Bay Journal

Maryland lawmakers act on climate change, land preservation, pollinators and oysters

Poultry bills, several other green priorities failed, though, as environment "wasn't that front and center" in Annapolis

  • By Timothy B. Wheeler on April 13, 2016
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Maryland State House, Annapolis. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Ambitious climate change goals, pesticide restrictions and a study aimed at sustaining the Chesapeake Bay’s vital oyster population top a short list of environmental legislation that passed Maryland’s General Assembly this year.

But the 90-day session in Annapolis, which ended late Monday night, also saw green groups thwarted on some of their priorities. Several died in committee, including a ban on plastic bags, greater pollution protections for poor communities and a requirement for poultry companies to deal with the potentially Bay-fouling manure that their flocks produce.

“The environment wasn’t that front and center, as it has been in other sessions,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and one of the legislature’s leading environmental advocates.

Overall, activists said, they got roughly half of what they were seeking.

“We hit .500, and that’s not bad,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

But several acknowledged that their legislative agenda this year had been more modest than in recent years past. Some bills had to be significantly weakened to get enough support to pass. And it’s not clear yet whether Gov. Larry Hogan will sign them all. “There were definitely wins,” said Alison Prost, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “But from a water quality perspective I’m not sure they were as successful as in earlier years.”

Two priority bills, dealing with climate change and land preservation, which happened to coincide with Hogan’s own legislative agenda, passed well before the session ended and have already been signed into law.

The climate bill calls for Maryland to make deeper reductions in greenhouse gas emissions than lawmakers had agreed to in 2009. Under the new law, the state has a goal of cutting carbon dioxide, methane and other climate-altering emissions 40 percent from 2006 levels by 2030. That target had been unanimously recommended by a state commission and backed by the Hogan administration.

The new goal is among the most aggressive set by any state to date, supporters say. State environmental officials said Maryland already was on track to meet its earlier goal, set under a law passed in 2009, of reducing emissions 25 percent by 2020.

The other law already enacted tightens the purse strings on state funding ostensibly earmarked for parks and farmland preservation.

Set up in 1969, Maryland’s Program Open Space aims to acquire parks, playgrounds and ballfields — and to preserve farmland and sensitive natural areas — to keep pace with development in the state.  Lawmakers gave it a dedicated revenue source — a tax on real estate transfers. But governors and legislatures have repeatedly raided those funds whenever they had trouble balancing the state budget.

Conservationists originally wanted a bill imposing a “lock box” on open-space funding that would bar any diversions. But they settled instead for a repayment mandate after realizing that an absolute ban would require amending the state constitution.

Hogan had proposed his own legislation for safeguarding open-space funds, which advocates amended to strengthen. The measure signed into law creates a repayment plan to restore funds that previous governors diverted. It also includes a $6 million bump in open-space funding for Baltimore City. And starting in fiscal 2019, any funds diverted must be repaid over the next three years.

“It raises that bar of accountability, and acts as a deterrent to use (open space funding) to balance the General Fund,” said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “And that’s important. Make no mistake — that’s never happened before.”

Swanson also suggested the environment could benefit from legislation passed over Hogan’s veto that would establish a scoring system for state funding of transportation projects. The Republican governor canceled the Red Line light rail project in the works for Baltimore and spent the funds instead on highway projects, many of them in rural areas. Advocates of the bill said they hoped the new scoring would give transit projects a fighting chance at getting funded.

Lawmakers also passed another climate-related bill, which would accelerate the state’s push for renewable energy. The measure would require that by the end of this decade, 25 percent of all power generated in Maryland must come from wind, solar and other renewable sources. State law now calls for 20 percent renewable energy by 2022.

This bill originally had included plans to provide job training in renewable energy fields, but that provision was dropped in a bid to assure passage. The Hogan administration had not taken a position on the bill, according to press reports.

The same is true of a bill that would make Maryland the first state in the nation to ban consumers from using pesticides that have been implicated in honeybee die-offs.

The measure, passed in the session's final week, would restrict retail sales and consumer use of pesticides containing a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids, which are widely used, especially in protecting farm crops. Though scientists have implicated a number of factors for the steep declines in domestic honeybee colonies and other pollinators, some studies have found impacts from neonicotinoid pesticides.

Farmers, farm workers and anyone else authorized to handle restricted-use pesticides would be exempt from the restrictions. Nonetheless, the Maryland Department of Agriculture opposed the bill, arguing that pesticide regulation should be left to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said even though amendments virtually eliminated impacts on farming, his group still thinks the measure sets a bad precedent. The bureau hasn’t decided whether to ask the governor to veto it, he said.

Raettig, though, called the pesticide bill “groundbreaking” and urged Hogan to sign it. She suggested the bill’s public support was on par with the positive ratings the governor has received in recent opinion polls.

“I think the governor could continue to advance his popularity by signing the bill,” she said.

A related bill proved far less controversial. Sponsored by Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, it requires pollinator-friendly vegetation to be planted and maintained along highways, in parks and on other state lands.

Another measure, calling for a study to determine sustainable oyster harvest levels, made it through in the session’s waning hours, but only after it was substantially amended to overcome stiff opposition.

As originally passed by the Senate, the bill would have required the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to determine how many oysters could be harvested from the Bay and its rivers each year without threatening to further deplete the population. Once hauled up by the millions of bushels, the stock has been ravaged by overharvesting, habitat loss and diseases and is now estimated to be 1 percent or less of historic levels.

Oyster harvests have recently been on the rebound, reaching 400,000 bushels the last couple of years. But environmentalists and recreational fishing groups argued that the boost in the state’s seafood industry could be short-lived because no one really knows the size of the oyster population. Now the state’s second most valuable fishery, oysters are the only one that lacks a scientific stock assessment and estimate of what harvest levels it can sustain.

But watermen turned out in force to oppose the bill in a House hearing last week, arguing it was unnecessary and a potential threat to their livelihood. The Department of Natural Resources, after reportedly withdrawing its opposition to the bill at one point, reiterated it, contending the measure would hamper regulators’ ability to manage the fishery.

With the bill’s passage in doubt, negotiations over the weekend resulted in a compromise. The DNR was assigned the task of conducting an oyster stock assessment and determining sustainable harvest levels in consultation with university scientists and watermen. 

The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Roger Manno, a Montgomery County Democrat, had opposed giving the job to the DNR, as he questioned its commitment to doing the study. But he finally accepted the switch, because it was buttressed with requirements that the department file interim progress reports and subject its final report to an outside peer review. Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton issued a statement after the bill's passage, calling it "a reasonable compromise for conservationists, environmentalists, the public and watermen."

While Manno said he wished it could have been stronger, Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, called the compromise hammered out in his panel “a giant step forward” because of the oyster’s ecological as well as economic importance.

“I think using science to manage the oyster population is very significant for the Bay because one little oyster can filter 40 gallons of water every day,’’ said Barve, also a Montgomery County Democrat . “Obviously, we have to reduce nutrients and clean up sewage, but at the end of the day the workforce for cleaning up the Bay is going to be the little oyster.

“Basically we’re knocking all their heads together, and we’re going to get the stock assessment,” Barve added. “It’s long overdue, and I’m happy we were able to do it in a bipartisan manner.”

Environmentalists and recreational anglers shared Barve’s enthusiasm. But Robert T. Brown Sr., president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he remained “very leery.” He and other watermen fear the study could lead to a catch quota or some other restrictions.

“If the oyster industry gets curtailed, then the watermen have no other industry to turn to during the winter,” Brown said.

Other bills sought by environmentalists didn’t even get out of committee.

Raettig called the failure of a bill that would have banned the use of flimsy plastic retail bags “especially troubling.” Plastic bags are a major contributor to litter that winds up in trees and streams, and activists have tried without success for several years to get statewide legislation to deal with the issue.

This year’s bill drew resistance because in addition to banning plastic, it would have required retailers to charge 10 cents for every paper bag given customers to hold their merchandise. The paper bag fee was included in a bid to win over merchants, with half of the fee going to them to help cover costs.

But Democratic leaders in the legislature were wary of bucking the anti-tax voter sentiment that led to Hogan’s election two years ago.

“We’re in an atmosphere right now in Annapolis,” Raettig said, “where anything that is a fee or tax is not looked at kindly. So that was problematic.” 

A bill aimed at getting poultry companies to take responsibility for their birds’ manure suffered a similar fate. With regulations being phased in that are expected to restrict the use of phosphorus-rich chicken manure as fertilizer on at least some Eastern Shore farms, environmentalists argued that the burden of disposing of it shouldn’t be left to the farmers raising the birds under contract. The bill would have made poultry companies — which own the birds but lease them to farmers to grow — haul away the birds’ manure for free if a farmer couldn’t use it or find some other use for it.

But growers turned out in force to protest the bill, arguing that the manure is valuable fertilizer and one they can sell to others if they can’t use it themselves.

Poultry litter is “the best organic fertilizer on the market,” Ferguson said. “This bill would have stripped that value away from the farmer.”

Sponsors sought to tweak the bill to clarify that growers can sell their litter. But farm groups, poultry companies and the Hogan administration all contended the bill was premature at best until more information had been gathered on the extent to which the new phosphorus management regulations would actually limit manure applications.

Prost of the Bay Foundation said supporters expected it would take a year or two for the bill to pass, but she was disappointed with how opponents accused environmentalists of seeking to hurt farmers and the agricultural economy on the Shore.

“It was not an attack on the industry, but suddenly it turned into this visceral reaction,” she said.

“It was apparent that our theory of (company) responsibility didn’t get traction this session,” Raettig said. “But I think there’s no question that the evidence shows on the lower Eastern Shore we’re going to have to transport manure off it if we’re going to continue to raise chickens there.”

Another bill affecting agriculture suffered a similar fate. Sponsored by Pinsky, the measure would have barred farmers from giving their livestock or poultry antimicrobial drugs without a veterinarian’s OK. Proponents argued that overmedication needs to be curtailed because of a growing problem with pathogens becoming antibiotic-resistant. But farm groups argued that state action is unnecessary because the federal government already is moving to tighten oversight of the practice.

Even with those defeats, activists took heart that an improving economy meant more funding for environmental programs such as the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, much of which is spent on projects aimed at curbing polluted runoff.

Meanwhile, the conservation league’s Raettig said, “I think everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this administration ... They’re looking at the environment with an economic lens over it. We’re trying to find ways to meet them on that.”

About Timothy B. Wheeler
Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Timothy B. Wheeler

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