“To Gain the World…”
The Impact of Suburban Sprawl on a Maryland County
By Jamie L. Harrison
University of Maryland Baltimore County
On May 29, 1967, Calvert County, Maryland was as it had been for over three centuries: rural, sparsely populated, and almost entirely isolated from the suburban sprawl that had begun to define the state. Its population of nearly 15,000 people was protected by a sheriff and four deputies; any greater emergency would have to be dealt with by the troopers of the Maryland State Police. The county’s health care network rested upon the Calvert County Hospital in Prince Frederick, which boasted 80 beds and six doctors on call; there were also four dentists serving the people of Calvert County. If you were just passing through, perhaps on the county’s central thoroughfare, the two-lane Maryland Route 4, you might look for lodging at the county’s one hotel, or maybe one of its four motels; all together, there were 80 rooms between them. If you were fortunate enough to live in North Beach or Chesapeake Beach, you might have access to public water, but for everyone else, well water would have to do.
In the state of Maryland, the net effective household income average was $11,001; in Calvert County, it was barely $9,000. Without doubt, in 1967, Calvert County was an economically deprived, backwards county, still tied to its centuries old lifestyle and to a cash crop that no longer brought in the cash. For farmers that did not have the ability or foresight to modernize, the future appeared bleak. For oystermen that were watching their annual harvest deteriorate as the Chesapeake Bay became more polluted with runoff from tributaries upstream, there looked to be no way out. Calvert County, geographically isolated and economically challenged, could expect no better from the changing world around them then they had always gotten; and that wasn’t very much.
Calvert County, Maryland’s smallest county, is very flat, being situated on the Atlantic Coastal Plain, with inland elevations reaching a maximum of only 120’. Conversely, its high cliffs on the Chesapeake discourage settlement near the water for a lack of an easily accessible dock. Not long after it was organized in 1654, settlers recognized that the native Norfolk loam that constituted most of the earth in the uplands area was excellent for growing tobacco and from that point on, “tobacco culture” came to define the county. Early in Maryland’s history, tobacco was a quick way for a poor man to become rich and so its cultivation spread rapidly. Later, as the crop became less profitable, an entrenched “tobacco culture” became an inescapable snare for farmers who could not imagine any other way. Those who could simply moved away, and at the start of the 19th century, the county was losing its population, both white and black. For centuries, those who remained would meander along with the fortunes of the tobacco harvest, paying the bills in good years and falling behind in bad. It was a hard life.
After the Civil War, Calvert County lost most of its forced labor population, and it had no industry or even large businesses to fill the void. Good fortune smiled upon the county in 1867 when Captain Issac Solomon of Philadelphia launched a commercial fishing enterprise on the shores of a plantation owned by Alexander Somerville. By 1880, Solomon had 500 vessels oystering and fishing the waters of the Chesapeake; his cannery shipped its products up and down the East Coast and a small amount of prosperity came to the area that still bears his name.
For the next few decades, the Solomons Island cannery, along with the ever-present tobacco crops, served as the basis for the county’s stagnant economy, though it cannot be said that progress came quickly to Calvert County. Even in the years after the First World War, most residents were still using horses and buggies as their primary mode of transportation and there was still only a single paved road, the new Maryland Route 2 connecting Owings and Solomons. Many young men chose to abandon their fathers’ farms for more lucrative work in Baltimore factories, though a few stayed around during Prohibition, helping to make the county infamous in the world of bootlegging.
It was also in the inter-war period that Calvert County saw what might be called a foreshadowing of things to come in a number of ways: the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, funded by the state to study Bay ecology was built at Solomons, and the county’s first power plant at Pope’s Creek was constructed. Together they brought jobs to the county and electricity to over 600 people. In 1942, the needs of the United States Government brought more jobs and not a small amount of upheaval to the county as the Patuxent Naval Air Station was established across the river in neighboring St. Mary’s County. Soon the area was crowded with construction workers living in paramilitary camps and then with military personnel who were stationed at the base. New businesses and jobs followed, but so did an upsurge in violent crime. Many of the older families living near the base, angry about the disruption but unwilling to complain, simply moved away. The newcomers to the county were referred to as “come heres” and were not entirely accepted by those who had stayed.
For those farmers who did remain in Calvert County, little changed. One such farmer was John C. Prouty. Prouty “…grew up steeped in tobacco. It was his family’s financial security, and insecurity. It was their schedule, their calendar. It bound them to the farm and taught them to be frugal…farming helped form his identity growing up.” Helen Gray remembered “helping her father sharecrop tobacco with a horse-drawn plow,” when interviewed in 2003.
Since then, fewer and fewer residents have chosen to make their livelihoods as part of the traditional tobacco culture. Gray’s daughter, interviewed at the same time, left the county as soon as she was able, and was never able to “understand how her mother could…romanticize a life as poverty-stricken and insecure as that of a sharecropper.”
Gilbert “Buddy” Bowling, a 3rd generation tobacco farmer along with all of his uncles and aunts, watched his son leave for a new life in Annapolis. He didn’t expect his farm to stay in the family after his death. It was “…a life where families lived on credit and never got ahead, a life before doctors were readily available, when farmers worked tobacco with horses and mules,” remembered Lindsey Wilson Reid, an elderly tobacco farmer in 2003.
For the typical small planter in Calvert County, the hardships of tobacco culture didn’t matter. Tobacco was an ingrained family tradition, as much a part of them as their family names, which could likely be traced back hundreds of years. Farmer S.L. Brady’s father and uncles worked for years as sharecroppers in the county before finally acquiring their own tobacco farms in the 1950s; his mother “grew up in the nearby tobacco fields.” It is ironic that just as these hardworking farmers were finally able to acquire their own tobacco farms, the plant began its historic recession from the mainstream of America, dooming its producers to continued rural poverty. Nothing ever seemed to change for Calvert County. Nothing that is, until May 29, 1967, when everything changed.
The words appeared in the fifth paragraph of a story in the Evening Sun’s April 4, 1967 edition. The article announced that the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company was considering building a nuclear power plant in one of two places: near Aberdeen in Harford County, and at Lusby in Calvert County; both were on the Chesapeake Bay, and nuclear power plants, the story noted, “must have ample supplies of water.” The official announcement of Calvert County’s selection as the location of the United States’ 58th nuclear power plant would come on May 29, 1967. Much of the land for the plant had been acquired from state Comptroller Louis Goldstein for more than $1 million, which was far in excess of the land’s appraised value at the time (an investigation would later legitimize the ethics of the deal to everyone’s apparent satisfaction.)
The news that Calvert County was being considered as the location of a nuclear power plant did not come as a surprise to residents, who had been working with BGE for almost three years on the logistics of bringing a reactor to the county. For its part, BGE needed assurances from the County Commissioners that their investment would not be compromised by zoning problems, and almost from the beginning, a county Planning Commission held meetings and hearings to address these potential stumbling blocks.
By 1966, county officials had adopted an interim master plan and appropriate zoning ordinances, including the rezoning of much of the county to allow for residential construction to house the expected increase in population, with the only restriction being a 1-acre minimum lot size. These dramatic changes opened up much of the county for immediate and wholesale housing development, with minor subdivision regulation only being added in 1969.
In addition, Calvert County’s main road, Maryland Route 4, would have to be widened, and a new bridge created connecting Calvert with St. Mary’s County to the south. (These were required not only due to the expected influx of workers, but also for egress in the event of a nuclear emergency.) For Calvert County, these changes meant leaving “tobacco culture” and its isolated, rural past behind. Calvert County now rushed to embrace a radically different future.
While some county residents were wary of the revolution that was headed their way, the business community cheered the process on at every step. In 1968, the Calvert County Jaycess published the Calvert County Digest, which while supplying locals with lots of useful information and telephone numbers, also spent two entire pages advocating for the construction of the nuclear power plant. The missive made many claims about the safety of nuclear power, the “clean” nature of nuclear energy as opposed to fossil fuels, and the protections afforded to the Chesapeake Bay. In this piece, the Jaycees place great trust in the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and it wanted readers to do the same. More to the point, the Jaycees noted, “the tax assessment on this single plant will be several times the entire present tax base.” What did that mean for county taxpayers? “This increase in revenue should retain or reduce the tax rate for other businesses and individuals in proportion to county financial requirements during 1973 and thereafter.” Another boon for the local economy was said to be the addition of hundreds of highly paid, skilled employees to the county tax rolls. The essay dramatically concluded, “It [the power plant] promises prosperity growth without rending the land we love.”
Not that everyone became a cheerleader for the nuclear power plant then under construction. Scientists at Johns Hopkins reported that thermal pollution would negatively affect fragile Bay ecosystems. In Calvert Cliffs Coordinating Committee v. Atomic Energy Commission, a local environmental group challenged the Atomic Energy Commission’s slow implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which had gone into effect in January of 1970. Particularly questioned was the Agency’s lack of an environmental impact statement, which the AEC had failed to provide in the case of Calvert Cliffs. On July 23, 1971, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed in a ruling that harshly criticized the AEC, and the Commission soon after announced that it would create new regulatory guidelines to bring itself into compliance with the court decision. Ironically, by that time, the Calvert Cliffs plant was nearly completed; the real impact of the ruling would only be felt in the future.
When originally announced, Baltimore Gas and Electric estimated the cost of the plant at $230 million; by the time the first reactor went online in 1975 the cost to BGE had risen to $766 million. A second reactor began operation in 1977. One of the factors in the plant’s ongoing operating expense was taxes paid to state and local government, which funded much of the economy in Calvert County, as business people had predicted a decade earlier. In Fiscal Year 1971, Calvert County had total revenues of $3.5 million. As the plant grew near completion, so did the county’s wallet. In FY 1976, revenues had increased to $6.6 million, and by FY 1981, with both reactors having been online for a few years, the county was collecting over $26 million in revenue. In these years, county spending per capita increased from $168 in FY 1971 to $639 in FY 1981, while school spending increased fivefold, although inflation represents almost half that amount. Soon, Calvert County would become a place where larger roads carried more demanding taxpayers to environmentally-controlled offices, often outside the county itself, while their 1.26 children attended numerous well-funded public schools.
For many residents, the arrival of the power plant was considered a godsend, an attitude gushingly reflected with a generous helping of civic pride in a 1987 publication by the Calvert County League of Women Voters. “Not only has the plant paid its tax bills promptly and cheerfully, it has been a good neighbor, employing all the enlightened self-interest a giant corporation can profitably apply to a community a little wary about its presence. Periodically, there is a flurry of awareness that nuclear energy comes with a certain amount of risk. Occasionally, the county is viewed with envy from elsewhere in the state because of its ‘windfall’, and then residents bristle and remind critics that the risk came before the reward, and that the risk remains. In any case, the power plant is there, making a profound impact on the county.”
Indeed, Calvert County had become an attractive place to live in the 1970s; the population during that decade nearly doubled. The future had arrived, with most of the new residents now traveling down a doublewide highway that cut through the old tobacco farms, that is until the old tobacco farms were sold and subdivided into new housing for the “come heres.” For locals, the loss of open space and traditional industries were making the county an unfamiliar place. Charlie Mister, editor of the Calvert Independent newspaper said, “I really miss just riding down the road and seeing a cow in the field. But the watermen and the farmers, their livelihoods are dead now, just dead.”
On the surface, the most notable change for the residents of Calvert County was simply how many of them they soon were. When the plant was announced in 1967, there were just over 5,000 households in the entire county, with about as many children in the public school system. By 1980, just five years after the first reactor went online, those numbers had doubled; by 1990, they had tripled. Some residents, such as Hagner Mister, Charlie’s cousin, were caught off guard. “People didn’t realize it would be that drastic. I mean, the county’s population had been pretty much flat for two centuries.” One thing is certain: it was no longer possible to project Calvert County’s future by using the past as a baseline. Calvert County had entered into uncharted waters.
In the first few years of the 21st century, Calvert County’s population continued to grow at a rate three times that of the state overall, but many of the “come heres,” only came to Calvert County to sleep. Washington, D.C., with its high-paying, professional job market, is exactly 42 miles from Calvert County, so it is no coincidence that in 2006, nearly 60% of adult residents were working outside the county, with a typical commute of nearly 40 minutes. Rising automobile usage is typical for areas beset with urban sprawl, and these vehicles emit much of the primary air pollutants that plague Calvert County today. One common type of vehicle pollutant are nitrogen oxides, which ‘combine with airborne particles and sunlight to form ground-level ozone, a toxic chemical with dangerous respiratory effects…” Academic studies have “…linked traffic-related air pollution to health problems such as asthma, cancer, premature birth, low birth weight, and a generally higher risk of death among residents…” These risks, however, did little to stem the tide of newcomers to once-sleepy Calvert County.
For people like Ronnie Weems, the new neighbors still seemed like outsiders, and he retained the term “locals” for those that came before the plant. “Before, people were a lot friendlier, everybody knew everybody. We hardly see any locals now.”
Charlie Mister, lamented the county’s loss of its sense of community. “The folks that sleep here and go to work every day don’t even know their neighbors. It’s a sad thing, really. It’s not Mayberry anymore.” Hagner felt similarly. “Up until 1970, I knew everyone in the neighborhood, and their dog, too. Now people live across the street and I never even see them.” Pearl Miller, who’s lived in the county since 1974, remembered a time when, “if you talked to people for long enough, you would usually find out that you were related.”
There has also been a loss of security in Calvert County associated with the influx of outsiders. “Neighbors used to look out for you,” Charlie Mister said. “I only started locking my house in 2005. I used to leave my car keys in the ignition. That’s all changed; now you have to lock everything.”
Many longtime residents just miss the quiet past. “I miss leaving home with my hunting dog and not seeing a lot of houses,” Hagner Mister said. “From 3:30-6:00 in the evening there’s a raft of cars and trucks; I miss the open roads.” Pearl Miller reflected on the loss of forestland in the county. “I miss the open spaces. My Dad had acreage up in Huntingtown and we’d go wandering through the woods. Now, there are no woods; it’s all subdivisions now.”
Miller also struck a familiar tone on the traffic on county roads. “I live on Route 4, and I used to come to the end of my driveway, glance to the right and go. Now I have to hope the lights are green when I come out. As for the noise, you get used to it, I guess. It starts at around 4:00-4:30 in the morning and goes on until 7:00-7:30, you know, with people going to work.”
While still yearning for their rural past, most residents still believe that the county is a better place than it was before the power plant arrived. “People either worked on their farms or on the water, and those jobs were limited,” Hagner Mister said. “I lived in poverty and didn’t even know it. Tobacco was on the way out anyway because of labor and the market, and tobacco had been king for a long time. The plant made a drastic impact on the school system, public safety, and now we have the best hospital in the state. BGE people serve on the hospital board, museum boards, and they give a lot of money to groups in the county. BGE employees have been very good to Calvert County.”
Pat Buehler, whose family has been in the county for more than four generations, agreed. “Before, we were the poorest county in the State of Maryland and we had the worst school system in the state. The power plant really was a boost to the county. We were suddenly able to build town centers and restaurants reopened. We got the Thomas Johnson Bridge built. Before that there used to be a barge from Solomons to St. Mary’s County over to the [Patuxent Naval Air] base. Property values increased. The pay was good and the people could work locally. They had retirement, and their kids were able to go to college. The growth has been good; you wouldn’t want to live here with bad schools and a small work force.”
Buehler did admit to a downside, however: higher taxes. Nevertheless, even this he attributed to the price of Calvert County coming into the modern age. “The taxes are high because people demand things that cost money.” Despite his enthusiasm for the county’s future, Buehler understands the difficulty encountered by people who want to stay in the county after they stop working. “There needs to be a cap on the property tax. It’s impossible to stay in your home when there’s a 10-15% increase in assessments in the property tax. It’s hard to retire here.”
Calvert County had become a place for the young and employable, for the educated and upscale, leaving behind all of the hardscrabble residents whose families had lived in the county for centuries. The result has been a gradual purging of the elderly and the destitute. By 2006, only 9% of Calvert County residents were 65 years of age or older, and the number of people living below the poverty level was half that of the state as a whole, a remarkable reversal for what had once been one of Maryland’s poorest jurisdictions.
Significant as well was the nature of the new demographic type that made up the latest “come heres.” They tended to be young, white and educated. By the year 2000, 36% of all county residents were between the ages of 20 and 44, with the median age in the county being just under 36 years. 84% of county residents were white, which was a remarkable shift from just 30 years earlier. Ronnie Weems, whose family has lived in Calvert County since 1715, remembered the time before the power plant. “Back then, the county had as many blacks as it did whites. Not now.” Many of these displaced former residents no doubt ended up squeezed into far less affluent subdivisions closer to the cities, effectively removed from the economic boom being experienced by the “come heres” in Calvert County.
Individual education level has become another dividing line between the “come heres” and the “locals”, with the result being an increasingly affluent, professional workforce. By the year 2000, nearly 30% of county residents were college educated. An additional 25% had attended college but not graduated. Concurrently, the median household income had skyrocketed to over $65,000, with the median male, full-time worker making nearly $50,000 a year alone. By 2004, the median household income was estimated to be almost $75,000. 61% of those employed could be classified as white-collar.
The days of a county populated by a racially diverse, rural underclass had gone forever, and with it a common culture that could never be retrieved. While both rich and poor, black and white had a common connection to the land, and to the tobacco it produced, Calvert County remained a place where time appeared to stand still. Blacks and whites worked their farms side by side, with each sharing in the fortune or misery of that year’s growing season. The soil beneath them was no respecter of persons; it did not care how old the plowman was, or whether he possessed a degree. It did not look up to note skin color or income level. While tobacco was king in Calvert County, so was the equalizing effect of the work. As tobacco culture began to be displaced by technology, this equalizing element vanished, along with most of the people who depended on it. Today, less than ½ of 1% of all county residents work on farms or on the Bay.
Bernie Fowler was a Calvert County Commissioner during the 1970s and a Maryland State Senator from 1983-1994. Fowler is a longtime advocate of the Patuxent River and environmental issues in general, especially where they concern Calvert County. Fowler remembered the day when the tax money began to flow from BGE in 1975. “We got a check for $7,500,000, and it was a great opportunity to change the infrastructure in Calvert County. Still, I don’t think people generally anticipated the kind of impact that the plant would have. It attracted a lot of people with big salaries.”
The big salaries and the influx of workers looking for upscale housing have driven the price for a home in Calvert County to levels that were unimaginable decades only before. Fowler remembered the change. “The property just appreciated so much. I can remember a time when you could get a good lot for $50 an acre in Calvert County, and now there are lots out there going for $400,000. My own property assessment just went up $50,000.”
Then there was the tobacco buyout enacted by the administration of Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, which became the death knell for tobacco production in Calvert County. The program was funded by a large monetary settlement with tobacco companies that the state was a party to in the 1990s, and it paid $1 per pound for ten years to tobacco farmers who voluntarily chose to stop growing the crop. According to the Southern Maryland Agricultural Commission, “eighty-six percent of the 1998 eligible tobacco ha[d] been taken out of production forever for human consumption as 877 growers have taken Maryland's Tobacco Buyout by January 2005. This represents 7.80 million pounds of tobacco and 94% of the producers.” “I know one farmer who got $100,000 a year for ten consecutive years,” Bernie Fowler mused.
Only two farmers in Calvert County continue to grow tobacco today, and even for them, tobacco isn’t their primary crop. It’s as if tobacco is kept alive more for its historic importance, like the cider mill that turns out a few hundred gallons of cider every fall just so the children can see what a cider press looks like. For Calvert County, tobacco is now nothing more than a museum piece, a fixture of its past, fit only for vacuum-sealed display cases at a visitor’s center or historical society. What little is left of tobacco culture in Calvert County cannot come close to relating to future generations what has been lost there, and what trade-offs a community has to make if its goal is modernization.
Now that the county’s rural past has been lost forever, Fowler has his regrets. “I would turn the clock back in a heartbeat. I would leave it the way it was. I liked the neighborly time we had then. Calvert County had a rural flavor, I knew everybody in the county; I miss that leisurely way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s like a zoo now. Houses where fields used to be, being able to fish anywhere. That’s all gone now.”
For Fowler, it’s a “quality of life” issue. “I don’t feel as safe as I used to. I don’t ever recall my folks locking a door in their house, for example. But now, we have several murders a year, and that was unheard of then. The air and the water, well, that’s a sad state of affairs. It’s because of the migration of the people into the county. The Patuxent River just got a D minus from the University of Maryland; it’s the second dirtiest river in the area now. Our quality of life has pretty much been destroyed as far as the environment goes.” Fowler did, however, comment on one of the ironies of the plant as it relates to the environment. “You know, I used to take my boat out on the Bay to do some fishing, and I’ll tell you, some of the best rockfishing in the Bay is right around the “white water” near the plant, where they discharge the water that’s used to cool the plant.”
Fowler, a champion of the environment who witnessed his county’s radical transformation from the inside, will never forget how pristine the waters of the Patuxent River used to be, or how clean the air used to smell. He doesn’t necessarily blame the power plant itself, rather he sees the surge of people on the peninsula as the culprit. According to Charles W. Schmidt, suburban sprawl such as the kind that the Patuxent watershed has experienced “is linked to many environmental problems, including increased automobile emissions, deterioration of air and water quality, loss of rural lands and a declining sense of community.” Schmidt also noted a linkage between human stress disorders and sprawl.
All the while, Calvert County continues to accept accolades for its management of the rapid growth.
In May of 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency published “Calvert County, Maryland's Success in Controlling Sprawl,” which applauded the county for “a zoning ordinance that provides for a major reduction in future density and that directs the location of future growth.” Meanwhile, Bernie Fowler’s river continues to die, and for this, he blames the EPA itself for failing to live up to agreements signed in 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2000 that would have placed limits on nitrogen and phosphorus emissions into the Chesapeake Bay. He also cited the lack of Total Maximum Daily Load caps for the tributaries of the watershed as additional failures of government oversight.
According to Fowler, 650,000 people live in the Patuxent River watershed alone, with many of them having been drawn by the riches of Calvert County. “Most people are happy because they have lots of money and luxuries, and today, Calvert County has one of the highest median incomes, which is a result of the revenues we get from the power plant.” Prosperity, it would seem, is an all-purpose cure for the disease of environmental awareness. As so often happens, as citizens begin to experience the creature comforts of technological advancement, they are loathe to surrender them, even if they later realize that those very comforts are poisoning their communities.
This is where governmental agencies are expected to step in, and much of Fowler’s unhappiness stems from what he believes to be failures of government to live up to agreements made concerning the environment. “In 1975, the Federal government vowed to have a repository built for the nuclear waste, but to this day, it’s still being stored in concrete caskets inside walls of thick concrete that are supposed to be earthquake proof and atomic bomb proof. Still, there’s an uneasy feeling about it for me.” The federal government has been trying since 1978 to get appropriate regulatory approval to store all of the nation’s spent nuclear waste in a central repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. However, thirty years later, even the most optimistic projections don’t envision Yucca Mountain accepting spent nuclear fuel before 2017. In the meantime, Calvert Cliffs will continue to hold onto its own extremely corrosive nuclear waste, hoping that Yucca Mountain is ready before the caskets have disintegrated.
No one in the industry pretends that nuclear power comes without risk. BGE itself routinely publishes and distributes emergency information to county residents that enumerates the possible hazards that could accompany a mishap at the plant, as well as giving instructions on what to do in the event of certain emergencies. The pamphlet lists four classifications of emergencies: Unusual Event, Alert, Site Emergency and General Emergency. Suggested responses in the 1999-2000 pamphlets ranged from “no response by county or state agencies or the public is necessary” to “People in the affected areas would be instructed to take shelter indoors or to evacuate.” Other pages are devoted to an explanation of radiation exposure risks, reassurances of government monitoring and a brief overview of how the power plant works.
A similar brochure was distributed to the residents of Talbot County, across the Chesapeake Bay from its wealthier sister. While Talbot County gets to share in the risks associated with a nuclear accident at the plant, it does not get to share in the economic rewards, with a median household income nearly half that of Calvert County. In its publication, “Does the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant affect me?” the residents of Talbot County are informed that they live within the “Ingestion Zone”, a 50-mile radius of Calvert Cliffs. They are warned about the potential risks of radiation poisoning to both humans and food, and given instruction as to what to do in the event of an emergency. Readers are also alerted that exposure may result in their farmland being unusable for “a period of time.” No mention is made of who will compensate the people of Talbot County in the event that the nuclear plant destroys their livelihoods across the Bay.
Charlie Mister worried about what might happen if there was an emergency evacuation. “We have one road in and out, and with terrorism, it’s just not safe. If something were to happen, we’d never get out of here.” His worries are not without cause. As Americans have witnessed before, government often responds with vigor only after the catastrophe has occurred, when the plight of hundreds or thousands of lost souls make a problem impossible to ignore, and on the crowded Patuxent Peninsula, Calvert Cliffs is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Even if there is no “emergency” at the plant, there are still risks to be undertaken. A study of “healthy workers” at British nuclear power plants found “a positive relationship between cumulative radiation dose and leukemia.” A study of workers at Calvert Cliffs concluded that employees receive “measurable radiation doses additional to the average…from natural background,” despite plant efforts at shielding them. Unfortunately, it is reported, it will take additional years of study to make any definite conclusions about the extent of the risks workers at Calvert Cliffs take every day.
For those who actually hold jobs at the power plant, those issues probably don’t occupy much of their thoughts. For 35-year employee Steve Cherry, Calvert Cliffs was the turning point in his life. “My parents moved down here in 1974. In my first year of college, I saw an ad pinned to a university bulletin board for a Water Treatment Plant Operator, and I’ve been there ever since. Heck, BGE gave me my whole career. My children got to go to Calvert County Public Schools and I sent two of them to college.” The county has changed quite a bit since Steve’s parents moved there, and Steve didn’t hesitate to attribute that change to the plant. “It [the plant] changed Calvert County overnight. It brought a lot of employment, because before then everyone was either a farmer, an oysterman or a carpenter. The plant pushed road construction along faster; I’m not sure that the [Thomas Johnson] bridge would ever have been built.” Cherry also credits the plant with helping to hold down the county’s “piggyback” tax, which in most Maryland jurisdictions was as much as 50%, while in Calvert it held at 10-20% for many years. (A “piggyback tax” is a local levy added onto state tax returns, usually calculated as a percent of the larger state tax that it “piggybacks” on.)
In recent years, Calvert residents have been debating the wisdom of a proposed third nuclear reactor currently being considered for Calvert Cliffs. Constellation Energy is seeking approval from state and federal regulatory agencies for the project. While public reaction has been generally supportive, environmental activists are concerned.
The Chesapeake Safe Energy Coalition, in an April 14, 2008 letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, decried the lack of a meaningful Cost Benefit Analysis and Environmental Impact Statement. The letter accuses Constellation Energy of “deflecting and deterring public involvement in the EIS” as opposed to promoting “careful and transparent analysis.” The group urges that renewable energy sources and “energy efficiency” to reduce demand be considered as alternatives to additional nuclear energy producers. Additionally, the letter asks the NRC to address “Low-Level Radioactive Waste” and where it will be stored; potential consequences of a nuclear accident at Calvert Cliffs; emergency evacuation planning; the “Potential Effects of Climate Change” on the operation of the plant; security issues; and seismic risks.
Residents of Calvert County have been particularly concerned with the safety of the narrow, two-lane Thomas Johnson Memorial Bridge, which carries over 27,000 vehicles each day between Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. Critics of the planned reactor are worried that in the event of an emergency evacuation order there would not be time to get everyone out in time, as was witnessed during the evacuation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Others are pinning their hopes on the sale of Constellation Energy, which they hope will result in changed plans for the third reactor and shift discussion toward renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power.
Calvert County Commissioners, not surprisingly, are squarely behind the proposed reactor. In a public letter published in August of 2008, five commissioners touted nuclear energy as a way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and curb greenhouse gas emissions. The references to dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions are ironic, since suburban sprawl contributes to both. Of more immediate interest to the county however, is the $20 million dollars of new tax revenue, on top of the $17.3 million already being paid, projected for the county. The letter also spoke of the safety record of the plant and the prospect of job creation in a tough economy. It is hard to see how county residents would not be swayed by the powerful economic arguments, but some still resist.
Dr. Peter Vogt, an opponent of power plant expansion, moved with his family to Calvert County in 1969 to be close to his work at the Randall Cliffs Naval Research Laboratory, south of Chesapeake Beach. He remembered the issue of taxes being intertwined with the power plant almost from the beginning, as taxpayers’ groups forced the County Commissioners to reduce the tax rate once the plants were online and the new revenue was flowing in. Today he has regrets about what has happened to his adopted homeland. “Calvert County became one big subdivision.” Vogt blamed highway expansion for the influx of newcomers. “Building a dual highway from the Beltway into Calvert County opened the county up to development and I had hoped it would stay somewhat rural.”
Today Vogt works in opposition to the proposed third reactor. In April of 2008, a letter from Vogt appeared in the Calvert Independent, a weekly newspaper based in Prince Frederick, in which he comments on a political cartoon regarding the debate on the third reactor. The cartoon is labeled “Great Moments in Calvert History,” and contains numerous symbolic allegories, which Vogt explains in some detail in his letter. The thrust of the image seems to be that the government is using the lure of massive subsidies to blind people to the dangers of nuclear energy.
While this discussion was ongoing, so were Calvert County’s budget debates. In March of 2008, county officials unveiled a recommended budget of over $221 million, an increase of 7.6 percent from the previous year’s allocation, even with projected losses in revenue from state income taxes and other fees as well as a loss of $5.5 million in county investments. That figure also represented an increase of almost ten times the county budget of FY 1981, and nearly one hundred times the county’s budgets before the arrival of the power plant (without adjustment for inflation). The new county budget proposal called for 40 new government jobs during a time of overall job loss in the state and nation. In Calvert County, the presence of the Calvert Cliffs plant promises that the good times will keep right on rolling, no matter what the reality is in the rest of the world.
However, for the people of Calvert County, the presence of a nuclear power plant has been a two-edged sword. While it no doubt brought them out of a doomed economy predicated on a crop that was quickly falling out of favor, it also changed them in ways they could not expect and did not anticipate. Most accepted the loss of their bucolic past with good nature, passing it off on the march toward a brighter future, but some weren’t so sure. They sensed a loss of something intangible, and they reminisced about a county that they often described as “laid back”, and a time when the faces peering back through passing car windshields were all familiar to them.
Another element lost in modern Calvert County is balance. Where they used to be a diverse community of farmers and fishermen, carpenters and merchants, today there is an almost monolithic demographic consisting of primarily well educated white professionals, who raise few children and maintain fewer connections to the county and who commute nearly 40 miles each day to work. This new generation of “come heres” never really came there at all. Of course, they purchased housing there, and they paid taxes there, but they never established roots there. They rarely involved themselves in matters outside their own home, and they hardly, if ever, made their impact known on a community to whom they are largely invisible. They left for work very early and they came home very late. If they stayed in Calvert County to retire, they might then have time to get involved in the community, as many retirees do. However, by the time people in Calvert County retire, they can no longer afford to pay the property taxes on their ever-appreciating homes, so they leave, perhaps to become an active member of some other, less opulent tax base, transients to the end.
At the end of the day, what’s been gained in Calvert County is significant. There are great schools, excellent medical facilities, and good jobs. Incomes are high while income taxes are kept at a reasonable level. Nevertheless, what’s been lost in the exchange is Calvert County itself, because what defines a community is its people, and on most days in the early years of this century, Calvert County’s people have been unknown to themselves and to each other. They passed on the highways in a blur, or in the aisles of the brightly lit supermarkets without even a nod of the head to acknowledge the existence of the other.
It is the curse of modern suburbia, descended on what was a fragment of our nation’s rural past. For most residents of Calvert County, the descent was so swift that they neither had the time to notice nor the power to impede its progress. Instead, they just closed their curtains and made sure to lock the deadbolts on the doors before going upstairs for the night, safely sequestered from their mysterious neighbors.