homes was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks. That obligation rested with the affected individuals, he said, and the county health department.

Judge Sidney Campen questioned how that was supposed to work. Wasn’t the town responsible for its residents’ systems? Did Wolf’s reasoning mean that “Lake Bonnie was used as a sewage lagoon for the town,” the judge asked, and the town was fine with that outcome?

Litz’s attorney responded and said yes. He recalled that in 1985, and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted against building a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it.

“They could have solved this problem for 39 cents a day, or if they wanted to be big spenders, 62 cents a day,” Nelson said. “They chose not to.”

Judge Campen told the attorneys he would take the arguments under advisement and reach a decision in a few weeks. At the end, he asked both parties about setting a trial date. A trial date was the very thing Litz wanted, but Hoon and Nelson said they take nothing for granted.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now maintains it as a private residence. And three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government finally came together to fund a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant in Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year. The state hopes eventually to extend the system to other nearby Caroline County towns with failing residential septic systems.

Litz waits in Florida for the judge’s ruling; after losing her Maryland property, she moved in with her children and grandchildren. She relives the memories of her campground through a Lake Bonnie Facebook page, where she posts updates on the case.

“I have been trying for over 20 years to get the pollution, human waste, stopped from being discharged into the stream feeding my former property,” she wrote recently. “I am still not a patient person. I am frankly mad that it was allowed to happen.”

by Rona Kobell
Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.

ESLC to Host Celebration of Recent Land Conservation Win in Cecil County


The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) invites the public to attend a celebration and tour of OBX Farm – the site of a recent 460-acre land conservation easement that will eventually be transferred to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and turned into what will be called Bohemia River State Park. The event will take place on Wednesday, August 2, 2017 from 5 to 7pm. This is a free event.

Guests will be treated to refreshments, tours, and inspirational words regarding the acquisition by ESLC Executive Director Rob Etgen. The prime agricultural land, which also contains riverfront access to the Bohemia, as well as a rich network of riparian forests and tidal/non-tidal wetlands, sits just off Rt. 213 in Chesapeake City.

ESLC asks that guests RSVP for the event by emailing Owen Bailey at obailey@eslc.org or calling 410.690.4603, ext. 0.

“Over the course of the past 27 years, ESLC has been involved with literally thousands of Eastern Shore farms. OBX Farms is truly one of the most beautiful we’ve ever assisted in preserving!” said ESLC Executive Director Rob Etgen. “This purchase will keep the land open, free from future development, and most exciting of all, available to the public for generations to come. ESLC is incredibly proud to play a role in this important legacy.”

The acquisition of OBX Farms was fully funded by Program Open Space, which preserves natural areas for public recreation, and watershed and wildlife protection across Maryland. The Board of Public Works unanimously approved the acquisition in June.

For more information, please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165.

Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit land conservation organization committed to preserving and sustaining the vibrant communities of the Eastern Shore and the lands and waters that connect them. More at www.eslc.org.

Bay Ecosystem: Tangier mayor hopes that Trump Call leads to a Seawall


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

James “Ooker” Eskridge (left), mayor of Tangier, gives Col. Jason Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District, a tour of the island in late 2016. Kelly came to brief the town on the status of the Corps’ projects around their island.

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

Trump offered such reassurance after seeing a CNN report about the island, home to about 400 souls, many of whom trace their roots to three families that arrived from England in the 1600s. CNN’s Jennifer Gray reported that 87 percent of the island voted for Trump. Eskridge said he loved Trump “as much as any family member I got.” If Gray saw Trump, Eskridge pleaded, let the president know they needed help.

“You talk about a wall? We’ll take a wall. We’d like to have a wall all the way around Tangier,” Eskridge said in the CNN clip.

He didn’t mean a barrier against illegal immigration. The island had been waiting close to 25 years for a seawall. They probably don’t have 25 more. Every hurricane season, residents pray that the coming winds and tides will not destroy their home. In 1989, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a wall to protect the island’s west side and its airport, and that has held back the waters. But the east side, which includes the island’s busy harbor and most of its homes, is exposed. Neighboring Smith Island in Maryland, the Chesapeake’s other inhabited isle, has expansive marshlands as partial buffers and has received close to $20 million in state and federal aid for bulkheading and erosion control. Tangier has neither natural protections or government money.

Now they’ve got a new problem: political backlash.

After Trump’s call, people started phoning the mayor’s office, the town restaurant, even the ferry service. “I hope you sink!” one caller said. “You’re racist,” said another. “We’re going to boycott you!”

“I don’t understand it,” Eskridge told me when I interviewed him after the call from the White House. “They don’t like [Trump], and they don’t like you if you support him, and we got a taste of it . . . . Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump, but it’s because we’re asking for help to save our island, which is only natural to me. I would expect anyone to try to save their home.”

Indeed, Tangier has helped others save theirs, collecting money for hurricane relief and even sending firefighters and boat captains to disaster areas. Never once, he said, did the islanders question whether those places were worth saving.

Eskridge, for the record, does think the climate is changing. He sees it every day. He is “not totally convinced” that it is caused by humans, and believes erosion, rather than rising sea levels, is to blame for his island’s receding shoreline. Eskridge said he likes Trump because he thinks the president is looking out for the little guy and is willing to cut red tape. For a man who has been waiting 25 years for the government to build a seawall, that seems like a good deal.

It’s not particularly enjoyable to have strangers call you at home and accuse you of racism. It was especially painful for Eskridge who, with his wife, adopted four girls from India. Watermen typically name their boats after their daughters. Eskridge’s skiff is called the Sreedevi.

“People make comments about us. They don’t know us. They don’t understand us,” he said. “If we disagree, or we have a different way of thinking, that’s no reason to hate somebody, or wish him dead.”

Three years ago, one of my daughters and I spent three days on Tangier, much of it in the company of Eskridge aboard the Sreedevi. He took us to his crab shanty, and to the “Uppards,” another town on the island that was abandoned in the 1920s. He could name every bird we saw, discuss their range and list their food sources. He even has a pet osprey that returns to his shanty every spring. As we strolled the Uppards, Eskridge marveled at how the U.S. government could spend billions on rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, but had no money for a U.S. town.

There was a time, said Northampton County planner Curt Smith, when Tangier’s problem seemed scalable. But now, Miami, Norfolk and New York City are all contending with serious sea-level rise, and they are all competing for the same limited federal resources.

In 2015, I helped organize a tour of Tangier Island for journalists. Just before we left, Eskridge told them he did not believe sea-level rise was happening, and was not sure human beings caused climate change. I’d heard the same refrains in other vulnerable Eastern Shore communities, including Toddville, Saxis, Crocheron and Taylor’s Island. Their residents didn’t want to talk about ice melt or glaciers or coal-fired power plants or greenhouse gas emissions. They just wanted someone to help them get the water out of their yards.

Scientists overwhelmingly disagree with the islanders’ assessment of climate change and sea level rise. But as far as what these communities need is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether erosion or rising water is to blame. The solutions are the same: Build a wall now, or figure out how to make an orderly retreat and settle elsewhere. The most important question isn’t what the Tangier islanders believe; it’s at what point the costs rise too high to save them.

It might seem to be the easiest solution to give up now. Indeed, a columnist for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot suggested as much: Just give every resident $8,000 — the cost of the seawall divided by the 400 residents — and call it a day, he argued.

The scientists and planners I interviewed in my sea-level rise reporting don’t advocate for such a mass evacuation at so low a price. Zoe Johnson, a coastal planner for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that if a community is going to retreat, it should be orderly, planned and their idea. Though not as populous as they once were, Tangier and Smith islands are still vibrant communities. They’re not ready to give up. They’re trying to re-invent themselves as tourist destinations, particularly for nature-lovers. And, Johnson said, we should do what we can to help them stay as long as it’s feasible.

Tom Horton is a Bay Journal columnist who lived on Smith Island for three years and wrote a book about his experience, An Island Out of Time. Now environmental writing professor at Salisbury University, he brings his students to Tangier to meet with Eskridge. Horton has great affection for the islands. They need to be saved, he says: for the nature held within and the culture they sustain.

Give Ooker his rock, Horton said. How much could it cost? Twenty five million? Fifty? It’s worth it. But his students aren’t so sure. That’s because, according to the scientific predictions, Ooker’s rock won’t protect the island until the end of their days; it will, at best, buy them one more century. At what point, they ask, are too many Ookers asking for too much rock? At what point are they all going to run out of time?

Many would point out that, in supporting Trump, Eskridge’s island voted against its own interests. The Trump administration has proposed multiple cuts to government agencies that deal with climate change and help communities adapt to sea level rise. If what you do is more important than what you believe, Eskridge might have struck out on both counts: a president who neither believes in sea-level rise, nor is willing to push for the funding to shore up the island suffering from the one-two punch of rising waters and battering erosion.

But the fact is, when it comes to Trump, little is predictable. With rumors of a visit from Marine One swirling, there is hope that maybe Trump will make an exception for the island that embraced him. A man of faith, Eskridge chooses to believe.

After all, he told me: “I didn’t call him. He called me.”

by Rona Kobell

Bay Journal staff writer Rona Kobell is a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

Rock solid: Oysters Abound on Restored Reefs in Harris Creek


You may not be able to get blood from a stone, but it appears you can get a lot of oysters.

Biologists checking reefs restored in 2013 in Maryland’s Harris Creek found the vast majority crowded with oysters, according to a new report. And those reefs built by piling granite rocks on the creek’s bottom had four times as many oysters clinging to them, on average, as did any of the other reefs that had been treated.

The report, released this week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) provides further evidence that the controversial effort to restore oysters in Harris Creek is meeting advocates’ expectations, at least for the time being.

Of 30 reefs surveyed last fall, all but one had at least the minimum hoped-for density of oysters growing on them, while 80 percent reached or surpassed the restoration goal of hosting 50 or more bivalves per square meter, the NOAA report said. Densities among reefs varied, but those built with stone bases had the most by far, averaging more than 200 oysters per square meter.

“You’re looking at densities there that the Maryland part of the Bay has not seen since there have been oyster harvests,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He called it a “spectacular demonstration” of the viability of alternative materials for rebuilding reefs when oyster shells are not available.

Harris Creek, a tidal offshoot of the Choptank River, was one of the first areas selected for large-scale restoration in Maryland, and work was finished there in 2015. Restoration is under way on two other Maryland rivers, the Tred Avon and Little Choptank, as well as in the Lafayette, Piankatank and Lynnhaven rivers in Virginia. The 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement calls for rebuilding oyster populations in 10 tributaries by 2025.

Harris Creek is the largest project so far. About 2 billion hatchery-spawned baby oysters were planted on 350 acres’ worth of reefs in Harris Creek, an area covering roughly 8 percent of the tributary’s bottom.

“Restoration at this scale just hasn’t happened before,” noted Sean Corson, acting head of NOAA’s Chesapeake Bay office.

Corson said that monitoring done by NOAA and other partners in the Harris Creek project offers preliminary evidence the experiment is working. The results reported this week echo findings by NOAA last year that all of the initial batch of reefs built in the creek, which had been seeded in 2012, had the minimum density of shellfish established by scientists. Half of those reefs had met or exceeded the target level of 50 bivalves per square meter.

“If your goal is to restore oysters in Harris Creek, it has been very successful,” Corson said.

But watermen and their supporters remain skeptical. They opposed Harris Creek’s designation as an oyster sanctuary in 2010, which deprived them of a once-productive harvest area. They insist that the restoration work there, which cost $26 million, has been a costly boondoggle, and they have questioned reports of abundant oyster growth on the rebuilt reefs.

They did so again Monday night, when the latest NOAA monitoring results were presented at a meeting of the state’s Oyster Advisory Commission.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he and other oyster harvesters feel officials have hyped the benefits of oyster sanctuaries and of restoration projects like the one in Harris Creek.

“We were sold a bill of goods when these sanctuaries went in,” he said, contending that proponents had predicted that the restored reefs would produce enough oyster larvae to repopulate nearby waters. But he noted that Talbot County watermen saw no increase in spat settling on a reef just outside the Harris Creek sanctuary that they’d replenished with shell in hopes of benefiting from the restoration.

Others, though, pointed out that free-floating oyster larvae can drift dozens or even hundreds of miles from where they were spawned before settling to the bottom. There is no easy way to tell where a particular oyster was spawned.

Still, watermen and supporters on the oyster commission demanded further information about the NOAA report — particularly on the productivity of the granite reefs, which have been a focus of complaints.

Some of the stone-based reefs were built too high, they said, damaging vessels that hit them. Crabbers also have complained that the rocky underwater structures have interfered with their gear; one suggested Monday night that the manmade structures have attracted so many fish that crabs have been scared away.

“I just can’t get it in my head how anyone can look at this as a good project, as a successful project,” said Ron Fithian, a Kent County commissioner and former waterman.

Others have suggested there’s another, unstated reason for watermen’s hostility to stone reefs — they hope to be able to get back into some of the state’s sanctuaries, and oysters attached to rocks can’t be harvested using traditional gear.

While oyster shells are widely considered the best reef material, they are in short supply, and research has found that in the right circumstances, oyster larvae will attach themselves to almost any hard surface.

But Maryland officials, yielding to the watermen’s objections, have barred the use of any more granite stone on the federally funded restoration project in the Tred Avon River. The Army Corps of Engineers is attempting to build the rest of the planned reefs there using only clam shells, but had to pause work this summer on a 10-acre portion of the restoration project because the supply ran out.

A hiatus also looms on the Little Choptank River, Maryland’s third tributary getting restoration, which is state-funded. With work more than halfway done, the Department of Natural Resources initially asked that its request for a needed federal permit be put on hold so state officials could remove any mention of possibly using “alternate substrate” such as rocks or concrete, in building reefs.

Now, state officials say they are looking to make even more substantial revisions, tweaking the location of planned reefs to reduce the acreage to be built in shallower water. The changes could delay work there for months, possibly even a year or more, acknowledged Chris Judy, DNR’s shellfish program manager.

Watermen and their supporters insist that Maryland wouldn’t need to use alternative reef material if the Army Corps would just let the state dredge Man-O-War Shoal, a massive old reef near the mouth of the Patapsco River with millions of bushels of fossil shells and relatively few live oysters these days. The DNR applied without success years ago for federal permission to dredge up shells, and reapplied in 2015. State officials want to remove up to 5 million bushels of shells over five years for use in replenishing reefs in waters open to commercial harvest, for helping private oyster growers, and for restoring reefs in sanctuary areas.

But the state’s request for a federal permit to dredge shell from Man-O-War has drawn widespread opposition from environmentalists and recreational anglers, who say the shoal is a fish magnet and spawning area for striped bass. It is also opposed by some commercial watermen.

The Army Corps Baltimore District has yet to decide on the dredging request. But the federal project manager for the permit recently wrote the DNR spelling out a series of conditions that would be put on the work if it is allowed. Among other things, dredging would be off limits for 7 ½ months a year to protect fish spawning in the spring and to avoid disrupting natural oyster reproduction in summer. The DNR has until Aug. 22 to say whether it will accept the conditions. DNR’s Chris Judy said they did not seem too onerous.

But critics warn that even if dredging shell from Man-O-War is approved, it won’t be enough to meet the need. Restoration work planned in the Little Choptank alone, for instance, calls for constructing 118 acres of reefs. Building those to a height of one foot off the bottom, as done in other restoration projects, would require 4.1 million bushels of shells. That would appear to leave little for other uses, and none for reef construction in the other two tributaries that Maryland has pledged to target for large-scale oyster restoration under the Bay agreement.

“It would barely scratch the surface,” Allison Colden, fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said of the shells the DNR wants to dredge from Man-O-War Shoal.

The cost of acquiring widely available granite stone is roughly on par with estimates the DNR has made for dredging up the old oyster shells. But Colden, pointed out, “stone is outperforming other substrates by a wide margin.”

Colden warned that Maryland’s reluctance to use alternate materials threatens to stall or even kill the oyster restoration effort in the state.

“It’s this hump we have to get over,” she said, “if we’re going to move forward.”

By Timothy B. Wheeler

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.