Deal's aim to clear the air

Proposed bill allows Md. to regain power in pollution permits

Each side gave `a little bit'

Environmentalist, business agreement increases appeal right

January 05, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Environmentalists and business leaders have negotiated an agreement that apparently clears the way for Maryland to regain its authority to issue air pollution permits while increasing the public's right to challenge such decisions.

The agreement, hammered out by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, will put a compromise bill on a fast track next week when the General Assembly begins its 2002 session.

"The environmentalists have given up a little bit, the industry has given up a little bit," said Del. John A. Hurson, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

The issue of residents' standing to sue over issuance of an air pollution permit is one of several sticky issues the chamber and environmental groups have been working to resolve in time for this year's session.

A bill that would have expanded Maryland's narrow definition of residents' rights in air pollution cases stalled last year in a House committee, causing the state to miss a deadline to bring the law into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act.

As a result, Maryland became the first state to lose its independent authority to review and issue air pollution permits for industrial plants, printing operations, incinerators and other facilities. The power passed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency office in Philadelphia on Dec. 1.

The EPA gave the state a reprieve, letting the Maryland Department of the Environment enforce federal rules under its supervision and letting it keep $4.2 million in enforcement funds. Nevertheless, the takeover embarrassed state officials.

Hurson said a new citizens' rights bill, which House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has adopted as part of his agenda, would receive a hearing Thursday -- the second day of the session. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the bill could be brought to the floor the second week of the session, an exceptionally fast pace.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the leading environmental expert in the Senate, said that based on what he has heard, action in that chamber could follow quickly.

Michael Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the state needs to pass such legislation.

"The governor would like to see it done as quickly and efficiently as possible," Morrill said.

Maryland law restricts the right to challenge permits in court to owners of adjacent properties. The bill would bring state law into compliance with the federal act by allowing any citizens who can show they are affected by the emissions the right to sue.

Monica James, a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, said industry representatives agreed to drop efforts to link the legislation to proposals to eliminate some hearings in disputes over plant construction permits -- a proposal environmentalists opposed.

Last year, industry lobbyists persuaded then-Del. Ron Guns, Hurson's predecessor as committee chairman, to link the two issues, creating an impasse. Hurson said he and Taylor pushed both sides to work out differences before this year's session.

James said the environmentalists have agreed to language that would specify that the legislation could not be construed as a precedent broadening the public's right to challenge other environmental permits.

She said business benefits from keeping regulation at the state level because companies would not have to go to Philadelphia to deal with officials.

Theresa Pierno, executive director of the bay foundation, said the group is talking with business leaders about legislation to streamline the construction permit process and other issues.

"There are going to be times when we disagree and have to go in and beat up on each other," she said. But "let's see if we can't make progress where we can agree and find the middle ground."

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