Environmentalists won on wind farms and the uranium mining ban and lost on black liquor and fracking. Pesticides? Probably a draw. The legislative sessions of Maryland and Virginia were full of both predictable bills and surprises — with some long-sought victories, a few bitter defeats and a lot of holding the line.
Environmentalists in Annapolis cheered on April 9, one day after the 2013 session ended, when Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill that would create the first wind farm off the coast of Ocean City. Several environmental groups had pushed for the legislation in the three previous sessions, but they lost those battles; the wind farm would have added a small charge to customers' monthly bill, and legislators did not want to tack on an extra cost when their constituents were already struggling.
But this year, proponents scaled back the farm's size so the taxpayer subsidy wouldn't exceed $2.50 a month, which will be charged on utility bills. They put in sweeteners for minority businesses. The coalition of people supporting the bill included not just environmentalists but also union activists, faith-based groups, nurses, public-health advocates and entrepreneurs.
"It was the broadest coalition I've ever seen in 10 years," said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "It felt good to be part of a big coalition, and it felt good to win."
Environmentalists in Maryland were also able to beat back challenges to last year's septic law, which limits the number of houses that can be built in communities without sewer lines. They fought a delay in implementing stormwater fees, which was a hard-won victory in the last session. They also managed to get a bill passed that requires transportation departments to consider a public-access feature every time a bridge is replaced, with the hope of getting more kayak launches and fishing piers at minimum cost.
But they failed to get a moratorium on fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas from deep in the earth. Fracking is unlikely to come to Western Maryland where the gas-rich Marcellus Shale is found until the state finishes its studies next year.
Environmentalists in Maryland also wanted to set up a database requiring farmers to report the pesticides they use. They ended up passing a law that formalized a working group, but did not get the database. They also did not pass a bill which would have required a 5-cent fee on plastic bags.
They also lost a fight they did not even expect to have, this one over "black liquor." Black liquor is a byproduct of the paper-making process, a carbon-rich tarry liquid that paper mills burn to create energy. The mills have been engaged in the practice since the 1930s. But through a loophole, the burning of black liquor was included as a renewable fuel in the state's 2004 renewable energy portfolio standard. Power companies are required to buy up to 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by the year 2022. Legislators passed the standard with wind, solar and geothermal in mind, but nearly half of the renewable credits went to paper mills in 2011, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Only one paper mill still exists in Maryland, and legislators wrote a bill to grandfather it in so it could still make money from black liquor. But out-of-state mills and the energy industry blocked the bill, Tidwell said. And just days before the hearing, the Maryland company, New Page Mill in Luke, said it wouldn't support it, either — even though it had earlier backed it as long as they were exempt.
"Luke double-crossed us," Tidwell said. "We weren't expecting to have to run a full-blown campaign."
Virginia's biggest water-related legislative news was not a bill, but a budget. At the urging of Gov. Bob McDonnell, the legislature appropriated $216 million for water-improvement projects, including upgrades to sewage treatment plants and stormwater systems. Nearly half of that money will go to install nutrient-reduction technology at wastewater plants.
Virginia's Sen. John Watkins tried to pass a bill that would have created a regulatory framework for mining uranium. A Virginia company that controls a vast deposit of uranium would like to mine it, arguing that it can be done safely and will create jobs. But the state has a 31-year ban on uranium mining, and a diverse coalition of farmers, environmental advocates and civic leaders opposed lifting the ban. So the bill died.
Virginia also passed legislation approving the 20 percent cut in the menhaden harvest that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had already mandated in December. But in Virginia, the legislature manages menhaden — the only species for which that is the case. They could have chosen not to act, or they could have opposed the cut and faced sanctions from the ASMFC. In the past, the legislature has not been amenable to cuts in the menhaden harvest. Omega Protein, the Reedville, VA, company that takes millions of pounds of the oily baitfish out of the waters in and near the Chesapeake, employs hundreds of Virginians.
"They all came around in the end," said Chuck Epes of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Virginia office, "but it wasn't a gimme by any sense."
Agricultural certainty came to the forefront in both states, but in different ways. Agricultural certainty is a trade-off with farmers; in exchange for farmers putting in practices that protect water quality, they are exempt from new regulations for a number of years.
Virginia passed enabling legislation to create a certainty program in 2011, and has been quietly refining it. Terms of certainty last nine years, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation will inspect and enforce the program.
Maryland officials decided to put in a bill this year. It passed, over the objections of many environmentalists. Maryland's term is 10 years; its enforcement is to be done by the Department of Agriculture; and its practices were not spelled out in the bill. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation supported the bills in both states. Virginia environmentalists did not oppose it. More than 20 Maryland groups did, though, including the Sierra Club and most Riverkeepers in the state. They argued that farmers should not get yet another break on the rules to keep pollution out of the waterways.