5 environmental bills to watch during 2021 Maryland Legislative Session
January 19, 2021
By: Julia Rentsch
Read the full article here.
In a 90-day session characterized by distanced meetings, earlier deadlines and restricted visiting procedures for COVID-19 safety, the Maryland General Assembly will hear a slate of environmental bills that will pick up where the legislature left off in its shortened session last year.
“2021 is likely to be a session unlike any other,” said Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-17).
The bills take aim at some of Maryland’s biggest polluters, including transportation, which is the single largest source of greenhouse gases in the state (as well as in the U.S. at large).
After concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic cut the 2020 legislative session short last March, several environmental bills with momentum failed to become law.
The following are five environmental bills to watch during the 2021 session.
Climate Solutions Now Act
With impacts of climate change already visible across the state, particularly in tidal shore communities that are beginning to lose islands and wetlands, the Climate Solutions Now Act seeks to input strong anti-pollution measures.
Among the bill’s provisions:
Increasing Maryland’s 2030 emissions reduction goal from 40% to 60% of 2006 levels, with a new target of net zero emissions by 2045.
Requiring redevelopment of the Maryland Department of the Environment Climate Action Plan.
Requiring MDE to create a Climate Justice Workgroup to study equity in climate investment among disadvantaged, frontline communities.
1/21/2021 5 environmental bills to watch this year in Maryland
Requiring the state to plant 5 million trees over 10 years (500,000 annually), with 10% planted in historically redlined urban communities that remain underserved.
Requiring all new buildings with at least 25% of their funding coming from the state to meet net zero emissions building standards (some public schools exempted).
Requires utilities to achieve energy savings of 3% per year.
Funding for the Climate Solutions Now Act would come from additional fees charged to polluters under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative carbon emissions cap.
Delegate Dana Stein (D-11), vice chair of the Environment and Transportation Committee who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said the Climate Solutions Now Act takes a “comprehensive approach to the climate crisis.”
“What part of the bill does is it realigns our state’s requirements for greenhouse gas reductions with the recommendations of climate scientists to try to avoid the worst impacts of global warming,” he said. “…They’re not enough by any stretch, but they would take us — it would it would be a major step in the right direction.”
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters, a statewide nonpartisan political action organization with a focus on conservation, has declared the Climate Solutions Now Act one of its top two legislative priorities in 2021.
“Climate Solutions Now will rebuild Maryland’s economy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing Maryland’s overburdened communities,” said Maryland LCV executive director Kim Coble in a statement. “Maryland legislators have a responsibility to meaningfully address the climate crisis and a diverse coalition is emerging to hold them to that obligation.”
Maryland Senate Chair Paul Pinsky (D-22), said he wants to emphasize the word “now” in the bill’s title. He said the bill could help make Maryland a national model for climate action. “As someone who has spearheaded legislation last 10 plus years to address this crisis, I must tell you that I’m frustrated,” he said. “While it seems we may make our last reduction target
that we passed some years ago, that’s mostly because of market forces and not because of conscious changes in the state’s policies and practice. We just simply have to be more aggressive.”
Transit Safety and Investment Act
With a backlog of repairs causing Maryland Transit Authority services to score among the least reliable in the nation, the Transit Safety Investment Act aims to improve public transit and thereby decrease fossil fuel pollution from traveling by car.
The backlog is large — a 2019 study found MTA had need for $2 billion over the next 10 years just to maintain its assets in a state of good repair.
The Transit Safety and Investment Act, S.B. 0199, would mandate an increase of $123 million to the MTA annually from the Transportation Trust Fund for the next ten years, to be directed toward capital needs.
“Sometimes people don’t think of transit as an environmental issue, but I think in Maryland we’ve done a really good job of making sure folks know that in fact transportation is one of the big environmental issues,” said Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-46). “…And strong public transit systems are absolutely essential for our state’s economy and for the environment.”
The Transit Safety Investment Act is the Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ other big priority this year.
“Investments in transit reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce roughly twice the number of jobs per dollar as the same investment in roads,” Coble’s statement said. “We have seen during this pandemic that many of our essential workers, especially in health care, rely on public transit to get to their life-saving jobs, but our public transit system is unreliable. They deserve better.”
PFAS Protection Act
PFAS, a family of chemicals used in the production of many products since the 1940s, are a growing concern across the U.S. due to their ubiquity and longevity — they have been found in drinking water and soil, and every person is thought to have at least some PFAS in their blood.
PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl substances, do not break down easily, so can remain present in the environment and the body for long periods of time. Certain PFAS types — there are thousands — have been tied to various health problems.
PFAS have been found in the public drinking water supplies for Chincoteague, Va. and Blades, Del. MDE is currently testing drinking water sites and oyster colonies around the state for PFAS, with results anticipated later this spring.
Last year, the General Assembly banned the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS for training, a rule which will go into effect in October 2021.
The new bill goes much further: the PFAS Protection Act, S.B. 0195, would ban the use of PFAS chemicals in all firefighting foam, food packaging, rugs and carpets. It would also prevent the mass incineration and landfilling of PFAS chemicals, seeking to ensure their safe disposal.
“This year, Delegate (Sara) Love and I wanted to take a broader view and approach to PFAS,” said Sen. Sarah Elfreth (D-30), who also worked on last year’s bill. “And so, we are kind of coming in heavy with a pretty aggressive bill.”
However, some PFAS safety advocates say the bill still isn’t enough.
Pat Elder, who spearheads PFAS activism in St. Mary’s County, points out the bill would not apply its ban on firefighting foams containing PFAS to federal installations, which are required to use PFAS foams due to their effectiveness at smothering fires that involve oil or gasoline.
In an email, Elder wrote that the state should be focusing on setting aggressive surface water standards for PFAS, establishing fish advisory levels, and testing municipal drinking water across the state, among other PFAS containment strategies.
“I live 1,600 feet across the creek from a small naval facility in St. Mary’s County, MD with no history of a burn pit and a runway too small for jet traffic,” Elder wrote. “I tested an oyster (2,200 ppt), a crab, (6,500 ppt) and a rockfish (23,100 ppt) and they’re all unsafe to eat. Maryland needs to deal with this.”
While there are no federal standards for PFAS chemicals in drinking water or the environment, the U.S. EPA advises that certain types of PFAS not be present in drinking water at concentrations higher than 70 ppt, or parts per trillion. Some states have set lower limits.
Prohibition on balloon releases
With latex and Mylar balloons commonly washing up on beaches and floating in the ocean, this type of litter has been found in animals’ stomachs and mouths — to deadly effect.
A new solid waste bill, H.B. 0391, seeks to apply a civil penalty to the deliberate release of balloons into the atmosphere by anyone over the age of 13. If prosecuted, the offense would carry a fine of $250 per violation, enforced by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
A similar bill had momentum last year, passing the House and Senate, but failed to become law due to the pandemic’s early shutdown of the session, said Delegate Wayne Hartman (R-38C).
Lawmakers understand that police often have more pressing matters on hand than individuals releasing balloons, Hartman said. The bill’s intent is more to increase awareness of balloons as litter, rather than prosecute, he said.
Civil penalties for balloon releases have been opposed in the past by people who feel a deep affinity for mass balloon releases during commemorations and ceremonies, such as memorial services, Hartman said. But people need to realize their balloons can travel hundreds of miles, he said.
“Oftentimes, these balloons are found with the ribbons and everything, which add to the problem because they cause entanglement,” Hartman said.
Maryland Well Safety Program
As a former resident of a small town in Alabama that was the site of chemical
dumping, Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19) said he ran for office after he was diagnosed with cancer for the second time in his life.
The non-Hodgkins lymphoma and his former residence are related, he thinks.
“They didn’t tell the residents, they didn’t even tell their own workers,” Stewart said. “But my hometown of Anniston, Alabama, has the highest levels of PCB contamination ever recorded in human history.”
Legislating to protect Marylanders from ever going through a similar ordeal is what inspired Vaughn’s push for the Maryland Well Safety Program this session, a bill that will establish and implement a grant program to help counties assist residents with costs associated with testing and treating private wells for contaminants.
The bill would also require property owners wishing to sell their homes to test their well water at a state-approved lab every three years and disclose the results to tenants and buyers. The bill would impose a fee on homeowners to help cover costs of testing and would create public database of results.
In fall 2020, a study from the Center for Progressive Reform — a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. — found that Wicomico and Worcester county data showed levels of nitrates above EPA regulations in about 1 in 25 private wells. Additionally, 1 in 14 of those counties’ private wells had nitrates just below EPA’s threshold, the report said.
The study also found large gaps in well data that made it impossible to determine risks in Somerset County.
MDE recommends that well owners test their water annually, but a recent survey of residents of the Lower Shore found that nearly 75% of private well owners hadn’t tested their water recently, or ever, Stewart said. Nearly 40% of respondents hadn’t even heard that nitrates could be in their drinking water.
“Maryland’s current hands-off approach to private wells really hurts people with low incomes and people of color the most,” Stewart said, referencing research that said people in those categories tended to be the least informed about the dangers of nitrates in their well water.
“I’m a big believer that Maryland can no longer turn a blind eye to this problem,” he said.