Pollution 'audits' proposal derailed Lawmakers retreat on plan to expand regulatory immunity

March 23, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron and Timothy B. Wheeler | Thomas W. Waldron and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Environmentalists won a major victory in Annapolis yesterday when lawmakers withdrew legislation that would have given legal and regulatory immunity to corporations and others who report their own pollution problems.

Facing strong opposition in the Maryland Senate, Carroll Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines requested that the so-called "environmental audits" bill he co-sponsored be sent back to a Senate committee a move that likely dooms the measure for the year.

The bill, which had the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, had become the No. 1 target of the environmental lobbyists in the state House.

"We're thrilled," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, lobbyist for Clean Water Action. "We win one every once in a while."

Before Mr. Haines' move, both lobbyists and legislators had predicted that there were enough votes in the Senate to kill the bill.

The measure would have granted broad immunity to companies and others who discover pollution problems and report them to state authorities.

Under the bill, which was pushed by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, any business that submitted a "self-audit" disclosing environmental violations and agreed to clean them up would be spared from state penalties. Nor could the audit report be used as evidence in any lawsuits against the company, except in rare instances.

The bill had the support of the General Assembly's two presiding officers, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., both Democrats.

"I thought this was a consensus bill," Mr. Miller said, noting that the state Department of the Environment supported it.

He said he was surprised earlier in the session that the bill was opposed by environmental groups, as well as by Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Miller, D-Prince George's, said he sent the bill back to committee to "avoid a floor fight."

Champe McCulloch, president of the chamber of commerce, said business leaders would continue to press for the bill. Fourteen other states have adopted "self-audit" laws, he said, and Maryland needs to follow suit to compete for economic development.

The bill would give corporations an important incentive to clean up their pollution problems, Mr. McCulloch added.

Environmentalists countered that the bill went too far. The state, they noted, already forgoes penalizing companies that voluntarily report violations and clean them up.

But the Senate bill would shield polluters from government penalties whether or not they did any cleanup, environmentalists said. It also would make it harder for citizens to sue to recover damages when they believed their health or property had been harmed by contamination.

"It would have given Maryland a black eye," said Thomas Grasso, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said that despite the Senate action, his panel would seek to pass a modified version of the bill.

Mr. Glendening, who enjoyed strong support from environmental groups during his 1994 campaign, was criticized by representatives of some of those same groups for backing the audits bill.

This week, Mr. Glendening released a letter to lawmakers that restated his support for the bill. But he was careful to balance his statement with reminders of his endorsement of several environmental measures.

"As you know, we have consistently supported policies that attempt to balance the need to protect our environment and the consumer and yet attract jobs and business to our state," Mr. Glendening said.

"That's ridiculous," countered Ms. Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action. She charged that James Brady, secretary of employment and economic development, "has been calling the shots on all substantial legislation."

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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