State sets high goals for environment Protection strategy includes reversing wetlands destruction

Md. actions please EPA

Official backs bill requiring annual enforcement reports

February 14, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The Glendening administration laid out an ambitious "road map" yesterday for environmental protection that includes a call for reversing a half-century of wetlands destruction.

Vowing to redouble efforts to protect Maryland's air, land and water, Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida also confronted concerns about the administration's enforcement of environmental laws. She endorsed legislation that would require her agency to make an annual report to the General Assembly summarizing inspections and penalties.

"We must hold ourselves accountable," she said at a State House news conference.

Joining her was the federal Environmental Protection Agency's mid-Atlantic regional administrator, W. Michael McCabe, who last year questioned Maryland's commitment to enforce pollution laws amid evidence of dwindling citations and scrutiny. The EPA intervened in a few cases when it deemed state action weak or slow.

McCabe, who lately has been even more critical of Virginia and Pennsylvania, said he was satisfied that Maryland officials were upholding environmental laws. He said the EPA and the state had been working together on a "major enforcement action" to be announced in a couple of weeks.

"Strong enforcement is essential to a balanced environmental policy," McCabe said.

A review of state enforcement activity by The Sun last summer found that oversight had increased in some areas, such as air pollution, but that overall inspections, citations and penalties had declined in the previous few years.

For example, the state collected about 10 percent as much in penalties for water pollution last year as it had three years before, according to data requested by Sen. Brian E. Frosh. The Montgomery County Democrat, chairman of the environmental protection subcommittee, has introduced a bill to require annual reports of enforcement activity.

"I hope that will provide an incentive for them to be diligent," he said recently, "and if not, it will provide the tools for any citizen to light a fire under them."

State officials attributed part of the decline to a reorganization of the environmental agency's field staff, but it also contended that it was getting many polluters to clean up without resorting to formal enforcement actions.

"The public has a right to know," Nishida said in endorsing Frosh's bill.

The 42-point draft of environmental goals for the state provides a mostly upbeat report on air and water quality while acknowledging room to improve. It notes, for instance, that the state meets five of six federal air-quality standards but that summertime smog still affects 87 percent of Marylanders.

The plan calls for eliminating unhealthful levels of ozone, the chief ingredient in smog, within eight years. That is the deadline set by federal law.

Wetlands goals

Another far-reaching goal calls for increasing ecologically valuable wetlands by 10 percent, replacing 60,000 acres that Nishida said had been lost to suburban sprawl over the past 50 years.

"We need to move from our current policy of 'no net loss' [of wetlands] to a net gain," she said.

Wetlands help filter pollution from water, provide habitat for fish and birds, and harbor many of the state's rarest plants. %o Regulations have been able to prevent losses over the past five years by limiting development in wetlands and requiring replacement when destruction is permitted.

Increasing the state's wetlands would require an unprecedented effort to identify and restore marshes on public and private lands that have been drained or altered, Nishida said.

Wetlands might be created through state acquisition, tax credits or other incentives for private landowners, but the plan does not specify how the goal would be achieved. Nishida said that would be worked out later with other government agencies and with affected landowners.

State officials want to hear from the public before making the plan final.

Environmental activists, although generally supportive, questioned whether state officials would have the willpower to take potentially controversial steps to reach their goals. Joy Oakes of the Sierra Club pointed out that the state has refused to block Chapman's Landing, a large housing development planned around ecologically important wetlands and fishing grounds in Charles County.

"These are the kinds of rubber-meets-the-road choices the state is going to have to make to meet these goals," Oakes said.

Smog suit threatened

Meanwhile, in Washington, several environmental groups threatened yesterday to sue the EPA for failing to force Maryland and most other East Coast states to combat smog by requiring cleaner-running automobiles be sold within their borders.

A coalition of states from Maine to Virginia, including Maryland, petitioned the EPA three years ago to require that cars sold in the East meet the same emissions standards as the "ultra-clean" cars being put on the market in California, which has the worst smog in the country.

The EPA has been trying to get cleaner cars produced nationwide instead, but that plan has been stymied by automakers' refusal to sell a specified number of electric-powered cars and vans in the East, as California has required.

"It often takes a suit like this to force the issue," McCabe said.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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