Maryland suffered from terminal inertia in 2022 on climate change and the environment, dragged down by the competing agendas of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democrats leading the state’s General Assembly.
In April, the General Assembly passed the Climate Solutions Now Act, which requires a 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2006 levels by 2031 and net-zero by 2045, which state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, called “the most aggressive legislative action in the country.”
The bill also establishes energy performance standards for large buildings, increases the state’s energy efficiency goals and codifies a definition of environmental justice communities for use by the Maryland state agencies in extending at least 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal programs to underserved communities, as required under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative.
“But talk is cheap,” Pinsky said. “Now we have to translate the policy into concrete action.”
For environmentalists, the most consequential win in 2022 came with the election of Democrat Wes Moore as governor, which will soon resolve the enervating split between Republican governor and Democratic legislature.
But the Moore administration will have to deal with a slew of challenges, the advocates cautioned, citing seven tough issues they think could imperil his progressive vision for a cleaner, climate-resilient Maryland.
‘Catastrophic Failures’ at Baltimore’s Sewage Treatment Plants
As the year draws to a close, Baltimore’s Patapsco and Back River facilities—Maryland’s two largest wastewater treatment plants—are still struggling to overcome operational and management failures that led to enormous illegal discharges from the facilities, endangering public health and polluting Chesapeake Bay tributaries.
The situation had become so bad that in March the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), in an unprecedented move, asked another state agency—the Maryland Environmental Service—to take over operations at Back River. The plant was in such disrepair that MDE said it risked “catastrophic failures that may result in environmental harm as well as adverse public health and comfort effects.”
MDE also filed a suit against Baltimore City to stop unauthorized discharges of pollution, including nitrogen and phosphorus from the two sewage treatment plants, which it said undermined Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts by Maryland and the other bay watershed states.
Maryland and Baltimore environmental officials later agreed to a consent decree, which allowed the state to oversee operations through the end of the year. A similar agreement is yet to be agreed on the Patapsco facility to ensure it also is complying with its permitted discharge limits.
In another case filed by Blue Water Baltimore under the Clean Water Act, a federal judge in Maryland ordered Baltimore city authorities in October to submit monthly reports about the status of improvements at the Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants and whether the facilities are in compliance with their permit requirements.
Separately, on Dec. 19, five Maryland nonprofits filed three lawsuits in Baltimore County Circuit Court against MDE for issuing a deficient general industrial stormwater permit which scrap yards, coal handling facilities and landfills will be required to file beginning Feb. 1. The environmental groups said the general permit requirement lacked stringent pollution controls and would imperil waterways and further harm the underserved communities.
Chesapeake Bay Restoration Efforts
In October, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released its two-year milestones evaluation, concluding that Maryland and most of the other states in the Chesapeake Bay Program were failing to reduce nutrients and sediment levels to meet goals set for cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary by 2025.
Established by the Chesapeake Bay Program in 2014, the bay cleanup goals require the partnering states, from New York to Virginia, to take steps to reduce nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus from sources including agriculture, human sewage and fossil fuel combustion, from flowing into the bay by specific amounts..
“The sooner that we speak the truth and plan accordingly, the more successful we’ll be,” said Adam Ortiz, EPA administrator for the mid-Atlantic region, hinting at the need for more time to achieve the 2025 bay restoration goals.
“A lot of us working on the ground have known for a long time that we’re not going to meet the bay restoration goals by the 2025 deadline,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of the national nonprofit Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
She said that just having voluntary measures and incentives like paying the participating states to adopt best management practices or compliance assistance from the state agencies instead of enforcement will not clean up the bay. “Let’s actually hold the polluters accountable for cleaning up their pollution in 2023. Only by combining incentives with accountability can we achieve the bay cleanup goals,” she said.
Gaps in State Agencies’ Environmental Justice Priorities
Various studies in 2022 pointed out that Maryland’s state agencies did not have the policy guidelines or the capacity to implement programs that could deliver benefits from the billions in federal funds to communities most impacted by climate change, legacy pollution and environmental hazards as required under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative.
In October, an environmental justice center at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health issued a highly critical “scorecard” grading nine state agencies on their practices and policies for protecting the environment and prioritizing services to communities disproportionately harmed by environmental racism.
The report recommended that each state agency should develop an EJ strategic plan, provide anti-racism training for employees and introduce policies promoting restorative action.
Some state legislators and environmental advocates want the Moore administration to significantly increase staff at MDE, which recently told Maryland legislators it needed 86 new employees for necessary inspections and to enforce pollution control measures as required under a law the state general assembly passed in March.
“There were really good career employees at MDE. But Gov. Hogan decimated that agency and made it very challenging for them to work properly,” said state Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat. Love was the main sponsor of a bill that took effect in July and required MDE to inform the legislators about its staffing requirements to shore up enforcement and regulatory performance.
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At the time the legislation passed, the MDE estimated a chronic backlog of almost 247 wastewater discharge permits that were operating beyond their expiration date, in some cases for several years.
The MDE also has additional responsibilities under the new Climate Solutions Now Act, which include proposing a plan by June 30, 2023 on achieving the 60 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 levels by 2031. By the end of 2023, the agency must adopt a finalized plan to meet the goal and set the state on a path to net-zero emissions by 2045.
Fossil Fuel Interests at Key State Agencies
During 2022, Gov. Hogan’s appointees in leadership positions at key energy policy-shaping agencies disrupted the state’s clean energy ambitions in what environmentalists considered startling ways.
In September, the Maryland Office of People’s Council (OPC) asked the state circuit court to order the Maryland Public Service Commission to investigate a gas utility company for deceiving its customers by falsely claiming that natural gas is cleaner than electric power and undermining the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In its response, the Public Service Commission said it had no interest in investigating the charge and claimed in its court filing that there was such a thing as “clean” energy. “[T]he only ‘clean’ energy is no energy,” the commission said. “Once one’s activist inclinations are put aside, solar and wind generation are quite ‘dirty.’”
The PSC’s stance on “clean” energy drew sharp criticism from environmental advocates and academics, who called it “nonsense” and “a sign of intellectual cowardice.”
Separately, the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) announced $9.25 million in grants for expanding natural gas infrastructure in the state, angering environmentalists who called the move a handout to the fossil fuel industry and torpedoing the state’s clean energy and electrification targets.
Expensive, Dirty Trash-to-Energy Projects
Maryland ratepayers paid at least $57 million in 2021 to subsidize dirty energy like trash incineration, the burning of wood waste and debris and so-called biogas captured at landfills, up from about $1 million in 2008, according to figures compiled by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
“I would not be surprised if by 2030, Maryland ratepayers will have pumped close to three quarters of a billion dollars of their money into subsidizing dirty energy sources since 2008,” said Timothy Whitehouse, executive director of PEER, which compiles annual estimates of state dollars flowing to dirty trash-to-energy projects. “These subsidies hurt low-income ratepayers the most and harm our battle against climate change.”
Threats From Emerging Contaminants
Dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals known as “PFAS,” or “forever chemicals,” are an increasing concern in Maryland and across the nation. The General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting manufacturing, sale or use of products that contain PFAS, and the infrastructure legislation passed by Congress in 2021 allocated more than $50 billion to EPA for repairing the nation’s essential water infrastructure.
The EPA will allocate $68 million to MDE from the infrastructure bill in fiscal 2023 for replacing lead water lines and treating so-called emerging contaminants including PFAS in wastewater and stormwater.
Some of the emerging contaminants are much more hazardous to human health than previously thought, EPA’s Adam Ortiz said, referring to the grants dealing with the mostly unregulated chemicals and compounds imperiling the waterways and aquatic life. “We have to help all these utilities, whether they’re large or small, to step up, and the infrastructure does not always keep up with the science. But this is our opportunity to close that gap,” he said.
Nicholas of Waterkeepers Chesapeake said that MDE will need technical guidance from the EPA to build its regulatory and enforcement capacities to tackle the PFAS problem by adopting requirements at the state level to safeguard public health.