Volume 12, Issue 26 ~ June 24-30, 2004
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Dock of the Bay

What in the Well Is Going On?
Studies warn of chemicals, pesticides and more in our groundwater

In the good old days, the problem with well water was that it had to be pulled up by the bucketful. Modern technologies pump well water straight to the kitchen sink. But with new technologies, new problems arise. To microbes, an age-old problem you could boil away, our industrial times have added a problematic stew of chemicals.

Stewing are many human-produced ingredients — nutrients, pesticides and volatile organic compounds — says a new U.S. Geological Survey study of well water on the Eastern Shore.

There’s chloroform, the most frequently detected volatile organic compound; the solvent tetrachloroethene and the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether). There’s pesticides and herbicides, too. Thickest of all is nitrate, the byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer.

Most of these chemical invaders remain at levels tolerated by federal water quality standards. Nitrate levels, however, surpass these limits.

Levels of nutrients and herbicides in streams and shallow groundwater in Delmarva Peninsula farm country measured some of the highest in the nation, even surpassing levels in the agricultural Midwest.

The U.S. Geological Survey lays much of the blame on farm practices. Other culprits include over-fertilized lawns and private septic systems.

Hydrologists used statistical designs to sample nearly 150 wells in the recent Delmarva study. Delmarva is one of 60 study areas nationwide, chosen for its large agricultural area and underlying geology to represent an agriculture region in the coastal plain, said Judy Denver, USGS hydrologist in charge of the three-year water quality study.

As well as nutrients and herbicides, more than 85 percent of the well water samples had at least three pesticides, though usually at levels beneath the federal danger line.

One well had 15 different compounds swimming in its untreated water.

On both shores of the Bay, pesticides and toxins that find a way into our water threaten our health. Overexposure to pesticides leads to cancer, organ damage and neurological disorder, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Nitrates also have their effects. High levels of nitrates can trigger methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder that hinders the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Infants are especially vulnerable, warns the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Blue baby syndrome, named for its bluish coloring of the skin, leads to shortness of breath and developmental delays.

How did this chemical brew end up in the faucet? The answer lies buried deep in aquifers as well as in shallower groundwater.

As rainwater percolates down into the ground, on its way to big underground aquifers, it can take on chemical hitchhikers. Delmarva Peninsula’s sandy soils, its permeable aquifer and the shallow water table allow nitrates and pesticides to drift from the land into groundwater.

Private wells draw water up from the aquifer into individual homes.

“Nitrate and pesticides that are discharged from groundwater to streams today probably leached into the shallow groundwater system years and even decades ago because ground water moves so slowly,” said Denver.

Nutrients not only creep into groundwater from surface soil. A Chesapeake Biological Laboratory study found that up to 27 percent of nitrogen may be coming from surrounding countryside, emitted from chicken farms on the Delmarva Peninsula.

Up to 15 percent of all Americans draw their water from wells, but nearly all of the Eastern Shore below Cecil County use water from wells. In contrast, Chesapeake County’s Western Shore draws more water from public supplies — 26 percent of Anne Arundel County homes and 71 percent of Calvert County homes draw from private wells.

On the surface, our land here in Chesapeake Country does not differ so much from Delmarva. Similar farms, residential areas and businesses dot Anne Arundel and Calvert counties as on the Eastern Shore. But Western Shore residents benefit from aquifer water drawn from deeper wells below layers of clay, which are not as susceptible to pesticide and nitrate contamination.

“Pesticide contamination is not as big of a problem as radium,” said U.S. Geological Survey’s David Bolton on the Western Shore.

But Anne Arundel County has contamination problems of its own. Though excluded from the Delmarva water study, we are not excluded from threats to our water.

Instead of focusing on nitrates and pesticides, Anne Arundel County hydrologists and geologists study radium, a naturally occurring contaminant linked to cancer. The county requires a minimum depth for wells to protect against shallow groundwater contaminants such as radium.

Unlike more noxious contaminants, radium in your water “is easy to treat by running water through a water softener,” said Bob Schedlock of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Well owners with concerns should become their own health regulators and test their water. “People should be aware of what’s in their water and if the levels of those contaminants are close to the limits,” said Denver.

—Carrie Steele

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Filling a Delegate’s Shoes
It’s temp work, but plenty of people want the job

Politics abhors a vacuum.

Del. George Owings created a political vacuum when he retired midterm from the Maryland House of Delegates, where he had crafted laws for 17 years, to move into the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, where he is now secretary. The vacuum of his going has exerted a hard pull on Democrats in Calvert County.

Some stuck only a toe into the vacuum and quickly withdrew, escaping the powerful pull of the State House, with its marble walls and towering dome.

Among those who drew back were the only two public office holders drawn in: first-term Calvert County Commissioner Wilson Parran and North Beach Mayor Mark Frazer, a Republican turned Democrat and himself a former commissioner.

Come the 2006 election, the seat will have to be won by the delegate who steps in to finish the last two-and-one-half years of Owings’ term. Republicans are on the advance in Calvert, drawing head to head with Democrats, who must find new ways and attractive candidates to pull ahead or lose their party’s strength. Throughout Calvert County, each party claims some 18,000 registrants.

“If our organization can’t change as it needs to to address the significant change that’s overtaken this county, we will lag behind and that’s what we’re doing now,” says Doris Spencer of Calvert’s Democratic party, whose Central Committee she chairs.

So whoever steps in is in for more than a free ride. The power to stand against a Republican challenger, reinforced by a popular new Republican governor, is what’s wanted by the Calvert Democrats who’ll make this interim appointment. Electability, they say, is their first qualification.

On June 24, Gov. Ehrlich will decide who among six Calvert County entrants will finish George Owings’ term in Maryland’s House of Delegates.
That’s a qualification Senate President Mike Miller, who both represents and lives in district 27B, recognized in another candidate for the vacant house seat.

That political newcomer brought such a package of the right stuff that Miller described him as a “prince.” Chuck Blocksidge is not only a Naval Academy graduate but also the son-in-law of Tom Clancy, the fantastically successful novelist who makes his home in Calvert County. But Blocksidge bowed out because of pressing demands at the D.C. law practice where he works.

By filing deadline June 18, all but six would-be politicians had escaped the vaccuum’s pull. From those six, the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee has the job of recommending a replacement — or replacements — for Owings.

Now, on the eve of the June 24 decision that will narrow the field to one, two or three names from which Gov. Ehrlich will choose the new delegate, there’s no heir apparent.

Among the six who’ll make their case to the 10-member committee in a public hearing June 24 are three former officeholders, all longtime, hard-working Democrats.

Barbara Stinnett, 69, who’s won election as a Calvert County Commissioner two times and lost by hairline margins three times, entered the race on June 7 at, she says, Owings’ suggestion.

“We need someone who knows our county well, as I do,” said Stinnett, who is legislative aide to State Sen. Roy Dyson. “And we need a person who’s worked with the party, as I’ve done on the Democratic Central Committee, with women’s Democratic clubs and in campaigns for any number of Democrats.”

Hagner Mister, 69, former two-term Calvert County Commissioner, lost re-election and served as agriculture secretary under Gov. Parris Glendening. Mister, who is also a member of the Calvert Democratic Central Committee, already survived one round with that committee, having won a contested vote for the right to vote for himself.

On the committee, he has a base of at least four supporters balanced by equal if not stronger opposition.

“I can be effective the first day on the job because of my exposure in Annapolis,” says the former tobacco farmer. As for 2006, he says “when the game’s tied, that’s when you’ve got to play your hardest.”

Tom Pelagatti, 50, lawyer and former judge of the Orphan’s Court, is a soldier in Calvert Democratic politics who’s narrowly lost elections for delegate, state’s attorney and county commissioner.

Pelagatti is fond of saying that “George Owings lost his first three elections and then was appointed.” He counts on “the power of incumbency” to return him to the House. That’s if he can first win the appointment.

By his own reckoning, Pelagatti is as close to a favorite as this race has. He claims he goes into selection day with five votes committed and two wavering — one for and one against.

Among the contestants are two newcomers, one of them also developing strong support.

Sue Kullen, 44, a self-employed disabilities advocate, never has run for public office. Still, in her application, she billed herself not only as a community leader but also as “the only one” who could do the job of “building bridges to unite and energize Democrats.

She has not worked her way up through the party organization, and she hasn’t built a base. Still, she’s caught the eye of decision-makers. To Miller, who’s seeking younger people to bring new blood to a party “long in the tooth,” she’s “very appealing.”

Calvert has never had a woman delegate, so Kullen may also appeal to the five women on the Calvert Central Committee.

“She’s capable and she’s done a lot of leg work in talking to people. But this is all brand-new stuff for her, and she’s going to have to hit the ground campaigning and raising money as well as learning the job,” said Committeewoman Pat Pease.

William Johnston, 66, of Huntingtown, a retired patent lawyer with a Ph.D. in physics, calls himself a river advocate and environmentalist, motivated by the loss of species and habitat around the world because of pollution.

He ran against both Owings’ and Congressman Steny Hoyer as an Independent, after securing thousands of signatures to get on the ballot.

“There’s nobody who can get signatures like me,” says Johnston.

But he doesn’t expect his name to be sent up because, he says, “I’m too much of an outsider. The challenge is whether I can grab the attention of the public. In defining build-out, Calvert County has demonstrated, perhaps subconsciously, their concern. The question, is how can you express them with in the structure of government?”

David Van Hoy, a Calvert County realtor who ran for county commissioner in 1990, was unavailable for comment.

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Ask the Plant Professor
Yuck! Slugs at Work

Q Something is eating my petunias practically down to the stems. We live in a heavily wooded area, but the containers get at least a half day of sun. I have sprayed with a natural pyrethrin product to no avail. Any idea of the likely culprits?

A Several beetles and caterpillars will eat petunia flowers and eat holes in leaves, usually later in the season. Look closely for black specks on the leaves (bug excrement). Since you live in a wooded area, the problem could be rabbits, squirrels or groundhogs (which will bite the tops cleanly off the plants). Deer will eat flowers and often pull much of the plant out of the pot. You can apply ground red pepper or wildlife repellents to the flowers to deter many of these creatures.

More likely, early damage to petunias can be slug feeding, especially this wet year. Damage occurs overnight, and lower leaves are usually eaten first. You may see their silver slime trails. Look for slugs hiding under the containers during the day, or search by flashlight on the flowers at night. You can get rid of slugs by submerging a half-full cup of beer in the soil close to the plants (they crawl in and drown) or by sprinkling diatomaceous earth on the soil around your plants. Commercial baits now include those containing iron phosphate, which fertilizes as it breaks down. For more ideas, call and order our slug publication or read it on our website.

Ask the Plant and Pest Professor is compiled from questions sent to the website of the Home and Garden Information Center, part of Maryland Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach of the University of Maryland. Ask a home gardening or pest control question and find other help: 800-342-2507 (Mon.-Fri. 8am-1pm) • www.hgic.umd.edu.

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Way Downstream …

In Wyoming, the National Park Service has gotten in water as hot as some of its geysers for allowing a cell phone tower to be erected near Old Faithful. The government’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation wanted to know last week why, among other things, the Park Service hasn’t responded to Wyoming officials’ desire for something “to eliminate the adverse visual effects of the tower"…

In Australia, a rock ’n’ roll star is trying to become a political star. Peter Garrett, the hulking, bald former singer of the band Midnight Oil, agreed to run for Parliament as a member of the Labor Party. His celebrity makes him a shoo-in…

In New York, the tiny CoopersTown Crier warned us this week that zebra mussels have entered the Susquehanna River and are headed toward Chesapeake Bay. The paper quoted a state biologist as saying that the invasive species that clog intake pipes had entered the river from Lake Canadarago, where colonies were found living…

Our Creature Feature comes from North Devon, England, where a bad-tempered buzzard won’t be attacking any more cyclists. The bird had swooped down on about 20 riders this month, delivering head injuries and even gouging helmets.

But the buzzard’s life ended abruptly when it attacked a van last week. A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told Reuters the big bird probably had been protecting her chicks. “It took on more than it could chew,” she said.

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