ANNAPOLIS – The 1995 legislative session was marked by frequent clashes between environmental and business interests, but ended with few achievements for either side.
In January, Gov. Parris N. Glendening called for a balance between the two interests in his State of the State address. He said he wanted to help business “by removing red tape and releasing the natural vigor of the private sector,” while protecting Maryland’s environment and natural resources.
For example, he proposed streamlining the wetlands permitting process by removing federal review, leaving wetlands regulation up to the state.
The wetlands legislation introduced, however, had little support from either side. Environmental groups were concerned that the level of protection would be lowered without the federal oversight. Business interests opposed parts of the bill that would have expanded citizens’ standing.
Standing rights were also taken up in separate legislation, which proved a disappointment for environmental advocates. The measure would have allowed citizens greater standing to appeal permits granted by the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources. The Senate bill died in the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Currently, to appeal an administrative decision, an individual or organization must have a specific interest or property that is affected in a manner beyond harm to the general public.
Advocates argue that Maryland’s standing rules are among the most restrictive in the region, and keep citizens from appealing permits for proposed facilities that would adversely affect the local environment or public health.
Del. James Hubbard, D-Prince George’s, said that while the defeat was disappointing, “the message is there, the issue will come back next year.”
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, Maryland Director of Clean Water Action, said the bill’s progress “shows strong commitment to the issue, by some individuals.”
The re-organization of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, another of Glendening’s proposals, was realized. The measure will consolidate all major environmental permitting activities in the environment department, to eliminate overlap and duplication. Natural Resources will be responsible for resource management and protection.
Tom Grasso, acting executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the re-organization won’t mean any change in environmental protection, but will make the permitting process more efficient.
Hubbard said that while he doesn’t consider the re- organization an achievement for the environment, he is happy about the defeat of other bills.
“We held our own for the year, there were no major gains, but we were able to hold the line on environmental protection,” he said.
A host of bills backed by the business community would have limited powers of the state’s regulatory agencies.
In what Schmidt-Perkins called the biggest win for environmentalists, a bill to keep state agencies from adopting any regulations stricter than the federal standard was defeated by a House vote.
Other attempts to limit state regulations were also defeated, including those to:
– Authorize the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review to delay or veto proposed regulations.
– Require the executive branch to reduce regulatory duplication.
– Require agencies to consult with legislative committees about regulations before adopting them.
– Protect a business from being cited for violations if it reports problems to the state voluntarily and promptly.
– Require the state to compensate land owners if any law, regulation or government action reduces property values by 25 percent or $10,000, whichever is smaller.
Numerous bills were introduced to deal with the state’s vehicle emissions testing program. The governor and Legislature agreed on a bill to delay the start until 1996, although a provision will bring state-owned automobiles under the program this year.
Other bills aimed to modify environmental legislation. A bill was passed to alter the Forest Conservation Act, making it “more flexible and more reasonable,” according to John Lipman, Maryland Director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. He said it “would not necessarily weaken current forest protection,” although bills that would have allowed weaker standards were defeated.
Lipman, like others, summed up the character of environmental legislation passed this year as “holding the line, fine-tuning existing laws, without compromising their basic integrity. We’re moving forward with small steps,” he said. -30-