Maryland's Environment

Thursday, October 12, 2006

AS A CANDIDATE four years ago, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made no bones about his pro-business tilt, which led plenty of environmentalists to fear the worst from his Republican administration. In fact Mr. Ehrlich's record on the environment is a mixed bag -- good on the Chesapeake Bay, poor on land conservation and so-so on air pollution.

Mr. Ehrlich deserves unalloyed credit for the creative Chesapeake Bay Restoration Act of 2004. The law -- by means of a $30 annual fee charged to households for sewer and septic use -- finances sewage plant upgrades to dramatically reduce harmful nutrients discharged into waterways. It's smart policy that over time should sharply reduce nitrogen pollution in the bay.

Mr. Ehrlich's record on land conservation is more checkered. For decades Maryland has set aside a dedicated funding source (a portion of the real estate transfer tax) to pay for the purchase of pristine tracts. From the outset, Mr. Ehrlich was unenthusiastic. Faced with a daunting budget shortfall, he raided the state's land-buying kitty, in effect converting money set aside for conservation into general fund revenue. Previous governors had done the same, but not to this extent. Mr. Ehrlich added to the impression that he cared little for land conservation with his abortive attempt two years ago to sell off more than 800 acres of forested, state-owned land to a politically well-connected developer in St. Mary's County; media exposure killed that deal. He has pledged to keep his hands off the land conservation fund if he is reelected.

On air pollution, Maryland is probably better off today than when the governor took office. This year he signed the Healthy Air Act, which will force the state's largest coal-fired power plants to cut toxic emissions. But Mr. Ehrlich had to be dragged into doing the right thing, having helped kill a similar measure in the legislature last year. In the end, it was probably the exigencies of electoral politics and federal standards that led him to sign the 2006 version of the bill -- especially after lawmakers defied him by adding modest limits on carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists consider a major cause of global warming and rising sea levels.

Mr. Ehrlich's Democratic rival, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, must be judged more by his words than his deeds, having faced a comparatively narrow range of environmental issues. He says he would fully fund land conservation, commit himself to the clean air bill signed by Mr. Ehrlich and strictly monitor progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. He seems less ambivalent about protecting the state's natural resources than Mr. Ehrlich does, but there's not much of a track record by which to predict his actions in the governor's office.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company