Senate's EPA cuts threaten Maryland Waste cleanup, work on bay could be hurt by action, officials say

September 28, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

Hazardous waste cleanups in Maryland could be delayed and Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts slowed if federal spending cuts approved yesterday by the Senate become law, state and federal officials said.

The Senate voted 55-45 to trim the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 23 percent and to limit the agency's authority to regulate development of wetlands and automobile-related air pollution.

The cut would not be as great as the 34 percent reduction approved this year by the House. The Senate also rejected most House efforts to impose limits on EPA's enforcement of environmental laws.

The Senate would pare the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program and would reduce the funds given states for upgrading sewage plants and drinking water systems -- both vital to Maryland, officials said.

The final outcome for the EPA remains unclear, because House and Senate leaders must resolve the differences in their spending limits, while Democrats are urging President Clinton to veto the EPA appropriation and other GOP-directed budget cuts.

Though less severe than the House cuts, the Senate action still would be painful to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region, said W. Michael McCabe, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator.

"It's sort of like a soldier who stepped on a land mine, and the surgeon said, 'Well, instead of amputating both your legs we're only going to amputate one,' " he said.

The Senate would cut the hazardous-waste cleanup program by a third, from $1.4 billion to $1 billion.

The appropriation bill for fiscal 1996 also would reduce by $587 million federal grants to states for improving drinking water and for sewage treatment systems.

pTC "I am very concerned that this decrease in funding will have serious adverse effects on the Chesapeake Bay," Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski said during the Senate debate yesterday.

Ms. Mikulski joined Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and other Democrats in an unsuccessful effort to restore funds for hazardous wastes and sewage treatment, and to blunt GOP efforts to rein in EPA.

But Republicans rejected criticism that their actions were "crippling" environmental protections.

"We have in the last 25 years come a long way toward cleaning up our environment," said Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, who defended the GOP's spending cuts and restriction on EPA's enforcement.

Mr. Bond said future environmental protections must be based on "common sense" and "sound science."

In Maryland, EPA officials say the Superfund cut could postpone cleanup of an old landfill near Abingdon in Harford County and a long-closed wood treatment plant in St. Mary's County.

Robert DeMarco, who oversees hazardous-waste restoration for state Department of the Environment, said he feared that the EPA budget cuts also would hamper emergency cleanups.

Mr. DeMarco noted that EPA spent about $2.5 million in the past year alone to remove toxic wastes discovered in abandoned factories in East Baltimore and in Cecil County.

A $1.4 million, EPA-supervised cleanup of the old Ainsworth Paint & Chemical Co. was finished a few weeks ago, just six months after an inspector stumbled on more than 400 cans and drums of old paints, solvents and chemicals in the abandoned brick building at 3200 E. Biddle St. Houses are across Edison Highway from the building.

EPA's Superfund program has been criticized for the slow pace of cleaning up long-standing toxic waste problems, but the agency does a good job responding to potential emergencies like the Ainsworth plant, Mr. DeMarco said.

The state cannot make up the lost money, he added.

While the Senate did not trim EPA's Chesapeake Bay restoration program, officials say other provisions in the bill would undermine the bay cleanup.

The state stands to lose about $14 million that would go for low-interest loans to municipalities to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

J. Charles Fox, assistant state environment secretary, said the decrease in federal aid could force local governments to raise water and sewer rates to finance upgrades of antiquated facilities. Or, he warned, it could delay or prevent needed improvements.

Mr. McCabe, EPA's regional administrator, also said the bay would be affected by restrictions the Senate placed on EPA's ability to prevent development of wetlands and to require air pollution controls.

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