Environment a big winner in 2004 session

`Green lobby' is ecstatic with results, crediting governor and legislators

General Assembly

April 13, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Despite their initial apprehension about the election of a Republican governor, Maryland's environmental advocates have enjoyed one of their best General Assembly sessions ever - at least as productive as any under the Glendening administration.

Some of that success came because of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and some of it in spite of him, but the "green lobby" is ecstatic over the results - especially a landmark bill imposing a charge on sewer and septic system users to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

"We all took a great leap forward with the environmental agenda," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Some of that came from leadership of the governor and some came from the General Assembly. But clearly what everyone did was put the bay first."

The centerpiece of this year's accomplishments was yesterday's final passage of Ehrlich's bill establishing the Chesapeake Restoration Fund, which will be financed with a $2.50-a-month charge on sewer bills and an equivalent $30-a-year fee on septic systems. The money raised from the so-called "flush tax" will be used to upgrade sewage treatment plants, replace failing septic systems and fund cover crop programs to prevent nutrient runoff from farms.

The legislation, given final passage yesterday by thumping margins in the Senate and the House, leaves the General Assembly stronger than it came in - with septic systems included at the insistence of the legislature. Ehrlich expressed misgivings about the septic provisions of the bill but said the measure was "too important to veto."

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the bill made "the biggest stride" she's seen in a decade in any of the three states that make up the agency.

"This bill rises to greatness like the Critical Areas bill and the phosphate ban. They capture huge chunks of nutrient pollution, which is the bay's biggest problem," Swanson said. "This has been a 20-year dream, to get everyone engaged in cleaning up the bay."

The session left greens with more to cheer about than the flush tax. They were also pleased with passage of:

An Ehrlich bill streamlining the Brownfields program, which helps clean up contaminated industrial sites for reuse.

Revision of the state's nutrient management program for agriculture, an Ehrlich initiative that was incorporated into the "flush tax" legislation.

A bill setting energy efficiency standards for certain appliances, passed in January over the governor's veto.

Legislation introduced by House Speaker Michael E. Busch to encourage the state's utilities to move toward greater use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Ehrlich said yesterday that he was undecided about signing the bill, but it was passed by both houses last night with more than enough votes to override a veto.

A measure making it easier to enforce the state's Critical Area law, which protects environmentally sensitive lands. The bill also increases penalties for violations of the act.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the anti-sprawl group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said environmentalists were pleased that the debate over transportation revenue helped bring new administration commitments to fund mass transit.

Schmidt-Perkins also hailed passage of a renewal of the historic preservation tax credit, though she lamented restraints put on the program by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila E. Hixson.

"Its effectiveness is weakened because it'll be more difficult to use," Schmidt-Perkins said.

Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the downside to an otherwise good session was the sparse funding for environmental programs in Ehrlich's budget - including a 75 percent cut in money for land conservation.

Green lobbyists said that while Ehrlich's championship of the flush tax was a pleasant surprise, much of the credit for the session's accomplishments must go to legislative leaders - particularly Busch and committee chairs Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, Del. Dereck E. Davis and Sen. Paula C. Hollinger.

Coble said that last year's reports of a giant "dead zone" in the bay clearly got legislators' attention. "The dialogue that occurred in committees and on the floor showed a significant awareness of the condition of the bay and the threat to the bay and a sincere passion to clean it up," she said.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

Environmental initiatives

Lawmakers passed several significant environmental initiatives:

Flush tax: Homeowners connected to sewer systems will pay $2.50 a month to help finance major upgrades to the state's wastewater treatment facilities and cut harmful nutrient pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. Homeowners using septic systems will pay $30 a year.

Brownfields: Procedures to encourage the redevelopment of polluted industrial sites will be streamlined.

Nutrients: The state's nutrient management program for agriculture has been revised.

Efficiency: A bill setting energy efficiency standards for certain appliances, which had been vetoed last year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was restored by an override.

Energy: Utilities will be encouraged to gradually move toward greater use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Critical areas: Changes were made to make it easier to enforce the state's Critical Area law, which protects environmentally sensitive lands.

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