Maryland lawmakers poised to pass environmental bills to increase inspections, ban chemicals, invest in conservation

After receiving criticism in recent years for a lack of environmental action, Maryland lawmakers are poised to pass bills to promote private investment in conservation projects, ban use of a dangerous class of chemicals and hire more inspectors to enforce state environmental laws.

Legislators and advocacy groups attributed the action to a handful of factors. For starters: With primary elections scheduled for July, the Democratic majorities in each chamber of the General Assembly are eager to improve scathing marks on the Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ scorecards from the past two years.

Plus, an unprecedented $7.5 billion state budget surplus means there is less hesitation to commit to new spending, including millions of dollars a year in new salaries for more inspectors. Assembly budget committee leaders say that while they are largely directing the surplus toward one-time expenses, the state can afford to add such new positions in the long run.

Other legislative moves respond to pressing concerns in the environmental community — including the removal of the Patuxent Riverkeeper from the Patuxent River Commission and repeated pollution concerns at an Eastern Shore plant.

The most significant piece of environmental legislation in this year’s 90-day General Assembly session remains to be settled. Debate is expected to resume this week on legislation known as the Climate Solutions Now Act, which would dramatically accelerate efforts around the state to curtail use of fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Democrats have vowed to pass the bill, though a potential veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan looms.

Whether that legislation passes, and in what form, could largely color how advocates view progress on environmental initiatives in 2022, said Robin Clark, a Maryland staff attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Nevertheless, the list of bills advancing this legislative session suggests lawmakers will be taking more action on the environment than in recent years.

“We’ve got things moving from chamber to chamber in a pretty strong form,” Clark said.

In many cases, companion bills filed in the House of Delegates and Senate have come out of their originating chambers with minimal differences, suggesting they do not face major hurdles to final passage. To reach Hogan’s desk, any of those bills must also pass the opposing chamber and then lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and Senate must agree on any amendments.

“I don’t see any deal-killers in any of them,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Here are some of the proposals environmentalists are watching:

Increasing environmental enforcement

Bills passed in both chambers would limit administrative extensions to water discharge permits by the Maryland Department of the Environment and require more inspections of such permit holders. The legislation includes $22.8 million for 220 new positions and 142 new vehicles in fiscal 2023, and at least $15.8 million in expenses in future years, according to nonpartisan budget analysts.

The measure was largely inspired by the case of a Dorchester County Valley Proteins Inc. plant that renders poultry carcasses into animal feed. The facility’s water permit expired in 2006 and had been repeatedly extended until last year, when environmental groups drew attention to illegal pollution discharges there. Valley Proteins now faces lawsuits from Maryland regulators and environmental groups.

But advocates say the plant is just one example of a troubling larger trend that the legislation aims to address. Inspection and enforcement activity by state environmental regulators have declined dramatically in recent years.

“We’re talking about turning around troubling trends over the past decades,” Clark said.

Prohibiting PFAS chemicals

The House and Senate have both passed proposals to significantly restrict manufacturing and use of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”

The substances are found in stain-repellent fabrics, nonstick cookware, food packaging, cleaning products and firefighting foams, and exposure can cause them to build up in human and animal tissue. Studies have shown they may be linked to adverse health outcomes, including decreased fertility, low birth weight, immune system impairment, increased cholesterol and obesity, and hormone interference.

The General Assembly previously voted to ban use of the chemicals in firefighting foams at firefighting training facilities, but legislation to restrict PFAS beyond that did not advance in 2021.

“It was a remote session. It was tough to do anything last year,” said Emily Scarr, state director of Maryland PIRG, which is leading the push for PFAS legislation this year.

This year, lawmakers have been more receptive. The bills advancing this session would impose a broader ban on use of PFAS in firefighting foams, as well as banning their use in paper products for food packaging and in rugs and carpets.

Promoting investment in conservation

Another bill that failed to advance in 2021 but appears likely to pass this year aims to stimulate private investment in projects that improve water and air quality, and better prepare the state for storms, floods and other environmental hazards.

The Conservation Finance Act would create more avenues for the state to hire private companies for projects like wetland and stream restoration. It would also allow state agencies to pay contractors for such projects based on the environmental benefits they actually achieve. Nonpartisan state analysts said the legislation “could significantly expand opportunities for private investment in state environmental projects.”

Sen. Sarah Elfreth, an Anne Arundel County Democrat sponsoring the legislation, said lawmakers on the House and Senate side have worked together closely to ensure they can agree on any amendments tacked on to the bills.

Reshaping Patuxent River Commission

When Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman learned last year that he had not been reappointed to the Patuxent River Commission, he and many supporters saw it as a move to muzzle him from raising concerns about the impact of development on what is the longest river entirely within Maryland’s borders.

The commission was established in 1980, in the early days of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup movement. And while it doesn’t carry any explicit powers, it is seen as a trusted and prominent voice in continued efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Legislation to reappoint Tutman to the commission, and make other changes to its membership, overwhelmingly passed both chambers. Senators voted unanimously, while the House vote was 137-1.

The body’s makeup would look slightly different under the House and Senate’s versions of the bill. Del. Kumar Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said he expects lawmakers to reconcile the differences.