Eco-Friendly Era Has Arrived in Md.

By David A. Fahrenthold and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Annapolis this spring, it's suddenly very, very easy being green.

The Maryland General Assembly has passed eco-friendly legislation on everything from climate change to dish soap to oysters. The governor has resolved to treat pollution like street crime, calling his subordinates on the carpet to quiz them about why dirty streams haven't been cleaned up. The attorney general is searching the state for ecological crimes.

Things suddenly feel different around the State House, where environmental advocates and their frequent opponents -- watermen, farmers, developers -- have battled in the past to so many stalemates. That old balance seems to be tipping, thanks to new concerns about climate change, an impending deadline for the Chesapeake Bay, and a political marriage between farmers and environmentalists.

Many of the grandest plans for change could be scuttled by the Senate because of Maryland's budget problems. But for now, environmentalists say, the place feels like California on the Chesapeake.

"We're winning," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "That's pretty new."

Across the border in Virginia, lawmakers also approved environmentally friendly legislation in the session that ended Feb. 24. The state's General Assembly agreed to borrow $250 million to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and approved a restructuring of the electric industry that includes incentives for utilities to build "clean" generation plants that emit less carbon than conventional, coal-fired plants.

During the past two weeks in Maryland, it has been difficult just keeping up with the environment-related bills coming through the House of Delegates.

There was the "Green Fund" bill passed Saturday, which would pay for pollution-reduction projects in part by charging residential developers 50 cents per square foot of paved surface. Also Saturday, the House approved another measure aimed at reducing the pollution washing downstream from storm sewers. And yesterday, the Senate followed the House in passing a bill to lease out parcels of the Chesapeake Bay bottom for oyster-restoration efforts.

Those actions followed sweeping environmental changes that both chambers approved earlier in the session, which began Jan. 10. The bills call for lower carbon-dioxide emissions from cars, a ban on the harvest of diamondback terrapin turtles and a reduction in the pollutant phosphorus included in dishwasher soap. Many were championed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

Legislators said the bonanza of environmental lawmaking was partly a reaction to the November defeat of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who had fought with the Democrat-controlled legislature on a number of issues.

"A lot of us are extremely concerned that our goals remained dormant under Governor Ehrlich," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's). "This is our first opportunity in years to put out meaningful legislation."

Ehrlich's successor, Martin O'Malley (D), has recently sought to establish his "green" credentials. Last week, for instance, O'Malley's administration said Maryland wanted to join a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeking tighter limits on the amount of toxic mercury emitted from power-plant smokestacks. Ehrlich had refused to do so.

Then there are the "BayStat" meetings -- an attempt to monitor the vast, slow-moving problems of the Chesapeake Bay with the same approach that O'Malley, as mayor of Baltimore, used on armed robberies and potholes. In two briefings so far, O'Malley or an aide has sought to track the details of the bay cleanup, quizzing subordinates about this forested shoreline or that river.

Another figure in the changed atmosphere is Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), whose campaign last fall focused heavily on the environment. Gansler has sought out deputies to focus on environmental issues and promised an "audit" of the state's streams, with the goal of targeting recalcitrant polluters.

Environmentalists said it makes for a sharp contrast with the Ehrlich administration. Although Ehrlich was hailed for signing the "Flush Tax" bill to finance the cleanup of polluting sewage plants, he was often criticized by environmentalists as being too close to business interests.

"It is . . . day and night? Sea change?" said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of the conservation group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, searching for the right metaphor to describe the shift. "It is hugely different this year than over the last four years."

Political observers say the reasons for the shift go beyond O'Malley's victory. They say the Maryland electorate has begun to tilt further toward environmental causes as the public worries more about climate change and the bay's failing health. A deadline of 2010 has been set for the bay cleanup, a goal that appears to be beyond reach.

It has also helped that environmentalists have made an alliance with the state's farmers, who have felt targeted by regulation. Environmentalists decided that cow manure, as bad as it is, is better than the oil, metals, fertilizer and sewage that flow downstream after a farm becomes a suburb. The two sides have teamed up to support the Green Fund.

But that doesn't mean it will pass. Indeed, the next two weeks may bring a reality check for supporters of the Green Fund, the storm-water changes and other environmental measures. They cost money, and Maryland doesn't have much: A $1.3 billion budget shortfall is projected for next year. For that reason, the Senate may kill the measures.

Other, even bigger ideas proposed this spring are also looking as though they won't be approved this year. These include the Global Warming Solutions bill, which would cut the state's emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020. The idea has drawn criticism from the state Chamber of Commerce, which says Maryland businesses shouldn't bear the burden for a global problem.

Such lingering doubts make some observers wonder whether Maryland's environmental enthusiasm will eventually fizzle.

"I . . . know they ain't got no money, and if they ain't got no money, they can't do anything," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "I've been around long enough that I don't get excited about all the talk. I'll wait and see what the actions are."

But even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is blocking many new spending projects, said he thinks more changes are coming.

"What I want my legacy to be is: This is the team that finally cleaned up the Chesapeake Bay," Miller said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company