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Which Way the Wind Blows

Forecasting this General Assembly’s environmental future

When your well runs dry — as Michelle Steel’s did, as you’ll read in this week’s feature story — you’re an outlier. In our part of the country, rural living is a luxury. Suddenly you’re paying for that luxury.
    When you live on county or city water, you’re part of a collective that shares the hidden cost of bringing this precious resource into your home in the country. When your well runs dry, you’re on your own.
    Septic systems are another luxury of rural living, but those of us who rely on them are not so independent. When your septic system fails, your sewage pollutes our shared water resources. So Maryland’s Flush Tax — more nicely known as the Bay Restoration Fund — falls on us all. Our common investment improves the management of waste on farms, in public water treatment plants and the private sewage treatment plants — aka septic systems — of households in our Bay’s widespread Critical Area.
    The neat distinction between private and public, wells and septics, underpins the Bay Restoration Fund, which is one of the laws that sets Maryland apart.
    With Congress gridlocked over spending — as are many states as well —Maryland still has the potential to advance. But robust rear-guard action can also be expected in this year’s General Assembly.
    At issue here is Plan Maryland, the state’s 20-year blueprint for sustainable growth and development. 2012 laws promoting Plan Maryland are likely to draw challenges this year.
    Those laws doubled the Bay Restoration Fee from $30 to $60 per household; restricted the expansion of septic systems; and required urban counties to devise plans and funding for better managing stormwater.
    Republican-driven resistance is also directed at freeing counties from the federal Bay diet’s restriction on the Total Daily Maximum Loads of pollutants. The Conowingo Dam may show up in 2013 legislation, for it’s become a scapegoat in the scramble to avoid dietary limits.
    In protecting legislation already on the books, Democratic lawmakers and state agencies will have strong environmental support. League of Conservation Voters, for one, has made holding those lines one of it four priorities in 2013.
    “We want to finish the job of cleaning up the Bay by defending progress made last year and making some fixes to the stormwater bill, including extending fees to state and local governments,” says Conservation Voters’ Jen Brock-Cancellieri.
    The new year’s environmental advances are directed to energy, specifically to hurrying up wind power and slowing down fracking for natural gas.
    Gov. Martin O’Malley does not intend to be turned back a third time in his bid to bring wind on grid, insiders say.
    The Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2011 never achieved a full hearing in either the House or the senate. 2012’s revised Offshore Wind Energy Act passed the House only to stall in the Senate Finance Committee. In both years, it was one vote short of moving to a vote on the Senate floor.
    This year’s assault is starting in that committee. A wind lobbyist has been put to work persuading two of the senators who held up last year’s vote. And a recalcitrant senator has been reassigned to a new committee, Judiciary, by Senate President Thomas V. ‘Mike’ Miller.
    “I don’t juggle committees lightly,” Miller told Bay Weekly. “I wouldn’t have done it except that I think there’s overwhelming support for this bill on the floor. We’re going to try to give the bill a chance to get there. We’ve got to find some alternatives to coal-fired plants. Wind is expensive, but it solves our energy problems for the future.”
    This General Assembly is expected to consider a moratorium on fracking for natural gas.
    “Unless and until we learn we can frack without impacting clean water or putting people’s public health at risk. We want to do it right in Maryland or not at all,” says Brock-Cancellieri.
    The debate has new immediacy after a Jan. 4 court ruling that Dominion Cove Point is not blocked from exporting natural gas from its import terminal in Calvert County. Fracking in the Marcellus shale would provide that export gas.
    Other environmental bills will ask us everyday consumers whether we’ll put our money where our mouth is in controlling the proliferation of bags — a five-cent charge — and bottles — a refundable deposit. The bottle deposit starts in the fast lane: its sponsor is Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters committee.
    Do you approve?
    Bill Burton would.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]