At last, bill foes get their hearing

Barred in House, critics fault pollution permit bill in Senate

April 04, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Denied an opportunity to testify in the House of Delegates, environmental advocates flocked to a Senate hearing yesterday to fight a bill that would deny them a right to a contested hearing on certain pollution permits for large industrial facilities.

Representatives of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, the Audubon Society and other "green" groups urged senators to reject legislation backed by major industrial companies.

They were backed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, indicating that even if the Senate were to pass the bill in its current form, it could face a veto by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The environmentalists oppose the bill even though it gives them something they have sought for many years - liberalized rules on who can go to court to seek to block state-issued pollution permits.

The bill's House sponsor, Environmental Matters Committee Chairman Ronald A. Guns, presented the legislation as a compromise between environmental and business interests.

He said that in return for granting an expanded right to go to court - known as standing - the legislation eliminates a level of administrative hearings that slows the permit process for industries.

"It gives a little and asks a little in return," the Cecil County Democrat told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

But Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said that by eliminating the hearings, the bill denies citizens a tool they need to defend their neighborhoods and livelihoods.

"It only streamlines the process for the business community. It doesn't help the citizen community," Schmidt-Perkins said.

Several witnesses described how the hearing option, while rarely invoked, still gives them important leverage and creates a public record for potential suits.

The state faces a December deadline to change its rules on standing, which limit the right to sue to owners of property adjacent to the plant seeking a permit. If it does not adopt the broader federal rules, which grant that right to any affected party, Maryland could lose the right to run its own permit program - along with millions of dollars.

Nevertheless, the state Department of the Environment agreed with environmentalists that the department would prefer to see no bill pass than the current version.

Yesterday's hearing was the first chance activists had to weigh in publicly on one of the most important environmental bills of the 2001 session.

Environmental groups were denied a chance to speak at a March 14 hearing in Environmental Matters because of a rule - peculiar to that committee - that limits testimony to the bill's sponsor if it is filed after a certain date.

Guns filed the bill after the deadline and was scheduled to be the only witness in his committee. But when a family member became ill that day, he asked industry lobbyist Michael Powell to appear in his place. While they expressed sympathy for Guns' family crisis, environmentalists described the result as a mockery of the democratic process.

In a reversal of the usual procedure, it was the second chamber to consider the bill that granted a full hearing.

Encouraged by Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee, several witnesses said they had been unable to testify in the House.

Some members of Senate committee were already miffed that a supporter of the bill - Constellation Energy Group - attempted last week to put language into the annual budget bill that would have made some funding of the state air quality program contingent on passage of the standing bill.

The unsuccessful effort was seen as an end-run around the committee that sets environmental policy.

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