Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

U.S. Government Shutdown Would Affect Potomac Cleanup Plans

Thursday, April 7th, 2011


View Potomac River Watershed Cleanup Sites in a larger map

Unpaid parking tickets, a prosthetic leg and a Vespa scooter were among the unusual items found at last year’s Potomac Watershed Cleanup, an annual event expected to draw thousands of volunteers this Saturday to sites in Washington and surrounding states.

But if a federal government shutdown goes into effect Friday, due to a congressional impasse on federal budget negotiations, site leaders on federal land would be required to cancel or reschedule their cleanups.

And cleanups that aren’t on federal park sites may also postpone or cancel, said Dolly Davis, a community activist and site leader for the cleanup planned at Pope Branch Park in Washington.

The watershed cleanup, organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation in conjunction with local volunteers and environmental groups, drew more than 15,000 volunteers in 2010 and was expected to exceed that number this year.

“At our first cleanup [23 years ago], there were only 10 people,” said Becky Horner, Potomac River Watershed Cleanup coordinator. “It just snowballed each year.”

More than 400 sites in four states and the District have registered for Saturday’s event and for similar cleanups throughout April, Horner said. But if the shutdown goes into effect, at least 76 cleanup sites would be affected.

The cleanup is part of the foundation’s ongoing effort to achieve a trash-free Potomac River by the year 2013, a goal outlined in its 2005 “Trash Treaty.” The treaty, signed by 161 elected officials from participating states, commits to increasing pollution awareness and implementing strategies for trash reduction in affected areas.

The foundation recommends that individuals take steps – such as properly disposing of trash, purchasing products made of recyclable material and using reusable shopping bags – to reduce pollution.

Volunteers collected 252 tons of trash in last year’s cleanup, Horner said. While hardly a small amount, this was a decrease from the 291 tons collected in 2009, she said. The amount of trash found in the river is largely dependent on weather activity, such as heavy storms.

Parks throughout Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., all participate in the annual cleanup. Site leaders register electronically on the Ferguson Foundation’s website. Those who registered before mid-March received complimentary cleanup equipment, such as gloves and trash bags.

Horner said the most common items found at the cleanups are food containers, paper products and plastic bags. Tires and cigarette butts are also common.

Davis, who has been involved with cleanups in Pope Branch Park since 2001, said she hopes the event can go on as scheduled.

“Right now, we’re just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” she said.

For more information on the cleanup and possible cancellations, volunteers can visit fergusonfoundation.org.

–By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

UMD panel: U.S. Safe from Fukushima Fallout

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

A panel of University of Maryland nuclear experts said the United States is safe from radiation leaking out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, but disagreed on what the disaster would mean to the environment surrounding the facility.

Jeff Stehr, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences researcher, has helped form projections of the path of the plume of radioactive particles coming from the plant, which was damaged by a 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami on March 11. He said Alaska’s Aleutian Islands might see slightly higher levels of radiation than normal, but in the continental U.S. even the West Coast was at very little risk.

“We’re not really looking at a big deal for us,” Stehr said. “We’re very, very far away.”

The discussion came on the heels of news of high levels of radiation in the seawater around the damaged Fukushima plant. Mohamad Al-Sheikhly, an engineering professor, said that was not cause for panic because the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would dilute radiation and the Japanese have method for retrieving uranium from water.

But Donald Milton, a professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, warned of “bio-concentration.” He said some radioactive elements, like Cesium, tend to concentrate in water and move up the food chain rather than dissipating.

“What’s going to be really important is the monitoring of fish and mollusks,” Milton said.

The panel was moderated by Carol Rogers, professor of journalism, and also included Bill Dorland, professor of physics, Nate Hultman, professor of public policy, and John Steinbruner, professor of public policy.

The panel agreed that the U.S. nuclear community could learn from the Fukushima crisis.

Dorland said that Tepco, which operated the Fukushima plant, was warned years earlier that the area around the plant had a history of tsunamis. He said the plant had been built to withstand a tsunami of 6.5 meters but the one that took out its backup power March 11 reached 14 meters.

Maryland’s only nuclear power plant, Calvert Cliffs, is likely safe from earthquakes and tsunamis. The U.S. Geological survey reports that there has never been an earthquake centered in Washington, D.C., in recorded history.

But more mundane weather conditions have caused problems at Calvert Cliffs. Last year, the plant’s general manager, Thomas Trepanier, warned employees about declining maintenance after melting snow leaked through the roof and shorted out one of the reactor’s electrical distribution boxes. One of the plant’s five backup generators then failed, causing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue a rare “white” finding.

Dorland said he was unfamiliar with the incident, but that any reactor should be built so that both the primary and secondary power  sources for cooling could not be knocked out by the same event.

“If snow is an issue there, and both the primary and secondary power are vulnerable to snow, then that’s a design flaw,” he said.

Hultman said the incident in Japan would likely affect U.S. nuclear policy and regulation and noted that Germany had shut down several of its older nuclear plants in light of the crisis.

Steinbruner said that all nuclear plants could be made safer than they are now by sacrificing some efficiency, but it would require an “entirely different configuration of the industry.”

New, safer reactor designs are on the way, Al-Sheikhly said, including a Westinghouse AP 1000 model with a passive safety system that eliminates the possibility of a meltdown due to operator error. He also touted advanced gas-cooled reactors that are smaller and safer, relying on liquid helium for cooling, rather than water.

But Dorland noted that many of the problems at Fukushima came not from the reactors themselves, but from spent nuclear fuel sitting outside the containment units in cooling ponds. That led Milton to note that the U.S. had not found any viable solutions for storing nuclear waste in the long term, despite setting aside $24 billion to build a permanent facility.

“Even if we come up with reactors that are inherently safe, can we deal with the waste they produce?” Milton asked.

By Capital News Service’s Andy Marso

Hope Still Alive for O’Malley’s Offshore Wind Legislation

Friday, March 25th, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Despite concerns that momentum behind the governor’s offshore wind energy bill is fading, Delegate Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s, said Friday that the bill has more than a fighting chance to pass this session.

The governor’s signature energy initiative has faced opposition from legislators concerned about the project’s costs to the state and consumers.

Davis, who is continuing to have meetings with Gov. Martin O’Malley and his staff, said he plans to turn the full attention of the House Economic Matters Committee to the bill next week. Davis chairs the committee.

That leaves less than two weeks before the end of the legislative session to get the bill out of committees and passed in the House and Senate.

The bill would contractually obligate utility companies to purchase some energy from offshore wind production companies for 25 years, once the wind turbines have been built. The turbines would be located about 12 miles offshore of Ocean City.

O’Malley announced Wednesday that he was introducing amendments to the bill that would cap rate increases at $2 per month, which Davis said could help get the bill out of committee.

“Any cap helps,” Davis said. “What folks want is a certain amount of cost certainty. That can’t do anything but help so that was certainly a good move on the governor’s part.”

Some of the bill’s opponents believe it is too cumbersome to pass this session, with some Senate Finance Committee members saying it should be recommended for a study over the summer.

Steelworkers unions and environmentalists are united in seeing the bill pass in the hopes that building the turbines would bring jobs to Maryland and help the state reach a goal of generating 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2022.

– By Capital News Service’s Kerry Davis.

Md. Environmental Group to Develop Baltimore Harbor Report Card

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

A University of Maryland environmental research group is developing a “report card” to assess the health of the Baltimore Harbor.

The Baltimore Harbor Report Card will help track water quality levels as property owners and city officials work to clean up the polluted harbor over the next decade.

The report card, which is being developed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, is being modeled after a similar tool the group created to score Chesapeake Bay water quality.

Research by UMCES’ Heath Kelsey, who is helping to design the report card, found that Baltimore Harbor water is safe for swimmers only 21 percent of the time because of high concentrations of bacteria.

Development of the report card is in the early stages, Kelsey said.  He expected it to be released in 2012.

The report card will measure specific indicators of water health like levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and toxic contaminants.

UMCES, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Chesapeake Bay Program, developed the first report card program for the Chesapeake Bay, EcoCheck, in 2007.

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Experts Address Nitrogen’s Benefits, Challenges

Monday, February 21st, 2011

WASHINGTON – Environmental experts Saturday stressed the importance of balancing the agricultural and nutritional benefits of nitrogen with the harsh environmental effects it can have on air and water quality.

Though most industrialized parts of the world, including the United States, have an abundance of the nutrient found in manure and fertilizer, other areas, including several countries in Africa, suffer from a deficiency of nitrogen in soil. A deficiency can result in low crop yields and serious nutritional problems, said Cheryl A. Palm, senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

“Unhealthy soil means unhealthy people,” Palm said in a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In regions where nitrogen is deficient, an increase in population coupled with a decrease in food supply can result in stunted growth in children, she added.

In Maryland, however, excess nitrogen has been an ongoing problem, especially in runoff flowing from farms into the Chesapeake Bay. Excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in water can cause algae to form, preventing fish, crabs and other sea life from getting adequate oxygen.

In December, the Maryland Department of the Environment submitted its plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for a “pollution diet” aimed at reducing harmful nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the bay. Five other states and the District of Columbia also submitted plans to the EPA.

James Galloway, a professor in environmental science at the University of Virginia, summed up the global problem succinctly.

“How do we feed the world and protect the environment at the same time?” he asked.

One solution Galloway proposed is to cut down on nitrogen use where it is not needed – namely, by reducing the burning of fossil fuels, which can emit harmful amounts of the compound into the air.

“That’s the no-brainer,” he said. “We don’t need to do that.”

-By Maryland Newsline’s Madhu Rajaraman

Groups Support Offshore Wind Effort Along the Atlantic Coast

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

CHEVERLY — A report released by the National Wildlife Federation Wednesday found that the Atlantic coast could produce enough wind energy to power about 1.5 million homes annually — equivalent to about five coal burning power plants.

The findings were released a week after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a “Smart from the Start” initiative designed to speed up permitting of wind energy projects along the Atlantic coast.

Offshore wind projects could generate $200 billion to revive economies and create more than 43,000 permanent jobs, the report said.

In Maryland alone, offshore wind could offset more than half of the state’s electricity needs.

Offshore wind projects are supported by 35 environmental and labor groups on the Atlantic coast, including Environment Maryland and the United Steelworkers, who were present at the report’s release at the site of a wind turbine under construction in Cheverly.

The 70-foot turbine in Cheverly will generate enough electricity to offset half of the Public Works Department’s power usage.

The turbine is the first wind tower in Prince George’s County and will be running within a week if weather permits, said Cheverly Mayor Michael Callahan.

By Capital News Service’s Nicole Dao

Abandoned Elkton Factory Nominated to Superfund List

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

ELKTON – A plume of toxic groundwater on the property of an abandoned Elkton munitions factory is under investigation as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In its heyday during World War II, the factory — then known as Triumph Explosives, Inc. — manufactured bombs and ammunition for the U.S. Department of Defense.

After the war, the factory was used to make flares, fireworks and batteries, says Lorie Baker, the Mid-Atlantic region coordinator of the National Priorities List of so-called toxic “Superfund” sites.

Now, a plume of liquid trichloroethene — a de-greaser for machine parts — in the property’s groundwater has led the Environmental Protection Agency to nominate the site to the National Priorities List of places “where hazardous contaminants could impact public health” or the environment, according to a press release.

The nomination was made Tuesday. A 60-day comment period follows the nomination.

Unless the Environmental Protection Agency receives “significant comments” opposing the listing, the site — now known as the Dwyer Property after a post-World War II owner — will be included on the National Priorities List at the end of the comment period.

And since the Environmental Protection Agency has not found any “responsible parties” related to the site or its toxic plume, “we don’t anticipate any comments,” Baker says.

The full extent of the contamination is also unknown.

“Basically the groundwater beneath the site is contaminated with solvents,” Baker says, but “we haven’t really identified the extent of the plume,” which most likely comes from an on-site source, she says.

“Once (the contaminant) gets into the ground water, it can spread,” but “it hasn’t spread that far yet.”

So far, “we haven’t found anybody’s drinking water wells contaminated” by the plume, Baker adds.

Since Elkton has its own municipal water supply, “there should be no concern for the residents,” she says.

Further investigation is still needed, says Roy Seneca, a spokesperson for the Mid-Atlantic region office of the National Priorities List.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has already dug a number of test wells on the site, Seneca says, but because it has limited resources, the department asked the Environmental Protection Agency for assistance.

Once the extent of the contamination is known, the two agencies will work together to clean the site up, Seneca adds.

A common treatment for contaminated ground water is the pump-and-treat method, by which a well is dug and filled with water, which absorbs contaminants from the surrounding soil. The contaminated water is then treated, Seneca says.

Elkton town officials declined to comment on the Superfund listing.

By Capital News Service’s Laura L. Thornton