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Md. Gov. O’Malley’s bold proposals on environment face sizable challenges

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As the state with America’s highest median income, and the one bordering most of the environmentally precious Chesapeake Bay, Maryland arguably has both the money and the incentive to be a national leader in fighting pollution.

Since Maryland is also one of the country’s most liberal states, the politics are less of an obstacle than in most places.

That mix of economics, geography and ideology — combined perhaps with a whiff of presidential ambition — is leading Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) to push a pair of remarkably bold environmental initiatives as he begins his second term.

One would ban further installation of traditional septic systems in major new housing developments statewide. The goal is to reduce the small but growing amount of septic waste polluting the bay.

The other would force the state’s electric utilities to sharply increase the amount of power they buy from wind turbines to be built at least 10 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

I welcome O’Malley’s aspirations for cleaning up the environment, but the plans face formidable challenges. Business and farm interests are already gearing up to block him, especially on the septic tank proposal.

Moreover — and this is what’s truly sobering — even if O’Malley succeeds, the results will only represent an incremental advance in what’s needed to deal with threats to the water and air.

For instance, septic tanks account for only 8 percent of the nitrogen pollution that Maryland is spilling into the bay. Even if Maryland eliminated all of it, there’d still be a sizable problem from farm waste and storm-water runoff, not to mention pollution from the five other states and the District in the Chesapeake watershed.

In an interview Friday, O’Malley acknowledged that reality but said Maryland had to look at the long term and set an example for its neighbors.

“No other state hugs an estuary quite so closely as ours, and is as heavily populated as ours. If we’re not leading, we can’t expect other states to follow,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley stunned both environmentalists and their critics when he unexpectedly made the septic ban proposal in his State of the State speech on Feb. 3. It would require any development of six or more houses to be served either by sewers or a shared system that significantly reduces pollution but costs more than a traditional individual septic tank.

Both sides called it a far-reaching measure. Depending on your point of view, it would either wisely curtail unhealthy development in rural areas, or strangle the economic future of hardworking farmers by rendering their land unsalable.

When O’Malley discussed the issue Thursday with a delegation of mostly hostile state legislators representing the Eastern Shore, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s) told him, “By those two careless sentences [in the speech] you wiped out a trillion dollars of land value in rural Maryland.”

O’Malley responded, “I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as immeasurably improving water values.”

The septic bill is to be formally presented on Monday. The governor described it as a way to accomplish three goals: Preserve agricultural land, protect the bay and channel development toward rebuilding older cities and towns where sewer infrastructure already exists.

That last point is particularly intriguing, and potentially politically explosive. Basically, O’Malley wants to slow development in rural areas in favor of adding density in existing urban and suburban areas.

That strikes me as good smart-growth policy, but the farmers aren’t necessarily the only ones who’ll squawk about it. Pipkin pointed out that residents in built-up areas often resist packing in more population because of concerns about congestion and other quality-of-life issues.

“The challenge is, we don’t have the buy-in from citizens to increase the density in the growth areas that the state already has,” Pipkin said.

O’Malley’s wind energy bill is likely to have a better chance winning legislative approval. Even there, opposition is expected because citizens would be asked to pay more. O’Malley estimates that the extra cost will be about $1.45 a month on utility bills, but some skeptics think the price will be considerably higher.

As the governor starts his second term, which the state constitution says must be his last, O’Malley would like major environmental achievements to be one of his principal legacies. That in turn could be a building block for national aspirations, such as a run for the White House.

The question will be whether O’Malley can successfully manage the tough economic trade-offs needed to have a measurable impact on the environment. Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), a strong pollution opponent, said that dilemma is a constant frustration.

“The heartbreaking thing is that people’s minds are so open to environmental initiatives, but it’s nearly impossible finding the money to pay for them,” Raskin said.

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