Fracking, renewable energy, sewage overflows, pollution trading, oysters, cownose rays. These contentious topics, and more — some with implications for the health of the Chesapeake Bay — awaited legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia as they returned to work in January.
Each state has a slightly different menu of environmental legislation to consider. But funding — or the lack thereof — for Bay restoration efforts looms as a common hurdle for lawmakers in Annapolis, Harrisburg and Richmond. The three key Bay watershed states face revenue shortfalls ranging from $400 million to $1.7 billion each, and spending cuts appear likely in the near term to close those gaps.
Environmental activists worry that if Bay-related programs and projects are not spared, the restoration effort could lose steam at a critical juncture. The “pollution diet” imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due for reassessment this year, and when the new president, takes office in January, he may be less inclined than his predecessor to play an assertive federal role in pressing the states to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake.
As a result, the Bay cleanup may be more dependent than ever on what the states do. But with one possible exception, they seem headed toward yet another round of belt-tightening.
Maryland must find a way to make up a revenue shortfall of about $400 million for the next fiscal year — though budget forecasters are warning that state coffers may be short a combined $800 million over the next two years.
While acknowledging that spending has to be cut somewhere, Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, pointed out that state environment and natural resources agencies are already overstretched.
“Any law is only as good as the implementation,” she said. “So we need to take a critical look at the budget in terms of staffing and enforcement.”
Virginia officials likewise confront a revenue gap of nearly $800 million over the next two years, under the state’s biennial budgeting process. Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget proposal for 2018 envisions eliminating the projected deficit through a combination of “saving actions,” improving revenues and some fund transfers.
But conservation funding may take a hit if McAuliffe’s savings are approved. The governor’s 2018 budget proposal includes about $10 million to pay for the installation of pollution-preventing best management practices on farms, down from the previous appropriation of $61.7 million. And there’s no money proposed for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which gives matching grants to local communities for projects to curb polluted runoff.
“Despite a difficult budget situation, it is disappointing to see any budget that rolls back investments in Virginia’s farms and localities,” said Rebecca LaPrell, Virginia director of the Bay Foundation. She argued that “stable funding is crucial for the successful restoration of Virginia’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.”
Del. Scott Lingamfelter, a member of Virginia’s delegation on the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory panel that represents the legislatures of the three states, shared the CBF’s concern and vowed to work with other lawmakers to maintain funding for farm BMPs.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in that area, particularly around livestock stream exclusion,” said Lingamfelter, a Republican representing parts of Fauquier and Prince William counties in Northern Virginia. “That’s an important strategy for us to follow.”
Pennsylvania faces a $600 million budget shortfall it must deal with in the current budget year, and a projected revenue deficit of $1.7 billion as it plans for the next year. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he intends to take care of those yawning fiscal gaps through spending cuts and efficiency moves. After trying without success in his first two years to get the GOP-dominated legislature to approve income or sales tax increases to close chronic deficits, the Democratic governor has sworn off a third attempt — though he still wants a tax on the Marcellus Shale gas industry.
In mid-December, Wolf made his first round of cuts worth $100 million, eliminating thousands of vacant state government jobs — including more than 400 positions in the departments of Environmental Protection, and Conservation and Natural Resources. The DEP budget is 40 percent smaller now than it was 14 years ago, according to David Hess, who was then the DEP secretary and is now a political consultant in Harrisburg.
But there’s hope in some quarters that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be finally moving to break from years of cost-cutting that have contributed to the state lagging badly in doing its share to restore the Bay. Some Republicans in the legislature who generally oppose broad-based tax increases say they see support growing on both sides of the aisle for levying a new water consumption fee.
The fee legislation would provide a dedicated funding source for environmental and conservation efforts. In introducing fee legislation last year, sponsors said Pennsylvania needed to step up its Bay cleanup efforts or face potential consequences from the EPA. But they also stressed that the funds raised by the fee could help clean up more than 26,000 miles of degraded rivers and streams in the state.
“In fact, about a quarter of Pennsylvania’s streams are impaired,” noted Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. “That makes Pennsylvania number one in the nation for impaired waterways,” she added.
State Sen. Richard L. Alloway II, a member of Pennsylvania’s delegation on the Bay Commission, predicted that finding funding would be a top priority of lawmakers this year.
“I think there are many legislators who take the water quality issue very seriously, and we need to start talking about real solutions to these problems,” said Alloway, a Republican whose district covers a swath of south-central Pennsylvania.
Alloway introduced a water use fee bill at the end of last year’s legislative session. His co-sponsor was the Senate majority leader, Sen. Jake Corman, whose central Pennsylvania district is also in the Bay watershed. Alloway said he expects Corman to join him in introducing the bill again this year.
There’s broad recognition of the need for more to be done. Late last session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill to launch a third generation of the state’s Growing Greener program by investing $315 million annually in clean water, parks and trails, open space, and locally grown food.
But the Growing Greener legislation failed to identify a source of funding for the new projects. Alloway, who was a co-sponsor of the bill, said that without funds, its ambitious agenda stands little chance of success.
“Everyone has ideas on how to spend the money, but we don’t have the money yet,” he said. The water consumption fee, as proposed last year, would raise $245 million a year, based on the withdrawal rates of the large commercial and industrial users who would be charged.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Alloway acknowledged, to shepherd a dedicated water fee measure through the legislature amid the state’s fiscal woes. But, he added that he believed there was sufficient support to pass it if agreement could be hammered out on how to raise and spend the funds.
Fracking: A joint legislative committee has put a hold on a proposed regulation from the Hogan administration that would permit natural gas drilling in Maryland using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Activists who contend fracking poses unacceptable risks to human health, air, water and the global climate want a permanent moratorium instead.
An EPA report last year concluded that drilling activity in other states has resulted in well contamination and surface water pollution. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he favors gas extraction if it can be done safely, contending it would provide a boost to economically depressed Western Maryland.
Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles asserted that the rules his department drew up last year offer a “platinum” level of safeguards for public health and the environment.
Renewable Energy: Hogan has outlined an environmental agenda for the legislative session that features a proposal to invest $41 million in renewable energy projects, increase financial incentives for buying electric vehicles and underwrite a “green energy institute” to attract private investment and commercialize clean energy in the state.
Before lawmakers deal with those, though, they’re likely to vote on whether to override Hogan’s veto last year of a bill that would increase the state’s renewable energy goals. The Clean Energy Jobs bill, which passed by a wide margin, would have committed the state to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from the current goal of 20 percent by 2022.
Hogan, who ran for office on a pledge to lower taxes, criticized the bill as a kind of tax increase on electricity ratepayers, saying they would have to pay more for power generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources.
Lawmakers also face calls to restrict the siting of renewable energy projects. The Maryland Farm Bureau has objected to the placement of large solar arrays on productive croplands on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere, and the Maryland Association of Counties wants to require the state Public Service Commission to consider local wishes in deciding whether to approve such projects.
Pollution Trading: Hogan wants lawmakers to let him divert $10 million from the state’s Bay Restoration Fund to help kick-start the state’s stalled nutrient pollution trading program. The money would be spent on projects aimed at reducing Bay pollution from unregulated sources, such as farm runoff. The reductions would be credited to counties and municipalities so they wouldn’t have to reduce as much nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff and septic systems, two particularly costly and difficult sources of pollution. And the transactions, the first since the state began working on the trading program in 2007, would help create a market for pollution reduction credits that farmers and wastewater treatment plant owners could earn and sell to others needing to reduce their nutrient discharges.
Prost, the Maryland director of the Bay Foundation, said that while many environmental groups support pollution trading in concept as a way to reduce cleanup costs, they have serious questions about the Hogan administration’s plan, especially if localities are given no-cost ways to duck their responsibilities under municipal stormwater permits that require them to reduce polluted runoff.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, part of Maryland’s delegation to the Bay Commission, said state lawmakers have many questions about the proposal. Even if he likes the answers, he’s not keen to take that much money out of the Bay Restoration Fund. “You’re taking money from a fund that was intended for other purposes, upgrading sewage treatment plants,” said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. “There are a lot of smaller plants that still need upgrading.”
Forest Conservation: Maryland has been losing thousands of acres of forest annually to development, despite a 26-year-old law meant to conserve a land use that helps reduce water pollution. The CBF is calling for legislation to strengthen the state’s Forest Conservation Act, so that every acre cleared would have to be replanted, and that fees developers can pay in lieu of replanting would be increased to provide greater incentives for them to spare woodlands from the bulldozer.
Lawn Fertilizer: Pennsylvania may finally join Maryland and Virginia in restricting the content and application of lawn fertilizer. State Sen. Richard L. Alloway II, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation in the last session, said he’s gotten support from key committee chairmen and has won over opponents from the farming community, who worried that the measure somehow might affect their crop fertilization.
The bill would mirror laws adopted by the Bay watershed’s other two major states in restricting the nitrogen and phosphorus content of lawn food sold in retail stores, and in barring homeowner applications from Nov. 16 to the end of February.
Regulatory Rollback: Environmental advocates say they’re bracing for bills aimed at relaxing or rolling back state laws and regulations. Rep. James R. Santora, R-Delaware County, is expected to re-introduce a bill he sponsored last session to grant developers more leeway from current stream buffer requirements. Another bill that didn’t pass last session but will likely return would let large commercial and industrial businesses opt out of the state’s energy efficiency program.
Matthew Stepp, policy director for the environmental group PennFuture, said advocates fear the legislation could eviscerate a state program that has funded significant reductions in energy demand.
State Amphibian: Pennsylvania high school students are working to officially name the Eastern hellbender, a large, increasingly rare salamander that is an indicator of clean stream health, as the state’s official amphibian. “The hellbender is Pennsylvania’s largest amphibian,” noted Harry Campbell, state director of the CBF. “They’re dwindling, but they’re found in our most pristine waters, and they’re particularly sensitive to sediment pollution.”
Pollution Trading: Virginia officials want to tweak the state’s nutrient trading program to ensure that there’s a way to allow for nutrient discharges from new and expanding businesses. The issue came to the fore with the groundbreaking last year for a big new Chinese-owned Vastly paper and fertilizer plant on the James River.
“If the states — Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia — want to continue to grow and prosper, there has to be space for business development,” Del. Scott Lingamfelter said. The Republican lawmaker said it’s a tension built into the enforcement of the Bay pollution diet, known as a total maximum daily load, which sets a limit on how many nutrients can be discharged into the Bay.
Environmentalists, though, say they are keeping a wary eye on the issue.
Sewage Overflows: Lingamfelter said that he hopes Virginia lawmakers will join him in seeking more oversight on cities correcting their routine sewer overflows. Environmental advocates and residents are debating the adequacy of Alexandria’s long-term control plan, which would fix three combined sewer outfalls into the Potomac River relatively quickly but leave a fourth in place for years to come.
Oysters: The aquaculture boom has generated friction with waterfront landowners, particularly in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach, where improving water quality has drawn oyster farmers to one of the state’s busiest waterways. Dredging to maintain navigation channels, once routine, has drawn protest from oyster farmers concerned about siltation. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission attempted to mediate the dispute last year, but failed to forge an acceptable solution.
(This post earlier misidentified the group hoping to get the Eastern hellbender named Pennsylvania's state amphibian. They are high school students. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)