Environment secretary is OK, skeptics decide Once apprehensive companies call Nishida sensitive to problems

Critic 'glad to be wrong'

New era for Maryland? Some friends of nature are watching carefully

November 27, 1995|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,SUN STAFF

Maryland businesses that once expressed concern that a "greenie" had become the state's environment secretary are now saying they are pleasantly surprised with the performance of Jane T. Nishida, at least so far.

"I'm glad to be wrong on this one as far as Jane is concerned," said Carolyn T. Burridge, a lobbyist for the Chemical Industry Council of Maryland. In January, Ms. Burridge criticized Gov. Parris N. Glendening's appointment of Ms. Nishida to the Department of the Environment post, predicting that the former Chesapeake Bay Foundation director would be insensitive to the cost to businesses of environmental regulations.

Yet what has caught the attention of the chemical industry, sand and gravel companies, homebuilders and other Maryland businesses is an apparent change in attitude in the way Ms. Nishida's regulators are dealing with those that need permits to operate or expand.

"[They have] embarked down the road to cooperation," said J. Steven Wise, a spokesman for the 2,700-member Maryland Builders Association.

Ms. Nishida says she is trying to change the perception that her agency is anti-business by changing the approach her employees take to their work.

"The department wants to provide predictable, common sense outcomes to businesses in Maryland. We want to reform the permitting process, but not roll back environmental protections," Ms. Nishida said. "We're trying to be more customer friendly."

Corporate leaders say no issue except for lowering taxes is more important to business than eliminating excessive or redundant regulations and speeding up the permit process. The state, they say, is finally starting to listen.

Environmentalists admit they are watching this transformation nervously.

They say they still view Ms. Nishida as an ally and believe her department wants to streamline regulations without weakening environmental protections. But they add they are fearful the state, in its zeal to improve the business climate, could go too far.

The de-partment's attempt at change is already being felt by some businesses. Testifying recently before a joint legislative committee focusing on ways to improve Maryland's economy, chemical company executive Larry Garrison described Ms. Nishida's agency as "aggressively addressing business concerns."

"The administration at MDE is trying to streamline the process," said Mr. Garrison, technical services manager for Grace Davison Divisional Management, a chemical manufacturer with headquarters in Baltimore and a plant in Curtis Bay. "They are willing to try new ideas and are providing customer service to the regulated community.

"We see this as a positive note to improve the perception that has been portrayed as anti-business in the past."

Ms. Nishida laid out for the committee a long list of steps that her department is taking to become more "customer friendly" to business.

Among them: establishing a one-stop-shopping Environmental Permits Center; visiting and providing more technical assistance businesses; preparing a comprehensive environmental permits manual; cross-training staff from the departments of environment and business development; and launching a variety studies to determine if regulations are duplicative, outdated or excessive.

"I see this, and our industry sees this, as the beginning of a turnaround," said Samuel W. Christine III of the Maryland Aggregates Association, which represents 54 companies that produce and distribute crushed rock, sand and gravel.

Ms. Nishida said a review by her department of all the environmental permits, licenses and certifications it issues shows that 76 percent are approved within 30 days. Some, however, take 90 days, six months or longer. The secretary said she hopes to increase the number of approvals in the 30-day category, but said some permit requests are so complicated and require such extensive study that it would be wrong to rush them through the process in 30 days.

That is precisely what environmentalists fear -- that the state, in the name of efficiency, will bow to business pressure, curtail citizen involvement and rubber-stamp the permit requests.

"You look at each permit and decide where the unnecessary glitches are and fix them individually," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director for Clean Water Action. "All that makes sense as long as what isn't touched is the citizen involvement -- that it is early, meaningful, honest."

As a recent case in point, environmentalists complain that the Glendening administration has been too cozy with developers of a proposed city in Southern Maryland called Chapman's Landing. They say the state moved too quickly to grant the developers a water permit to start the first phase.

"What we're worried about is the shortcuts that get taken, the process that gets bypassed, like in Chapman's, where private meetings were happening that citizens didn't know about," Ms. Schmidt-Perkins said.

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