Failure of permit bill to cost millions

State Senate rejects pro-industry parts of clean air measure

April 11, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland businesses that need emissions permits might have to trek to Philadelphia to apply for them when the state loses its authority to enforce federal air pollution standards in December.

Legislation that would have kept air pollution regulation in the hands of the Maryland Department of the Environment failed Monday night when the Senate refused to go along with pro-industry provisions in a House bill that would have brought state law into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

Jane Nishida, secretary of the environment, said the failure would cost the state about $4.2 million in permit fees. She said the loss of regulatory power would have a "major negative impact" on her agency and Maryland business.

Maryland will become the first state to lose the authority to run its own program of air pollution control.

Judith Katz, an official of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said there is no room for an extension of the Dec. 1 deadline.

"No matter what, there's going to be a gap of some sort," said Katz, director of the Air Protection Division for EPA's Region 3. She said the state's failure to comply puts it in jeopardy of losing some federal highway funds starting in 2003.

Negotiations on a bill that would have expanded the rights of citizens to challenge state-issued air pollution permits continued into Monday but were abandoned when industry groups and environmentalists failed to reach a compromise.

Under federal law, Maryland either must loosen its rules on citizens' access to the courts or must relinquish its air pollution enforcement authority to the EPA, which has its regional headquarters in Philadelphia. Under EPA regulation, citizens will have the broader ability to sue granted by federal law.

Because the General Assembly adjourned Monday night until January, Maryland will not be able to comply in time. The EPA is bound to the Dec. 1 deadline because it is part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club.

Katz said the EPA's options include direct federal operation of the permit program, contracting with MDE to run it under federal rules or some hybrid of the two approaches. She said some users might have to pay more for their permits than they did under state regulation.

Michael C. Powell, a lobbyist for chemical and industrial companies, expressed disappointment that the two sides could not reach a compromise and acknowledged that federal regulation could be inconvenient. But he said it could be preferable to a Maryland permit process that takes too long.

"With a Republican administration, it's not exactly terrible to be dependent on the federal government for your permits," Powell said.

But Theresa M. Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said business is likely to pay a price for its stand.

"I happen to believe if EPA is writing those permits, they will be less responsive to Maryland business than MDE would have been," Pierno said.

Nishida agreed, predicting that the EPA's response time will be longer than the state's.

She added that Maryland still will have to enforce its own anti-pollution laws, so businesses still will have to acquire state permits - though not as part of a consolidated process.

Nishida said that although going to Philadelphia for services might not be a problem for large companies, it could place a burden on smaller businesses, universities and municipalities that need new or modified pollution permits.

Maryland now gives only owners of nearby properties the standing to sue to block a pollution permit at an industrial site. Federal law allows any person or group affected by the proposed permit to go to court, and states that administer their own air pollution control programs are required to comply with the federal standard.

The Department of the Environment proposed a simple expansion of citizens' standing to meet federal requirements, but the House Environmental Matters Committee killed that legislation. In its place, the panel approved legislation that coupled the expanded standing with abolition of citizens' right to seek a contested case hearing.

The House approved the bill, but environmental groups called it a bad deal. They appealed to Sen. Brian E. Frosh, their leading advocate in the Senate, who blocked action on the bill.

Frosh said the next move is up to the EPA.

"I don't think anybody is going to be happy about this," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "I don't think it's good for MDE, I don't think it's good for the environmental community. I don't think it's good for the business community."

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