Bay Journal

Phosphorus reg, fracking, stormwater fees, plastics all win General Assembly action

Environmental issues fare better than expected

  • By Rona Kobell on April 16, 2015

In the end, the most significant environmental legislation to come out of the Maryland General Assembly in 2015 wasn’t legislation at all. It was a compromise worked out between the Governor and the legislature on a regulation known as the phosphorus management tool that had been developed by the previous governor, Martin O’Malley.

Long debated and delayed, the PMT, as the phosphorus management tool is known, will limit the amount of phosphorus (and as a result, manure) that farmers can apply to their fields. A decade in the making, it came into being via regulation and will become the rule in Maryland by spring.

Gov. Larry Hogan had withdrawn the PMT regulation just before it became official. It was among his first acts on his first day in office, and fulfilled a campaign promise. . But legislation introduced by Sen. Paul Pinsky and Del. Steve Lafferty that would have put former governor O’Malley’s regulation into law forced the Gov. Hogan’s hand. He countered with a tool of his own and the two sides worked on the regulation until they achieved a compromise. The tool that will become regulation eliminates loopholes, forced the farms with the highest phosphorus levels to stop applying manure immediately after the tool is in place, and sets goals to make sure farmers are on track to meet the required limits.

“We wouldn’t have had the stronger regulations without Senator Pinsky pushing his bill. He was a real leader,” said Dawn Stoltzfus, a longtime environmental advocate who works for the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost agreed, calling the tool “a really big deal” and stressing that, with the Hogan compromise, farmers were on board instead of fighting the process.

“We’ve been trying for years to get these done. But the farmers resisted. Quite frankly, the O’Malley administration could not get past that hurdle,” she said. “Now, we have a strong phosphorus management tool and we have other regulations that complement it. We have nutrient management plans. We have a strong CAFO permit. The problem was that this, the manure, was the source that was out of control.”

Prost went into the session not only pessimistic about phosphorus, but about nearly every other environmental priority. Relations between the new governor and the region’s largest environmental group did not seem to be starting well. In addition to promising a fight over phosphorus, Hogan vowed to repeal the 2012 stormwater legislation that he and others derided as a “rain tax.” That law required the state’s 10 largest jurisdictions (nine counties and Baltimore City) to create stormwater utilities and support them with a fee of their choosing to pay for improvements to outdated stormwater systems and development of new systems.

Some jurisdictions, like Prince George’s, developed programs with little trouble. But in other counties residents railed against having to pay yet another tax. Politicians rolled back the fees, and some declared they would eliminate them.

In response, the legislature passed a new stormwater law that allows jurisdictions more choice. They can charge a fee, they can use a portion of their property tax, or they can find a more creative way to raise funds. But they have to prove to the Maryland Department of the Environment that they are complying with discharge permits.

“The funny thing about the bill is that everyone can pitch it how they want,” said Chris Trumbauer, an Anne Arundel County Councilman and Hatcher Group employee who worked on the legislation as part of nonprofits, including Blue Water Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Hogan got rid of the fee, but we have much stronger accountability. Now, with the reporting measures and the other accountability, all (metropolitan) counties will have to have robust programs.”

Bees, fracking and plastic microbeads

Despite a huge effort from beekeepers, Maryland did not pass a ban on neonicitinoids, the chemicals that scientists nationwide say are contributing to massive bee deaths. Del. Kumar Barve is convening a panel to study the issue over the summer.

Maryland also passed a two-year moratorium on fracking in the western part of the state, which contains a slice of the Marcellus Shale formation. Drilling for shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia has subsided in recent years because of the falling price of natural gas; New York already enacted a fracking moratorium a year ago.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the passage of a ban on microbead plastics in personal-care products that advocates say is the strongest in the country. Other states, including Illinois, have recently banned the sale of products with these microbead plastics. But those states allowed for biodegradable plastics that, in many cases, did not degrade, said Trash Free Maryland’s Julie Lawson. The plastics do not degrade in wastewater treatment plants and end up disrupting riverine and marine ecosystems in many ways. .

Lawson knew she wanted to introduce this legislation after leading several tours in the Chesapeake to look for these microbeads. A bill had been introduced with a loophole for biogradable plastics. Lawson said she focused her energies on closing it - especially when it became clear that her organization’s other priority, a plastic bag ban, was not going to happen.

“I didn’t compromise. I got what I wanted,” Lawson said.

It was a big lift, especially because passing laws like this often takes several tries in Annapolis. It took four years to pass a ban on arsenic in chicken feed. The Chesapeake Bay Commission supported the plastics ban bill, and its members are looking to introduce similar legislation in Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. At some point, Lawson said, the companies will have to stop putting the synthetic material in their products, as the products will become too difficult to market and sell regionally.

“It is a big deal,” Lawson said. “At least three other states are still in play, considering this - California, Oregon and Minnesota. They may take Maryland’s bill as a blueprint. We’re really hoping to drive the conversation now.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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