ANNAPOLIS – A bill reinstating Maryland Department of the Environment’s authority to issue air pollution permits is fast-tracking through the House Environmental Matters Committee of the Maryland General Assembly.
The compromise bill reached between environmentalists and business groups could be put to a committee vote as early as next week, said Chairman John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery, after a hearing Thursday. The bill also has the support of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.
“The bill represents an unique agreement between environment and industry groups to put this issue to bed,” Hurson said.
Last December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took over the state’s permit program after Maryland failed to comply with Title V of the Clean Air Act, which regulates the states’ largest air emissions sources.
At issue was a Maryland law that only allowed adjoining property owners to object to permit applications for industrial plants and other facilities. A bill that would have broadened citizens’ rights to bring such complaints stalled last year in a House committee. This session’s bill also expands citizen rights to bring complaints.
EPA’s action stemmed from a lawsuit settlement with the Sierra Club, which sued the federal agency for its failure to force compliance with Title V. Under the settlement, 35 states had until Dec. 1, 2001, to complete compliance with federal standards.
Although the state’s environmental department lost independent authority to review permit applications, the EPA delegated authority to the department to process applications following federal standards.
Jane Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, told the committee that it’s important for the committee to support the bill because it protects the interests of citizens and businesses. The department also risks losing federal highway money unless it complies with the Clean Air Act, Nishida said.
Judith Katz, director of the EPA office in Philadelphia, also expressed support for the bill on behalf of the federal agency.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the state Department of Business and Economic Development and the industrial groups, including the Constellation Energy Group, also support the bill.
Theresa Pierno, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who testified on behalf of four environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, said bills usually don’t get the support of Glendening, Taylor and both environmental and business groups.
“Usually that spells success,” Pierno said. “You don’t get that kind of unprecedented support.”