ANNAPOLIS -- When the House of Delegates took the rare step last week of killing a bill to limit liability for oil spills on its third and final vote, the bill's opponents knew they had pulled off a coup.
They might have celebrated too soon.
Late last week, the bill was resurrected and sent back to the House Environmental Matters Committee for fine-tuning, and yesterday the House reversed itself by passing the bill on a 72-64 vote.
With such a slim margin (71 votes are needed to pass a bill in the House), and with the attendant controversy, House Bill 683 is unlikely to pass the Senate without a bruising fight.
The debate yesterday over the bill was every bit as long and passionate as it was last week, when it failed by a vote of 63-60.
If approved, the measure would put a cap of $10 million on the amount of damages that third parties -- such as homeowners, boaters, those who fish for a living and those who rent out recreational facilities -- could collect from liability lawsuits. The bill would not affect the amount of liability that companies would pay for environmental cleanup or personal injury.
This time around, those who supported the economic interests of the port of Baltimore won over those who feared the potential economic and environmental damage of an oil spill in the Chesapeake Bay.
"For the first time," said Del. Gary D. Alexander, D-Prince George's, the bill's chief opponent, "a step backward is being taken by Maryland, which is ranked first nationally and internationally on the protection of the environment."
He showed maps charting the possible spread of an oil spill in the bay, and he quoted statistics about the extent of damage in other states where oil has been spilled.
Mr. Alexander disputed claims that Baltimore will lose business to Virginia's Hampton Roads port system if Maryland fails to enact a similar $10 million ceiling.
"There ain't one more containership that's going to come to the port of Baltimore with this bill or without this bill," Mr. Alexander asserted.
But it was clear from the start that the bill's supporters already had persuaded enough delegates to switch their votes.