Energizing the debate

The Baltimore Sun

From the marshy fringe of the Chesapeake Bay to the flat farms of the Eastern Shore, Marylanders are pondering how to harness energy and reduce damage to their land while getting it.

The discussion has permeated the contest for president, with John McCain and Barack Obama talking of lessening the nation's dependence on foreign oil and minimizing heat-trapping greenhouse gases formed when fossil fuels are burned.

As candidates trade proposals, Marylanders such as Donald Graf, an engineer who has designed nuclear power systems throughout his adult life, and Eric Stocker, who struggles to prevent waste from his Eastern Shore farm from flushing into nearby streams, are attuned. They, like many Americans, are ravenous for a new energy policy that could be part of the agenda for the next administration.

Hanging in the balance are limits on tailpipe emissions and the cost of gas at the pump. The next president's decisions could affect everything from whether Marylanders live next to a nuclear power reactor to how quickly rising sea levels carve away their land.

During his daily commute from the tip of Southern Maryland to an engineering firm in Old Town Alexandria, Va., Graf drives past Constellation Energy's Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby, passing vacant acreage that could be turned over to one of the nation's first new nuclear power plants in decades.

Calvert Cliffs is one of the places McCain has in mind when he touts the construction of 45 nuclear plants by 2030. Graf would like to see it.

Graf has had no civilian job other than working with nuclear power systems. Three decades ago, he helped fabricate Calvert's current plants.

Graf grew up in the agricultural town of Glassboro, N.J., and attended the University of Pennsylvania on a Navy scholarship that provided tuition, books and $50 a month in spending money. "A great ride," he still calls it, for a family that couldn't afford the "hefty bill" of a big university.

Repaying the Navy with several years of active duty after graduation, he spent much of it as chief engineer on a 300-foot oil-fired destroyer, but switched to nuclear energy when he became a civilian. He joined a company building a trio of nuclear submarines in New Jersey. Later, he helped design a boiling water nuclear power station in Wisconsin.

Graf was at the vanguard of a burgeoning field. Scientists had learned how to harness the power of the atom; it was up to engineers to build the safest and most efficient commercial systems around them.

"Each day was something new," he said. "The bureaucracy had not yet taken effect."

His career would take him to Calvert Cliffs in the 1970s, where, as an employee of a company called Combustion Engineering Inc., he took part in the design, licensing and installation of Calvert Cliff's nuclear steam supply system.

He later moved to BGE, taking on responsibilities from planning for the fuel storage facility to overseeing a huge repair project on one of the major components of the reactor system. He settled in Lusby, on a few acres of land along the Paxtuxent River, close to the bay.

Many of those around him are also strong supporters of nuclear power, which has defined the Calvert landscape for more than 30 years.

Albert W. "Skip" Zahniser, owner of a marina and a former member of the county planning commission, calls Calvert Cliffs "a good neighbor" that is "clean, safe and beneficial to our county."

"The world is not going to fill its need for clean and environmentally friendly energy without pursuing all the many options available," Zahniser said in a letter this year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in support of a third nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs. "Nuclear energy is emissions free when managed safely, less damaging to the environment and the technology is here today."

But support is not universal. Some are concerned about the disposal of spent fuel. Others question tax breaks the plant stands to receive, and whether the location - less than 75 miles from the White House and next to a liquefied natural gas terminal - poses an attractive terror target.

Graf has occasionally voted Democratic in local or state or congressional races. But not for president: He has voted Republican as long as he can remember, and intends to do so again in November.

"Energy ranks very high," as an issue, he says. "I can't rank it any higher." He likes John McCain's philosophy on nuclear plants and calls Obama "wishy washy" on the subject. But overall, McCain is not conservative enough for him; particularly on immigration.

Graf is also concerned about the environment, and has seen firsthand the landscape change along his sliver of the Chesapeake.

"There used to be dry land off my bulkhead every tide. Now it's bone dry only twice a year," he says. "It's more than the water level rising. It's the ground subsiding where I am."

He doesn't want too many of his tax dollars, or the nation's resources, going toward the capture of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"There's just a better way to spend your money," he said.

Maryland has some of the most sensitive coastline in the nation - and the fourth-highest proportion of low-lying coastal land that would be consumed by rising sea level.

Some of that land is not far away from the 45-acre farm owned by Eric A. Stocker, and his wife, Sandra Henry-Stocker.

The couple stumbled on their property about seven years ago, while relocating to Maryland after a peripatetic life.

Eric was born in Levittown, Pa., but moved to California to study hydrology and pursue his passion for boats. Sandra moved around with her Navy family, but lived in Maryland longer than anywhere else, mainly in Greenbelt, where she built a career maintaining computer systems.

They met on the Internet, and she moved to California to join him. After spending four cramped years on a sailboat in San Francisco harbor, they returned to the east coast.

They're settling into a shore lifestyle that is different than many of those around them, in one of the more conservative areas of Maryland.

The Stockers spend spare time counting frogs in nearby streams and sending the results to the state Department of Natural Resources. They heat their aging farmhouse by burning corn, and Sandra commutes to a job in Annapolis in a Toyota Prius with the license plate "TOOWARM."

She recently founded an Eastern Shore chapter of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which fights global warming.

In 2001, they bought land near Hurlock. Romantic visions of raising exotic breeds of cattle and sheep, plants, and trees soon gave way to money-losing reality.

Their commitment to environmental causes led them to organic farming, which has meant no weed-killers or other chemicals sprayed on the land. "Normal farmers around here use Round-up like it's hairspray," Eric Stocker said.

But many of their ventures have collapsed. A few rows of potatoes yielded a paltry harvest. Animals died because of weather-related problems. Markets for their beef and sheep have been hard to come by.

The Stockers take particular pride in their trees, a seemingly random mix of young pin oaks, sycamores, and other varieties that cover a third of the property. Planted through a federal conservation program that provides farmers with rental income, the young forest forms a buffer that keeps manure from his cows from leeching into the Chesapeake. Eric seems to know the location and temperament of each of the 16,000 saplings, and he watered many by hand to sustain them during a drought.

Eric Stocker says he first learned of climate-change as a graduate student at UCLA, and he and his wife believe they are now seeing the effects on their farm. In the past seven years, weather events have been extreme, including two droughts that were so severe that hunting dogs could not follow the scent of rabbits, and a 10-day period that brought 15 inches of rain and turned their fields into ponds. Parasites flourished in the standing water, and nine animals were lost.

"The droughts are worse. The storms are bigger," Eric Stocker said.

The Stockers want a president who grasps the magnitude of climate issues, and they prefer Obama.

"He's taking global warming seriously," said Sandra Stocker, who was a registered Republican for decades before this year. "He's interested in alternative energy."

Eric, who calls himself a "working class intellectual" and defies characterization by labels, feels the same way.

While McCain urges more domestic oil drilling, Eric Stocker calls it "a crime to burn petroleum," not only because of carbon dioxide, but because there's much better use for it -- in pharmaceuticals and plastics.

Many shore residents are concerned about the same issues, even if they don't share the same views. A combination of rising waters and sinking land is changing the landscape of the Eastern Shore, with several Chesapeake Bay islands disappearing altogether.

Many on the shore, a Republican area, are concerned about disappearing land. But McCain supporter Bruce Coulson, owner of Taylor's Island Family Campground and vice president of a Dorchester County erosion control group, fears that Obama's environmental policies would lead to higher taxes.

The Stockers are less concerned about taxes than aggressive environmental action. Still, they worry about having the resources to keep a lifestyle they're getting used to.

Their initial enthusiasm for farming is waning, and both acknowledge that the effort isn't working out as planned."The farm has made my mild neuroses into big neuroses, because I am a really great starter," Eric Stocker said. "But unless I have someone managing me well, I'm not good at finishing."

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