Md. lawmakers fear for environment

January 20, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Some members of Maryland's congressional

delegation are worried that the fever raging on Capitol Hill to shrink the federal government could weaken environmental regulation and threaten the nation's health.

They fear that the campaign by conservative Republicans against "unfunded mandates" -- laws that require states, localities and private industries to carry out improvements and pay for them as well -- could go too far.

The House of Representatives began debate yesterday on a bill that would reduce much of the government's regulatory activity. In the Senate, Republicans' hopes of quickly passing their version of the bill dimmed with the defeat of a motion to cut off debate by Democrats.

Environmentalists have been particularly wary of the legislation and the fervor that drives it.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Eastern Shore Republican, supports relieving states and businesses of excessive environmental regulation. But he is wary of the anti-regulatory zeal that he senses among some members of Congress.

"I'm very concerned about holding on to quality environmental legislation," he said. "From what I'm seeing, there is the potential to undo environmental laws that have been very successful. And I don't want that to happen."

The bills in both the House and Senate would, among other things, make it harder for the Environmental Protection Agency to order states, localities or private industries to meet anti-pollution standards unless federal money came with those orders.

Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., the Pennsylvania Republican who is author of the House bill, said, "The concept behind this legislation is simple: We pass it, we pay for it."

Environmental groups say they are alarmed.

"We've read the 'Contract,' " Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club, said, referring to the Republican "Contract with America" and its call for less regulation. "The debate about it is whether we are going to go back to the '60s and say that if states don't choose to clean up the pollution that affects other states, the federal government won't make them."

Those were the bad old days, according to Mr. Pope. "Today, you can breathe the air," he said. "The Cuyahoga River [in Ohio] no longer catches fire."

The two principal laws from which EPA mandates flow are the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The first requires communities to have adequate sewerage. The second requires states, localities and private industries to control emissions of everything from cars to municipal incinerators to factory chimneys. Other laws cover the purity of drinking water, solid-waste disposal, landfill standards and the cleanup of toxic-waste sites.

Most of the costs of fulfilling these mandates are met by states and communities, or by private enterprise. For its part, the federal government has provided about $2 billion a year to states to build sewage treatment plants since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.

"It's not 100 percent, but it's not nothing," Mark Luttner, an official in the EPA's water office, said of the federal contribution. He said the $2 billion amounts to about 20 percent of the costs.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said he shares Mr. Gilchrest's concern that if such laws were weakened by anti-regulatory forces, the progress made so far on the environment could be threatened.

"We have a major drive against pollution in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup," Mr. Sarbanes said. "This is a state sensitive to its environment. Suppose an adjacent state from which the problem comes doesn't care. You have to have certain [national] standards."

To illustrate, the senator recalled New Jersey's practice some years ago of dumping its sewage in the ocean. That was stopped by the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988.

Mr. Sarbanes agreed that "there are some people who are using [the unfunded mandate drive] to get toward no regulation."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said he also thought that a few members of Congress wanted a virtual moratorium on regulation. He described it as "very dangerous."

Maryland's freshman Republican, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, said he thinks the outcome of the effort to curb unfunded mandates may not be as severe as some expect.

"In the past, the inclination was to expand these mandates," he said. "Now, we just want to look at them to see how far they've gone."

The League of Conservation Voters last year gave 29 members of Congress scores of zero for their votes on environmental issues. Among them were some powerful members, such as the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, and the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia. The author of the Senate's unfunded-mandate bill, Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, an Idaho Republican, also received a zero score.

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