Longtime combatants unite on air-quality bill

Environmentalist, industrial lobbyist testify in Annapolis

January 11, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

It was an unlikely pairing at the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis yesterday.

Side by side at the hearing table sat Theresa Pierno, one of the state's leading environmentalists, and Michael Powell, lobbyist for some of the state's biggest polluters, jointly endorsing an important air-quality bill.

Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the legislation "a benefit both to the business and environmental community." Powell, lobbyist for the Chemistry and Industrial Technology Alliance, hailed the bill as "a great breakthrough."

The two, who typically can be found on opposite sides of disputed issues, were testifying in favor of a bill that would expand the rights of private citizens to sue authorities over the issuance of permits for airborne emissions. Under current state law, the standing of citizens to challenge a permit is limited to an industrial facility's nearest neighbors.

A similar bill, which was needed to bring Maryland into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, died in the same committee last year amid recriminations from both sides. The bill's failure led to a federal takeover of the state's right to regulate pollution permits.

In the nine months between sessions, environmental groups and business organizations held talks to negotiate a settlement.

The result of the negotiations was a compromise that was incorporated into a bill sponsored by Environmental Matters Chairman John A. Hurson and designated a priority by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Hurson put the legislation on a fast track by scheduling the hearing on the second day of the legislation - much earlier than is typical for important bills.

As Pierno and Powell approached the hearing table, Hurson quipped that "this is where we take the photos and sing `Kumbaya.'"

Pierno told lawmakers it took the two sides three months "to stop arguing every time we walked into the room."

She said both environmental groups and businesses would benefit from a return of enforcement power from the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Last year's bill became hung up when industry lobbyists insisted on linking the citizens' rights issue with that of streamlining the hearing process for other types of environmental permits. Environmentalists objected when industry attempted to curb the right to contested public hearings over certain permits.

Pierno said the two sides agreed to separate the issues and are working to reach an agreement on the contested hearings issue.

The lawmakers also heard from state Environment Secretary Jane Nishida and from a representative of the EPA, both of whom endorsed the citizens' rights agreement.

Nishida said Gov. Parris N. Glendening would sponsor companion legislation in the Senate.

Powell said the two sides have also made progress toward a second agreement on contested hearings, "but we're not there yet."

"We have not done what we have traditionally done, which is conduct a war within Annapolis," he said.

Powell said it felt "strange" sitting at the table with a representative of the bay foundation, but expressed the hope that it would become the rule rather than the exception.

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