Capital Notebook

CAPITAL NOTEBOOK

March 22, 2007

Md. to join 16 states in pollution lawsuit

Reversing a decision by the last governor, Gov. Martin O'Malley has decided to have Maryland join 16 other states in suing the Bush administration to try to force tougher federal regulations to control mercury air pollution.

"We have a new governor and a new attorney general who concur that participation in this case is important to protect the state's interest to safeguard its water resources and the health of its citizens," said Shari T. Wilson, the state's environment secretary.

New York, California, Pennsylvania and other groups joined several environmental organizations in 2005 in filing a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington challenging federal rules for controlling mercury air pollution from coal-burning power plants.

The Bush administration's Clean Air Mercury Rule sets up a market-friendly "cap-and-trade" system allowing power plants to buy pollution credits instead of installing pollution control equipment. The plaintiffs contend this could allow local "hot spots" of mercury pollution, which accumulates in fish and can cause brain damage in children.

Two years ago, then-state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. wanted to join the lawsuit against Bush to force all power plants to install the best available pollution control equipment. But former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. blocked Curran from filing the suit.

Tom Pelton

Ground-rent bill gets initial OK

The state Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would prevent ground rent holders from using a process known as "ejectment" to take the homes of people who fall behind on payments.

The bill is identical to one passed by the House of Delegates and could receive final approval in the Senate by the end of the week. Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign the measure.

Ground rent reform has been a major topic of this year's General Assembly session as lawmakers have sought to correct abuses documented by The Sun in a series of articles last year. The newspaper found cases in which homeowners lost their houses over initial debts of as little as $24.

O'Malley is scheduled to sign the first of the reforms -- one forbidding the establishment of new ground rents -- at a ceremony today. Eight ground rent bills received final passage in the House on Tuesday, and the Senate is poised to take final votes on its versions.

The ejectment bill was delayed in the Senate as some lawmakers sought to amend it to grant ground rent holders higher legal fees when they attempt to collect back payments.

The bill caps fees at $150 for the part of the process in which the ground-rent holders search for the address of the homeowner to send notice of the past-due bills. Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, attempted to remove the limit.

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said computerized records allow that search to be done online at no charge. The amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

Andrew A. Green

Bill tightens rules on lenders

The General Assembly approved a bill that would make it illegal for lenders to use a bank's name, logo or trademark, or something similar, to deceive or mislead customers into refinancing mortgages or taking out a home equity line of credit.

The Maryland Bankers Association sought the legislation, saying banking customers were receiving offers in the mail from what appeared to be their bank. Customers of County National Bank in Glen Burnie, for example, received letters from an entity called County Nat'l Bk, said Kathleen M. Murphy, president of the association. She said the solicitations may come from authorized lenders but often put borrowers in a loan with a higher interest rate.

The bill, which passed the House of Delegates unanimously yesterday, creates monetary penalties of damages plus $1,000 for each violation of the law. The Senate approved a companion measure this month.

Laura Smitherman

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