ANNAPOLIS – Maryland officials pleaded Wednesday for authority to fine major air polluters and avert the possible loss of federal and other funding at a House Environmental Matters Committee hearing.
But support of the measure is fragile and Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh said the legislation would likely fail without intense collaborative work in the next few days – before a major bill deadline passes.
“This is a bill no one on this committee is dying to vote for,” said McIntosh, D-Baltimore, questioning whether it is even needed this year.
The fine proposal is a “critical piece” of an air quality compliance plan that must be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by April 29, testified Maryland Environment Secretary Kendl Philbrick.
More than $300 million in transportation funds and other federal dollars hinge on the EPA’s approval of the plan, which is required under the 1990 Clean Air Act, said Thomas Snyder, the environment department’s director of the Air and Radiation Management Administration.
The department must have permission to fine the 22 major facilities emitting about 25 tons of ozone-depleting volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides annually, or face the loss of funds.
The major facilities, including power plants, manufacturers and state and federal institutions, would pay about $7,500 per ton on emissions exceeding a baseline amount if the Washington Metropolitan area fails to meet federal ozone standards by November 2005. Fees could reach as high as $25 million for larger polluters, according to the department.
The estimated $68.5 million per year would be used to reimburse facilities that implement pollution-reducing technologies and measures.
While the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development supports the measure, it generally opposes penalizing Maryland businesses, especially since between 50 to 95 percent of area pollution comes from other states, said Associate Deputy Secretary James Rzepkowski.
However, lack of an approved plan would be a “significant deterrent to manufacturing expansion in Maryland,” and would put the state at “a competitive disadvantage with other states,” Rzepkowski said.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill.
“What I want to comment on is the enormity of the fee and the injustice of making our sources subject to it,” said chamber spokeswoman Deborah Jennings. “We think it is a crazy piece of the Clean Air Act left over from 1990.”
A recent suit filed by North Carolina against Maryland and other states for inadequate control of power plant emissions put the issue of transported pollution in even sharper relief.
Even environmentalists only conditionally support the bill, praising the effort to keep the fees within the state. However, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Maryland Public Interest Research Group said fines collected should be spent on other clean air initiatives, not the polluters.
“It’s the easy way out,” said MaryPIRG Director Brad Heavner.
“This bill, as it is written, takes a penalty provision and turns it into something other than a penalty,” thus, removing the “incentive for polluters to act,” Heavner said.
Committee members also questioned whether facility owners would simply pay the fees and continue polluting, performing only last-minute upgrades.
But, Snyder countered, the EPA would impose standards anyway, and the provision would act as “an incentive for companies to put in real controls on the ground.”