House OKs cleanup for polluted land Legislation paves way for reclamation of contaminated sites

Delegates approve, 136-0

Taylor credits aide with fashioning key compromise

February 19, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

The Maryland General Assembly ended a yearlong struggle over how to reclaim polluted industrial land yesterday as the House of Delegates passed the so-called brownfields bill unanimously and without debate.

The legislation offers regulatory and financial incentives to clean up contaminated sites so they can be redeveloped.

On Monday night, the Senate unanimously passed an identical version -- guaranteeing that the legislation will be enacted by the time the Assembly reaches the midpoint of its 1997 session Friday.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening hailed the vote yesterday as "the first great victory of the 1997 legislative session."

After the 136-0 vote yesterday, delegates burst into applause and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. passed out congratulations liberally.

"I would suggest that so far it's the high water mark of this session," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. He said he expected that Glendening would sign the bill next week.

The bill's passage allows Taylor, Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to claim an important success on an effort that ended in failure last year. Brownfields legislation died on the last day of the 1996 session when the two chambers jTC could not reconcile their radically different bills.

"It's been a long struggle," said Miller. "Sometimes good things are worth waiting for, especially if it means bringing environmental and economic interests together."

A state task force has estimated that there are about 1,200 brownfields in Maryland, with 900 acres of vacant or underused land in Baltimore alone. Much of the land -- an estimated 3,200 acres -- lies alongside the port of Baltimore in the city and in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties.

The legislation will allow owners or prospective buyers of property that was polluted by others to qualify for local tax credits, loans and grants to develop the land. The bill also will grant limited protection from legal liability so companies cannot be sued for pollution they did not cause.

The governor's proposed fiscal 1998 budget includes $390,000 to begin implementation of the program. Companies will help pay for the program with a $6,000 application fee.

Business proponents have predicted that a strong brownfields law could spark a boom in the redevelopment of former industrial sites. Passage of brownfields legislation was one of the items on the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's wish list for this legislative session.

Meanwhile, environmental groups supported the effort in the hope that reclaiming industrial sites could alleviate the pressure to develop Maryland's increasingly scarce farmland.

Last year, the two sides could not reach a compromise as environmentalists rejected the House version and business interests found the Senate bill too "green" for their liking.

Taylor said yesterday that work on a brownfields compromise began almost as soon as the legislature adjourned last April. The speaker paid tribute to the efforts of his legislative assistant, Thomas S. Lewis, whom he described as the "unsung hero" of the process.

Negotiations on the issue -- involving the administration, Assembly leaders and business and environmental interests -- dragged through the summer and fall and into the early days of the session before a compromise was finally reached in late January.

"It's an extremely complex issue and it took a long time to agree on all of the details," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who was a leading advocate for environmental interests in the negotiations.

"I think it'll be good for economic development and the environment," Frosh said.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland director of Clean Water Action, commended the Assembly on a job well done but stressed that the legislation was only a start.

"We have to make sure the incentives are in place" for businesses to redevelop the sites, she said. "A lot has to be done by local governments, business groups and others to market these sites."

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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