The third time’s the charm, it seems. After balking twice before, Maryland lawmakers this year adopted the nation’s first statewide ban on polystyrene foam food and drink containers.
In Virginia, legislators agreed after two years of debate and study on a plan for dealing with coal ash impoundments that threaten to contaminate groundwater and Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis, which concluded April 8, gave environmental advocates more cause to cheer, after discouraging results the previous year. The 90-day session saw debates on a slew of environmental issues, including forest conservation and environmental rights.
“We were pleasantly surprised by how much we got done,” said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “We saw some disappointments, but we saw a lot of progress.”
Advocates in Virginia had a more modest list to celebrate after lawmakers finished in Richmond Feb. 23. Legislators there weighed funding increases for Bay restoration efforts, as well as bills dealing with fisheries management, aquaculture, climate and trees.
Legislation in both states dealing with oysters and aquaculture are covered in a separate article. Following is a rundown of other notable bills that passed — and some that didn’t.
Foam ban: Lawmakers had refused for two years to pass a ban on polystyrene foam food containers, heeding concerns about the costs to food outlets. But advocates pressed the case again this year. They pointed out that two of Maryland’s largest counties, Prince George’s and Montgomery, had already enacted local bans, and others are scheduled to take effect in the coming year.
Foam food and drink containers make up 10% to 40% of the litter collected in stream cleanups, according to the nonprofit Trash-Free Maryland. Beyond that, they argue, the foam poses threats to wildlife and human health, as it picks up contaminants and breaks down into tiny particles that can be easily ingested.
“The health of the Chesapeake Bay, our waterways, our neighborhoods and our children’s futures depends on our willingness to do the hard work of cleaning the mess that we inherited and created,” said Del. Brooke Lierman, D-Baltimore city, lead sponsor of the House version of the bill.
The day the bill passed, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit pushing for a cleaner harbor, announced that three floating trash wheels placed in the water there had collected more than 1 million pieces of plastic foam in the last five years.
Clean energy: Another priority of the environmental community has been to set an ambitious new renewable energy goal for the state. It passed as the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the final hour of the session, but only as the result of a compromise that left some environmentalists bitter.
The act requires Maryland to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to come up with a plan for reaching 100 percent by 2040. But to win passage, lawmakers agreed to maintain a loophole in the existing law that classifies trash incineration as clean energy, enabling it to earn state subsidies.
That upset some activists, who argued that incinerators are significant sources of air pollution and that, particularly in Baltimore, poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods are recipients of those harmful emissions. Under the current law, a total of 34 percent of the state’s lucrative clean energy credits go to trash incineration and to “black liquor,” a waste byproduct of paper manufacturing that is burned for power.
Supporters of the clean energy bill said they tried to close the incineration loophole but couldn’t muster the votes needed to pass it because of warnings that jobs could be lost if incinerators in Baltimore city and Montgomery County were forced to shut down by losing the subsidies.
Clean-energy bill supporters say its benefits outweigh its downsides, and that the share of clean-energy credits going to incineration will shrink as more solar and wind projects come online. They also note that Baltimore and Montgomery leaders have either taken steps or made pledges that could lead to closing their incinerators. But advocates vow to try again next year to close the law’s loopholes.
“It’s clear that there is still a larger conversation that the labor and environmental community has to have about the clean energy economy,” Raettig said.
The fate of both the foam ban and clean energy bills rests now with Gov. Larry Hogan, who must decide whether to sign or veto them, or let them become law without his signature.
Environmental rights: A bid to give Marylanders a constitutional right to a clean environment failed for the second year. Inspired by similar amendments in Pennsylvania and other states, advocates argued that residents should be able to challenge in court those state and local governmental actions they contend are harmful to the environment. Citizens now have only limited standing to sue in Maryland when aggrieved by regulatory decisions they believe harm the community.
“I see it as analogous to people’s right to form unions,” said Del. Stephen Lafferty, D-Baltimore County, the bill’s sponsor. “Give people the right to pursue and take it into the right forum. Shouldn’t people at least be able to get in the door to challenge things that seem dangerous to all us?”
Despite being a priority of the environmental community, the measure worried some lawmakers that it could flood the courts with citizen lawsuits. Lafferty said he withdrew the bill after being advised by legislative leaders that constitutional amendments would only be considered in the same year they could go on the ballot for voters’ approval. He plans to reintroduce it next year.
Forest conservation: Amid continuing debate over whether Maryland’s forests need greater protection from development, lawmakers took a couple of small steps. They agreed to study the issue in the coming year, and they acted to make localities account better for fees that developers pay in lieu of replacing woodlands that get bulldozed.
Agriculture: Lawmakers passed legislation intended to enhance tracking of poultry manure, a potentially significant source of nutrient pollution on the Eastern Shore, and tightened the permitting of large-scale poultry operations. They also tightened restrictions passed two years ago on the use of antimicrobial drugs in healthy farm animals.
Cownose rays: With a ban on killing cownose rays in bowfishing contests set to expire this summer, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to extend the prohibition until state regulators complete a plan for managing the species. Legislators originally imposed the ban in 2017, reacting to a public outcry over the ray-slaughtering tournaments.
Pesticide: A bill to prohibit the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos — which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had proposed to ban until the Trump administration reversed it — failed to pass for the second year in a row. Studies have linked it to health and developmental problems in children, as well as in aquatic life. Farmers have warned that they lack comparable alternative pest treatments.
Solar siting: An emergency bill aimed at steering solar energy development away from productive farmland and forest passed the Senate but died in the House. Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County, had proposed a broad-based commission to write siting guidelines amid uproar over plans to clear 240 forested acres in Southern Maryland for a solar facility to serve Georgetown University. The issue will get a summer study, said Montgomery County Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Coal ash: Unlined ponds holding the toxic residue from coal-fired power plants threaten to contaminate groundwater and pollute waterways in the Bay watershed. Dominion Energy had wanted to cap the ash in place at its plants, but legislators agreed on a plan to recycle at least 25 percent of the ash and move the rest to modern, lined landfills.
Funding: The General Assembly boosted funding to help farmers control runoff from fields and pastures, putting $89.7 million into an agricultural cost-share program that will help pay to exclude livestock from streams and install other conservation practices. The budget included $25 million for upgrading Alexandria’s combined sewer and stormwater system, which routinely overflows into the Potomac River.
Menhaden: For the second year, lawmakers did not bring state fishing regulations for this important forage fish in line with limits ordered by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission has said it won’t penalize the state as long as the Virginia-based Omega menhaden fleet does not exceed the Bay catch cap of 51,000 metric tons.
Trees: A bill that would have allowed cities and counties to require more tree cover to improve water quality did not pass. Under current state law, Bay watershed localities may only require developers to plant and replace a limited number of trees.
Offshore drilling: Legislation that would have limited exploration and drilling for oil and gas in state waters failed. Environmental advocates worry that an offshore oil spill or well blowout could affect the Bay as well as the Atlantic shoreline.
Climate: Legislators inserted language in the budget to prevent the state from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state compact that’s working to reduce climate-altering carbon pollution by requiring fossil-fuel power plants to buy and trade emission allowances. Gov. Ralph Northam tried to remove the language, but the Assembly refused to go along. Advocates urged him to exercise his line-item veto power to reject the legislation restriction on joining RGGI, but Northam chose not to, even though the state Air Pollution Control Board had voted in the meantime to proceed with the cap-and-trade emission regulation drawn up by his predecessor.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam, suggested that to veto the budget language would have led to costly, drawn-out litigation.
“The speedier remedy for these out-of-touch provisions is the election of Democratic majorities in November,” Yarmosky said. Despite the budgetary restriction on joining RGGI, the spokeswoman said the state Department of Environmental Quality would still look for ways to regulate carbon emissions. She also said Northam would address the issue again in next year’s budget, which he will propose later this year.
Nate Benforado, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center said Northam’s failure to veto the budget restriction left it uncertain what can be done now. Benforado called it “disappointing” that Northam would not fight to join the regional climate compact this year.
“If we are ever going to make progress on climate change, we need to start now,” Benforado said. “Elected officials across Virginia must come together on climate solutions. The health of our citizens and the future of the next generation are not partisan issues.”