Maryland lawmakers failed again this year to come together to strengthen the state’s goal for reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, and they balked again at banning single-use plastic bags. But they did push through several other environmental initiatives, including a massive tree-planting campaign, a move to electrify transit buses and even a statewide prohibition on helium-filled balloon releases.
The annual General Assembly session, which adjourned April 12, was dominated by debates over police reform, sports betting, education funding and financial relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. Environmental issues took a back seat of sorts in what Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, called a “different and often difficult” session. Hearings were live-streamed and public access to the State House was restricted to prevent a COVID outbreak like the one that prematurely ended last year’s session.
Environmental advocates were sorely disappointed by the failure for the second year in a row to get lawmakers to accelerate the state’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts, which are required by current law to be 40% below 2008 levels by 2030.
“We had a chance this year to put Maryland among the world’s leaders in reducing harmful emissions that are causing climate change as well as the stronger storms and higher temperatures that result from it,” said Josh Kurtz, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Unfortunately, legislators couldn’t arrive at a consensus on how to move forward, and we ran out of time.”
In mid-March, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Climate Solutions Now Act, which called for reducing emissions 60% by the end of the decade and for reaching net-zero emissions by 2045. Late in the session, the House passed a different bill calling for a smaller 50% reduction, without some requirements for curbing emissions, particularly from new buildings. Talks between the chambers didn’t officially begin until the final day — and went nowhere.
While the House bill was weaker in some respects than the Senate version, Coble said, it still “provided some steps forward that we believed were better than none.”
Still, some elements of the stalled omnibus climate legislation passed both chambers in different forms.
Under another bill, for instance, 5 million trees are to be planted over the next decade, including 500,000 in urban watersheds. Likewise, lawmakers ordered the Maryland Transit Administration to switch its bus fleet from diesel to electric power by 2023, and they funded a six-year upgrade in transit infrastructure. They also overhauled the state’s Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities with legislation broadening its membership, expanding its duties and requiring it to hold more meetings.
Another casualty for the second year in a row was legislation that would have barred retailers from distributing single-use plastic bags starting in July 2022. The House passed it, but the Senate never took up the vote. Baltimore city has adopted a local plastic bag ban, and a few other localities have imposed small fees on the use of plastic bags or enacted other regulations.
Lawmakers seemed leery of imposing this regulatory burden on the state’s retailers, many of them small businesses, which are struggling to survive amid COVID pandemic restrictions and sales declines. Advocates vowed to keep pressing the case.
“Plastic bags are virtually unrecyclable, and there’s no way to dispose of them that doesn’t harm our health and our environment,” said Emily Scarr, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. “The time to stop using single use plastic bags is not next year nor next week. It’s today.”
Also failing to pass were bills that would have provided legislative oversight of the state’s public-private partnership to widen the Capital Beltway and would have imposed conditions on the project, including a prohibition on awarding contracts until the final environmental impact study is completed. The project, promoted by state officials as a remedy for traffic congestion in the Capital region, has drawn fire over its climate and environmental impacts.
Advocates praised lawmakers for a number of other, less-heralded actions.
Balloon ban: Maryland became the latest state to ban intentional releases of helium-filled balloons. The legislative action caps a three-year campaign in the state that began with Queen Anne’s County prohibiting balloon releases locally, followed by a few other counties before going statewide.
Statewide legislation on balloon releases failed to pass in the pandemic-shortened Assembly session last year but it sailed through this year with backing from environmentalists and others. Advocates said it was needed to stop littering water and land with deflated foil and latex balloons that can entangle or be fatally ingested by marine animals, birds and other wildlife.
Like the Virginia bill passed earlier this year, the Maryland legislation makes it a violation to launch even a single balloon into the air. It also makes it an offense to organize or participate in an event involving the release of 10 or more balloons.
Maryland lawmakers softened the penalty from what sponsors had proposed, reducing the fine from $250 to $100 per violation. But they tacked on a requirement that offenders must perform six hours of community service or watch a video about the harm done by pollution.
Coble credited Jay Falstad, executive director of Queen Anne’s Conservation Association, with instigating and organizing the ultimately successful effort.
“Can one person make a difference?” she asked. “When you meet Jay Falstad, the answer is, ‘Oh, yeah!’”
Citizen rights in pollution cases
Individuals and communities affected by water pollution can intervene at last in cases involving environmental violations. A 2010 ruling by the state’s highest court effectively excluded outside parties from seeking to enforce the federal Clean Water Act once the state has taken a polluter to court.
“This bill ensures that individuals, communities and other groups in Maryland have a right to intervene, to have their voices heard and to have a chance to advocate for their interests in attaining cleaner waterways and a healthier Maryland,” said Sylvia Lam, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
Lawmakers required the Maryland Department of the Environment to update its stormwater management regulations and Bay restoration plans to account for precipitation changes brought on by climate change.
“Rainfall measured during heavy precipitation events in the Northeastern United States increased by more than 70% since the 1990s,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel County, one of the sponsors. “We need to use data that reflects today’s climate reality to stop extreme flooding and sewage overflows that devastate our communities.”
Community solar project
Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous county, won passage of a bill that allows it to buy solar-generated electricity on behalf of its residents, businesses and local government entities. Such “community choice aggregation,” which can reduce the cost of procuring electricity from clean energy sources, is catching on around the nation. This measure is a pilot project, but advocates hope that it paves the way to permit it in other communities.
The MDE would be required to create and maintain a public online database of pollution complaints, inspections and enforcement actions. The legislation also requires the Department of Natural Resources to report to lawmakers annually on its enforcement of natural resources and conservation laws.
Lawmakers passed legislation re-authorizing forest mitigation banking, which allows developers to compensate for tree cutting by paying to protect existing trees elsewhere rather than replace the trees they cleared. The practice had been thrown into doubt by an attorney general’s opinion, prompting local officials and developers to warn that it could halt housing and other building projects already in the pipeline.
Environmentalists opposed the measure, arguing that it was at odds with the state’s goal of no net loss of forest. The bill ultimately passed with a requirement that the practice be studied and revisited in three years. “The developers are [a] pretty formidable fundraiser for elected officials,” said the conservation league’s Coble. “This was about as good as we could get right now.”
Legislators closed a loophole in a 2016 law aimed at keeping untrained homeowners from using neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of chemicals toxic to bees and other pollinating insects. The law barred stores from selling lawn and garden products containing neonicotinoids if they did not have licenses to sell restricted use pesticides. Advocates say many retail stores have since obtained those licenses and continue to sell the product to consumers. The new law restricts sales only to certified pesticide applicators.
Lawmakers renewed a 2017 law, the Clean Water Commerce Act, under which the MDE can pay public or private entities for projects that promise to make cost-effective reductions in nutrient and sediment pollution. The legislation increases the amount available from $10 million to $20 million a year and requires the MDE to purchase “environmental outcomes” that will help restore the Chesapeake Bay for at least 10 years. It also specifies that a portion of the funds go to communities “disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risk.”
Legislation failed to pass that would have clamped down on the production or sale of fire-fighting foams, rugs and food packaging containing poly– and perfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. But lawmakers did hold back some funding for the MDE until it had reported to the General Assembly on the extent of PFAS contamination and its plan for remediating it.