WASHINGTON – With Baltimore’s industrial Wagner’s Point as a backdrop, Gov. Parris Glendening on Friday announced the creation of a 15-member panel that will examine “environmental justice” in the state.
The Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities will examine state laws and regulations and recommend policy options to address issues of environmental pollution facing lower-income communities throughout the state.
Glendening said the foremost goal of the commission will be to combat “environmental racism” and to give a voice to working class, poor and minority communities.
Business groups said Friday they are leery of the proposal and some questioned Glendening’s motives.
“We would certainly have concerns about the types of recommendations a commission like this will make,” said Mitch McCalmon, vice president of government relations for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Glendening made the announcement in the now-abandoned Wagner’s Point neighborhood. A once-thriving immigrant community, the remaining 90 families were bought out under a deal they struck with the state, the city and the surrounding businesses in 1998.
Standing amid row houses that are slated for demolition next week to make room for an expanded Patapsco wastewater-treatment facility, Glendening cited this “sad chapter in Maryland’s history” as an example of environmental injustice.
“When these neighborhoods become unlivable there are no options left for the homeowners and families of these communities,” Glendening said in a statement.
“Make no mistake about it. Environmental injustice does exist. It exists across America, and it exists here in Maryland,” his statement said. “It is wrong. It is immoral. And it must stop.”
He said the commission will “assess the adequacy of state laws and regulations that touch environmental justice” and will “develop a criteria list to assess whether communities may be experiencing environmental justice issues.”
McCalmon was particularly upset by Glendening’s choice of Wagner’s Point to highlight the issue. McCalmon noted that Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R- Kennedyville, whose district also includes Wagner’s Point, had praised the deal struck between state and city officials and the business communities in the buy- out.
“Gilchrest commended the actions of the business community,” McCalmon said. “The governor went to Wagner’s Point. I would suggest it is a bit ironic he went to this area that has been recently commended for resolving this issue.”
McCalmon was also skeptical of taking specific instances of communities polluted by a neighboring industrial complex and concluding that it is “environmental injustice.”
“Say an area that was once a teeming industrial area that is now run down. Most of the residents have moved out,” he said. “People tend to come in and point at the businesses and say you are bad, you are evil, you are polluters.”
Gene Reynolds of the FMC Corp., one of the largest chemical companies in Baltimore, said his company is “in favor of environmental justice” but has questions about the commission.
“We don’t know what their charter is. Nor do we know how they define `environmental justice’,” Reynolds said.
He added that neighborhoods already “have the ability the control where a facility is permitted to build.”
Reynolds said that in the case of Wagner’s Point, state air quality measurements have been improving since monitoring began in 1990 and that monitoring stations around the area show such a trend.
Delegate Mary Rosso, D-Anne Arundel, who was at Friday’s announcement, said she worked for many years to get the state to acknowledge environmental justice.
“I view this as a fruition of my work. You don’t know how long we’ve tried,” Rosso said. “I used to do `toxic tours’ of the area back in the 1980s and people were shocked by the concentration of the chemical plants.”
Rosso cited a study in the 1980s that reportedly showed the cancer rate among white men in the 21226 ZIP code, which includes Wagner’s Point, was 7.5 times higher than the national average. She also said she has had four friends from the 21226 ZIP code die of cancer.
“I attribute it to being exposed to the pollutants in that region,” she said.
But McCalmon dismissed the notion that elevated cancer rates are related to the presence of industry in the area.
“You have to be very careful when you start talking about cancer and causal links. There were higher cancer rates in other parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore County and in areas of the Eastern Shore,” he said. “The science isn’t there.”
The commission’s 15 members include the secretaries of environment, health and planning, a children’s health advocate and a former administrator with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.