`Greens' split over bill on pollution permits

Measure would allow more people to enter challenges to plants

Pierno calls it `sucker deal'

March 28, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate is being dragged into a family squabble between environmentalists in and out of the General Assembly over a bill that would expand the rights of the public to challenge air pollution permits for industrial plants.

The legislation, passed by the House on Monday night and introduced in the Senate yesterday, is being presented by its advocates as a reasonable compromise that would give citizens long-denied access to the courts and also streamline the permit process.

But groups that include the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the League of Conservation say the bill is a bad deal that would give up an essential level of review.

"While it's giving with one hand, it's taking with the other," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the bay foundation

The disagreement pits environmental lobbyists against two of their closest allies in the House, Dels. Leon G. Billings of Montgomery County and James W. Hubbard of Prince George's County.

The two Democrats have long been among the most active and visible environmentalists - often fighting lonely battles against such adversaries as the chicken industry.

The battle over "standing," the legal right of individuals to sue over an environmental permit decision, has put Billings in the unusual position of floor manager for a bill opposed by the "greens" and sponsored by Del. Ron Guns.

Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, has a long and complex history with environmental advocates. Sometimes he has been a powerful ally, but more often the conservative Cecil County Democrat has been a staunch defender of business and agricultural interests.

Maryland now has extremely restrictive laws that limit standing in court cases over environmental permits to owners of adjacent properties.

That provision, which has frustrated environmental groups, is not in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency kept extending the deadline for Maryland to change its law until the Sierra Club sued and won.

Now the state faces an EPA-imposed deadline of December to change its policy on legal standing or lose the job of enforcing federal clean air laws in Maryland - along with $4.6 million in federal money.

The Maryland Department of the Environment proposed legislation to expand the definition of standing so that virtually any person or group that could show it was affected by a permit decision could take its case to court.

But industry lobbyists saw the bill as an opportunity to get rid of a layer of review in the current law called a "contested case hearing" - a time-consuming administrative proceeding that can delay a permit decision.

Michael Powell, a lobbyist for chemical companies and other heavy industry, worked with Guns to craft a bill eliminating the contested case hearings.

The Environmental Matters Committee eventually killed the MDE's bill, which the environmentalists favored, but grafted its key provisions onto Guns' bill.

Billings and Hubbard, members of the Environmental Matters Committee, said the result was a compromise that achieves a longtime goal of environmentalists while giving up a little-used and ineffective tool for fighting permits.

"This whole provision dramatically expands the rights of the public to participate in this process," Billings said.

He said the environmentalists themselves have complained for years that contested case hearings were not useful because few property owners had the legal standing to seek them.

But Pierno said the environmentalist delegates had accepted a "sucker deal."

Pierno and other environmental activists said they would try to persuade Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Senate's leading environmentalist and chairman of the subcommittee that would likely consider the bill, to rewrite the legislation.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he hasn't had a chance to take a look at the issue

Powell said that if the Senate changes the bill substantially, it would probably die in the House.

Rich McIntire, a spokesman for MDE, said department officials haven't developed a position on the amended bill "because it keeps changing."

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