Philbrick takes plunge as environment official

Deputy secretary appears before House committee

March 13, 2003|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Stephanie Desmon | Timothy B. Wheeler and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

It could be a peace overture, or just another miscue.

The day after the Senate rejected Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s choice for environment secretary, his similarly controversial pick for the agency's No. 2 spot made a rare appearance yesterday before a House committee - where he received a polite, if strained, hearing on a bill to increase pollution penalties.

"I'm Ken Philbrick - I think you've probably heard that name in the past couple days," said the deputy secretary of the environment as he introduced himself to the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Kendl P. Philbrick, a former real estate executive with Lockheed Martin Corp., represented the Maryland Department of the Environment in Annapolis as Lynn Y. Buhl spends a few days away mulling her options.

The Senate refused Tuesday to confirm her nomination as department head after a bitter debate over whether she was qualified to run the agency and would sufficiently protect Maryland's environment. The governor said yesterday that he wants Buhl to stay in his administration, in another position, while writing new "brownfields" legislation.

For many lawmakers, yesterday was their first chance to see and hear from Philbrick, 60, whose appointment by Ehrlich also had come under fire because of his lack of governmental or environmental experience.

"I want to welcome you," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, the committee's chairwoman. "This is your maiden voyage."

Before the hearing, Philbrick sought to reassure environmentalists, many of whom openly fret that he is more interested in promoting business interests than in clean air or water.

"They should not be concerned because I'm a collaborator and communicator," he said in a brief interview. His goal, he said, is to make sure all get a chance to air their views.

Philbrick's appearance to testify on the pollution penalty bill represented a thaw of sorts.

After a committee recommended Buhl not be confirmed, the administration did not show up when the same measure was heard in the Senate last week. Activists complained that Ehrlich had promised to support the bill, which would increase penalties for illegally filling wetlands or causing sediment or storm water pollution.

Philbrick said little, generally deferring to an aide. But the agency proposed amendments, one of which would take three years to increase the maximum penalty for wetlands violations from the current $500 to $10,000.

Environmentalists and lobbyists for business groups, however, told the panel that they had agreed on the bill as proposed and called the amendments unwelcome.

"Obviously, the deputy is new, and they're dealing with changes," said Theresa Pierno, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We want to be as fair as possible and try to work together in a productive way."

McIntosh, too, withheld judgment. While saying his background makes him "very questionable" to run the department, she said, "He seems like a very nice man and obviously has been put in a very hard spot."

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