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Coronavirus hinders Bay cleanup efforts, seafood industry

BJN – Watermen have no restaurants that can buy their catches. Help for
farmers who want to install runoff controls has been sharply curtailed.
Streams throughout the region are missing their annual spring cleaning.
And many students are losing their chance to experience the Chesapeake
Bay firsthand.

The impact of the novel coronavirus, barely on the radar only a few
months ago, is rippling through the Chesapeake Bay region, with impacts
felt from Pennsylvania farm fields to Eastern Shore oyster grounds.
While some impacts are minor, such as the postponement of meetings and
cleanup events, others could become significant if the COVID-19 crisis
lingers, potentially creating another setback for Bay pollution control
initiatives.

While some point to slivers of positive news — air pollution is down —
the near-shutdown of business activity is likely to slam state budgets
in coming months, and possibly years, at a time when they had hoped to
significantly increase spending on the Bay cleanup.

“There’s obviously going to be a delay in any new plans and conservation
work,” said Lindsay Thompson, executive director of the Maryland
Association of Conservation Districts. In a sentiment reflected by many,
she added, “Right now, it’s really just [about] trying to keep the
wheels rolling and keep everyone safe.”

Delays & cancellations

Tree plantings, school field trips, citizen oyster restoration
activities and the region’s largest litter cleanup event are all being
postponed or altered as environmental groups struggle with the sweeping
disruptions.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Willy Agee, vice president of the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as his group, as well as the Alliance for the
Chesapeake Bay, have been forced to delay environmental field work.

The immobilizing of construction contractors as a nonessential service
was affecting many on-the-ground conservation projects while the need to
keep volunteers at home is hamstringing others. The 10 Million Tree
Partnership in Pennsylvania, which can often draw 50 to 100 volunteers
to a planting event, is still undertaking projects this spring — but
often with a single person and a shovel.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has been forced to postpone Project
Clean Stream, the largest network of stream cleanups in the Bay
watershed, to this fall.

Likewise, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which has coordinated spring
cleanups throughout the Potomac River watershed for 32 years, has had to
postpone or cancel this year’s events. Last year, more than 9,500
volunteers participated in 267 cleanups coordinated by the nonprofit,
collecting 346,000 pounds of trash in portions of Maryland, the District
of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia.

Theresa Cullen, Alice Ferguson’s executive director, said she remained
hopeful the cleanups could take place later this year.

In the meantime, individuals can still help the Bay and their local
rivers by picking up trash in their neighborhoods or planting native
plants in their gardens, said Marissa Spratley, an Alliance spokeswoman.
“We’re encouraging folks to remain positive because this, too, will
pass.”

Other volunteer efforts are also being hit. CBF’s oyster gardening
programs in Virginia and Maryland are expected to be significantly
reduced because of the lack of volunteers. Managers of the
community-supported agriculture project on CBF’s Clagett Farm, which
provides fresh produce and meals to food banks and people living in
poverty in and around Washington, DC, will have to find a way to
distribute food other than through large gatherings.

Groups are trying to find creative ways to stimulate environmental
involvement during a time of year that is usually bursting with related
events and activities, leading up to Earth Day on April 22.

This year, hands-on opportunities are more limited. The Alliance is
encouraging people to crowdsource and share knowledge on its Chesapeake
Network and stormwater and native plants websites. The Chesapeake
Conservancy is highlighting opportunities to take “virtual tours” of the
region’s rivers and other sites around the region.

Also eliminated are spring outdoor field trips for students. The Bay
Foundation’s Agee said he expects such excursions will be lost for the
spring, and perhaps the remainder of the school year, removing a
curriculum mainstay for hundreds of teachers and thousands of students
in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Although the nonprofit had canceled all programming indefinitely, it is
examining ways to continue engaging with the public, such as through
digital learning, said spokesman A.J. Metcalf.

Cullen, of The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which typically hosts students
at the nonprofit’s farm for educational outings in the spring, said some
of that programming will be available online.

“We’re working on videos that can be useful for parents and teachers
teaching about environmental topics,” she said. “There’s always
something happening at the farm, even if they can’t visit.”

Farmer assistance at risk

Of particular concern for Chesapeake restoration is the impact on
efforts to reach out to farmers and support them in conservation
efforts. All of the states in the region are relying on a massive ramp
up in efforts to control farm runoff to meet 2025 nutrient reduction
goals aimed at clearing the Bay’s murky water and ending its summertime
oxygen-starved “dead zone.”
But those efforts rely heavily on technical assistance providers from
agencies or nonprofit groups working one-on-one with farmers to plan and
install various farm conservation practices, such as stream buffers or
manure storage facilities.

Most county conservation districts and Natural Resource Conservation
Service offices, which provide most of those services to farmers, are
either closed with staff working remotely or open with a single staffer
to answer phones.

In Maryland, the state was no longer processing applications for new
conservation infrastructure, such as manure sheds, because officials
began limiting site visits to ongoing construction projects and
emergencies, said Lindsay Thompson, of the Maryland Association of
Conservation Districts.

“If this is lifted in a month or six weeks, maybe it won’t be all that
much of a backlog,” Thompson said. “The magnitude will be determined by
how long it goes on.”

In Virginia, farmers seeking technical assistance with conservation
projects were still able to get it as of late March. Kendall Tyree,
executive director of the Virginia Association of Soil and Water
Conservation Districts, said most districts were still doing site visits
“as long as the farmer is comfortable keeping a safe distance.”

The slowdown is a concern because Virginia conservation districts have
to spend funding for the current fiscal year by June 30. Those
expenditures require approval from district boards — but the boards
aren’t meeting because of health concerns, and it is unclear under state
law whether they could legally approve those projects through online
meetings.

“Right now, unless a meeting prevents irrevocable public harm, districts
are not able to have electronic meetings,” Tyree said. “We have reached
out [to the state Attorney General] to find out if cost-share and
conservation projects would fall into that category and have not yet
received that opinion.”

In Pennsylvania, Christopher Thompson, head of the Lancaster County
Conservation District — the county with the most farms in the Bay
watershed — said that, as of March 20, no staff would be working in the
field with farmers. The timing is especially bad, he noted, because the
recent influx of federal grant money to help Chesapeake Bay conservation
work has to be spent by the end of September or the money has to be
reallocated.

While conservation district staff around the region are trying to
provide technical assistance to farmers remotely, Mark Dubin,
agriculture coordinator with the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program,
cautioned that such efforts have their limits because farmers in rural
areas are often hampered by poor internet connections. He operates his
own farm on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in an area where he
described service as “minimal.”

“There are definitely going to be more challenges here,” he said. “It is
inevitably going to cause some delays.”

Also, most conservation funders require farmers to share in the cost of
the projects. But farmers have been suffering financially for several
years from collapsing dairy prices, tariffs and other economic
hardships. The coronavirus crisis adds a new layer of financial
uncertainty.

“If you are trying to survive,” Dubin said, “the last thing that is on
the list is going to be implementing some new practice while you’re
trying to pay the bills.”

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which
includes state legislators from across the region, worries that the
faltering economy will mean trouble for the future funding of
conservation programs.

Most conservation improvements come from programs with dedicated funding
tied to tax revenue at the state or federal level, she said. “When the
going gets rough and cash gets limited, often those dedicated funds get
raided,” Swanson said. “So not only are we looking at budget shortfalls
but also at potential raids of those dedicated funds. It’s not a pretty
picture.”
Watermen hit on multiple fronts

In the Bay, as is the case all along the coast, the closure of
restaurants has hit the fishing industry hard. “It killed the last two
weeks of oyster season. There’s been no market,” said Robert T. Brown,
Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association.

And it’s not clear the situation will get better with the opening of
crab season, which began March 17 in Virginia and begins April 1 in
Maryland. With the foreign workers essential for crab meat-processing
being forced to stay home, the region’s seafood industry is entering
rough waters.

To protect its staff from the coronavirus, the State Department
announced on March 18 a halt to processing most temporary work visas in
its Mexico offices. Mexico is one of the biggest suppliers of labor to
the Chesapeake’s crab-picking houses.

The industry was already facing a shortage of temporary work visas
because employer demand nationwide far outstrips the number that the
government releases. On Hooper’s Island, the epicenter of Maryland’s
crab-picking operations, six out of the nine processors did not receive
visas this year before the virus-induced interruption.

For watermen, Brown said, “It’s wait and see, pretty much, how bad it’s
going to be — not how good, how bad.”

Air pollution reductions
All of the economic and social disruption wrought by the coronavirus
could contain a silver lining: a sharp — if temporary — decrease in
emissions of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants as people drive
less, flights are grounded and the economy slows.

NASA and the European Space Agency recorded substantial drops in
pollution concentrations over Italy and China as those countries sought
to lock down their populations. Such measures were only beginning to
trickle into American life in March, but there were already signs that
they might be having an environmental effect.

“Trends aren’t entirely clear yet,” said Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Bilyeu, “but if traffic and
commerce follow patterns we’ve seen elsewhere, we expect pollution to
decrease more markedly. We have started noticing some potential
difference in areas that typically experience more traffic.”

Levels of nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter, which are tied to
soot from diesel trucks, were down along many busy highways, according
to DEQ’s air-monitoring sensors.

Climate scientists caution, though, that if history is any guide, the
emissions will likely return once the virus runs its course. Meanwhile,
some industries have already begun lobbying against climate regulations,
arguing that they can’t bear the costs along with the slowdown caused by
the pandemic.

Concerns over new rules
A number of organizations, from conservative think tanks to labor unions
to environmental groups, have asked the Trump administration to alter
its rule-making process while the president’s national emergency
declaration, issued March 13, remains in effect.

The groups argue that many stakeholder organizations have been forced to
close their doors to prevent exposure to COVID-19, which hinders their
ability to develop meaningful comments to agencies at a time when a
number of proposals that would impact environmental regulations are
under review.

In a letter to the White House, CBF said interested citizens may lack
the technology needed to weigh in remotely or may be unable to attend
meetings or collaborate with others to comment on proposals, such as
changes to coal ash regulations, which are under consideration by the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Perhaps most importantly,” CBF
wrote, “many will be consumed with taking care of themselves, their
businesses, families, communities, and neighbors.”

“For EPA and some other agencies to insist on proceeding with business
as usual is unacceptable,” said Jason Rano, CBF’s federal executive
director.

As of late March, the EPA had declined to delay its rule-making, with
officials noting that its regulatory website was fully functional and
able to receive comments.

Changes in & out of homes
The large number of people staying home has raised special issues, too.
Wastewater treatment plant operators are worried that people confronted
with a shortage of toilet paper will begin flushing wipes, paper towels
and other materials. Those materials can clog sewer pipes and cause
backups or damage treatment plants.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is conducting a “No Wipes in
the Pipes” campaign while others are launching similar public awareness
efforts.

If people become stir-crazy after being homebound, they will find many
state and national parks and wildlife refuges open, though visitor
centers, bathrooms and campgrounds are closed.

But some of those areas are in danger of being overcrowded: The
Appalachian Trail Conservancy was urging people to stay off the trail,
sections of which were becoming too crowded to practice social
distancing.

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