Earth Day is a lot like of St. Patrick’s Day.
We dress up in green both days, and we throw parties and maybe march in a parade. But the next morning, the green washes off.
In both Washington, D.C., and in Annapolis, the advance of the 41st Earth Day didn’t incline lawmakers to green enthusiasm. In Maryland, tight money pushed environmental causes to the rear. In Washington, tight money was the excuse for policy-directed raids on environmental protections.
Just last week in Washington, House Republicans schemed to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency. Their ploy was a popular one in D.C. brinksmanship, attaching policy riders to the budget bill to keep government running.
Climate change was the excuse. If you say it’s not happening — which takes a trip to fantasyland, as you can see for yourself in the SLAMM climate change webpage Matt Driscoll writes about this week — it’s logical to try to stop the EPA from imposing rules to combat it.
But climate change was only part of the D.C. backstory. Also targeted was EPA’s preservation effort to stop nutrients from flowing off farmland into Chesapeake Bay.
The riders aimed at EPA efforts on the Bay — and in Florida — died before the final bargain. But there was other bad news: The agreed upon budget for the rest of the year cuts a whopping $1.6 billion from EPA, including $997 million to states for drinking water projects and cleaning up water pollution.
Environmental causes didn’t fare so well in Maryland, either, when the General Assembly ended its lawmaking year on April 11.
“Shortsighted” was Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ Cindy Schwartz’s word for the work of a General Assembly that “chose to react to perceived short-term economic costs over long-term investments in our economy.” And, Schwartz said, over “protections for Marylanders’ water, air and public health.”
The General Assembly said no to above-ground and visible environmental advances as small as five cents — the price we’d pay retailers for bags to carry our purchases — to as tall as 100 wind turbines, to be erected 10 miles off the coast of Ocean City.
Our lawmakers also took an ostrich approach to environmental advocacy underground, missing three opportunities.
One, they refused to establish corporate responsibility for safekeeping the environment when drilling for natural gas in Maryland’s part of the Marcellus Shale Formation.
Two, they allowed developers to continue to service new communities with septic systems — rejecting Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plea to control that stream of nitrogen pollution to the Bay.
Three, they struck out on dedicating a funding source for improving failing stormwater systems.
Please note that in every case, directly or indirectly, our water suffers. Thus the bag fee would have meant pennies per bag for Bay restoration. Fracking shale to reach natural gas — currently unregulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act — may result in water contamination that poses risks for public health and the environment.
Holding the Line
The big job of this Assembly was one most of us can relate to: finding money to pay the bills. Looking for spare change in every pocket meant that dedicated environmental funds could have been cut. Instead, environmental funds were pretty much spared. Most funding for Program Open Space was saved, and $24 million was dedicate to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund.
Trust Fund money comes from state motor-fuel and rental-car taxes. Here’s what it does, as described in O’Malley’s budget request:
“With 90 percent of these funds being directed for projects and infrastructure that will employ installers, designers, engineers and construction services, the Trust Fund will not only help us achieve our restoration commitments, but will create jobs and support local economies.”
One Big Step Forward
Bay-saving lawn care will become a way of life in Maryland because a new law was passed this year to match the lawn fertilizer we use to the nitrogen needs of grass.
The day after the Assembly ended, as bills were signed, Senate President Mike Miller gave a different spin to the process of environmental — and political — advancement. “These were first steps,” he said of the Assembly’s consideration of septic systems and wind power.
Then he told a parable. “Where I grew up,” the rural Prince George’s County native said, “we had outhouses. Septic systems were for the well-to-do.”
The moral: Change comes by degrees. Still, Miller said, “It has to get done.”
It sure does, and it’s up to us to keep pushing for a brighter, more permanent, shade of green.