Environmentalist, journalist and host of the WYPR radio show The Environment in Focus Tom Pelton discussed his book, The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World, at Barnes & Noble on Thursday. He focused on the role of government in environmental issues, particularly in the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
Pelton explained that his book examines the history of the Chesapeake Bay and the policy efforts taken to improve its ecological health.
Pelton first became involved in environmental issues when condominiums were built over protected wetlands near his childhood home. He said that in order to build over a protected wetland in Maryland, a business only needs to apply for a wetland destruction permit and agree to fund the construction of an artificial wetland in another location.
Pelton noted that 99.7 percent of wetland destruction permits in Maryland are approved, adding that biologists have found that artificial wetlands are not comparable to natural wetlands, which often dry up within a few years.
According to Pelton, many environmental regulations follow the same pattern as wetland destruction.
However, he explained that in the past eight years the health of the Bay has improved.
“The amount of grasses in the Bay is a good indicator of the overall health of the Bay, because it not only makes oxygen, but it also holds sediment in place, keeps the pollution down and provides a place to live for all the creatures of the Bay,” he said.
Pelton said that though Maryland has passed three Bay cleanup agreements in the past, but these agreements have failed to improve the Bay’s health. Eventually, direct intervention was necessary.
“There’s nothing enforceable in these first three Bay cleanup agreements. After those three agreements failed, President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency got directly involved itself and imposed a federal system,” Pelton said. “With that kind of federal cop on the beat, all the Bay states started doing more, and we’ve seen a reduction in pollution over time.”
He expressed concern that efforts to clean up the Bay could be halted under the Trump administration.
“Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, in the Trump administration’s mind, is a local matter that the locals should be allowed to tackle. But we’ve seen in the Chesapeake Bay that when the states tried to tackle it themselves, they tried three times, and they failed,” he said.
Pelton also explained that Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma, signed a brief opposing federal plans to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Pelton believes that Pruitt poses a threat to efforts to improve the health of the Bay.
“We’ve seen great progress, but there’s a real risk that the people running [the] EPA right now could kill the Bay cleanup simply by inaction,” Pelton said.
According to Pelton, politics are essential to improving environmental issues.
“We have to basically vote our way out of this problem,” he said.
Pelton also addressed the misconception that environmental regulations are responsible for a large percentage of layoffs. Pelton is the director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization which advocates for enforcement of environmental laws. According to a recent study by the organization, businesses self-reported that regulations of all kinds are responsible for only a fifth of a percent of layoffs in the U.S.
Pelton said that regulations are an essential part of a democratic government.
“The reason we have democracy is we want to get together as a group and make rules that all of us have to follow,” he said. “If you’re demonizing regulations, you’re demonizing democracy.”
Pelton also addressed pollution trading, a market-based system in which companies hold permits that allow them to produce a certain amount of pollution. Companies can buy and sell these permits. Pelton opposed pollution trading and pushed for stricter environmental protections.
“Not everything has to be Wall Street-friendly. We should be able to stand up for our natural resources without having to pander to the interests of business all the time,” he said.
According to Pelton, there is a larger issue in which politicians are investing less in public facilities.
“Over time, we’ve seen less investment in the idea of our shared world,” he said. “That’s fine if you’re a billionaire... you don’t have to go swimming in the Bay because you’ve got your own damn pool. You don’t care how clean the river is, because your kids can go swimming in the cleanest water in the world.”
Pelton noted a trend called “desperate environmentalism,” in which democratic politicians are becoming increasingly accepting of less strict environmental protection laws. He believes that desperate environmentalism and inaction among environmentalists is an imposing threat that the Bay faces.
“The biggest threat is not the backward thinking of conservatives. In my opinion, the biggest threat is the cowardice of liberals,” he said. “We have to energize people who care and make them realize that they have to be not just observers, but soldiers, and they have to fight for a better world.”
David Schott, a Baltimore resident and graduate of the School of Advanced International Studies at Hopkins, attended the talk because of Pelton’s radio show. Schott noted that Pelton’s talk started on an optimistic note.
Schott also said that Pelton addressed many current dangers to the health of the Bay. He agreed that people should stand up for environmental issues.
“Us friends of the environment need to push back,” he said.