Maryland's environment secretary, Shari T. Wilson, has announced she is leaving after just shy of four years leading the agency. She said in a brief interview that the decision to depart was her own and that she'd been mulling stepping down for the past year.
It's been a bruising year, filled with controversies over the Maryland Department of the Environment's enforcement diligence, particularly with regard to farm pollution, and over the agency's moves to strengthen controls on polluted runoff from new development.
About this time last year, the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of water-quality watchdogs, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to strip her agency of its authority to regulate water pollution, contending that MDE was lax. Barely a month later, the alliance also publicly accused an Eastern Shore poultry farm of polluting a tributary of the Pocomoke River and got into a testy back-and-forth with MDE over its handling of the case.
As if that wasn't enough, builders and local officials revolted against new regulations MDE had issued earlier in the year that required them to do more to curb polluted runoff from new development and redevelopment projects. With lawmakers threatening to delay or roll back the rules, MDE forged a compromise with opponents that pleased some environmentalists but outraged others.
Wilson's agency also was a target of scorn in the past year from former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who vowed to make MDE more helpful to business in his unsuccessful Republican bid to recapture the State House from Democrat Martin O'Malley.
Still, Wilson said yesterday she thought her tenure at MDE had been productive as well as eventful. She pointed to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan that she and other O'Malley administration officials crafted this fall that EPA officials deemed the most thorough and realistic of any of the bay state's efforts.
Earlier, her agency also clamped down on disposal of coal ash from power plants after the waste was found to have contaminated drinking-water wells and streams - taking action in that case ahead of the nationwide furor over coal ash.
And she was instrumental in getting Maryland to take action to fight global climate change by limiting carbon dioxide emissions in the state. Maryland joined with other Northeast states in a regional auction of carbon emission permits for power plants, and state lawmakers in 2009 also enacted legislation requiring reductions in other carbon-dioxide emissions over time.
Though criticized by some environmentalists as not tough enough, the storm-water regulations are widely seen as more stringent in many aspects than what had been on the books before.
And though hamstrung by lack of staff and funds that limited its ability to check up on potential polluters, MDE did step up overall enforcement of environmental laws from what it had been in the more business-favorable Ehrlich administration. The news release announcing Wilson's departure pointed to a $1 million penalty for water pollution resulting from Constellation Energy's fly ash disposal in Gambrills and a $4 million penalty against Exxon for the 2006 spill in Jacksonville, Maryland.
Wilson's own take on the controversies:
“The best compliment would be to have been judged to be a fair regulator,” she said, but added that “when you’re successful at it, no one’s happy.”
Several leading environmental activists praised Wilson and lamented her departure.
Mike Tidwell, head of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, credited Wilson and Gov. Martin O'Malley for getting Maryland lawmakers to adopt one of the most ambitious state laws in the nation mandating curbs on climate-warming carbon-dioxide. It was initially defeated by opposition from manufacturers and labor unions, but she spearheaded talks that lead to a compromise and passage the following year.
"Together they successfully challenged Maryland businesses and environmentalists to work together -- and the historic result was the comprehensive clean energy and global warming bill of 2009," Tidwell said.
Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she believed Wilson had done a good job balancing competing interests over environmental regulations.
“That’s a very, very big job,” Coble said. Despite the criticism and controversy, Coble said she believed Wilson had done a good job of balancing the pressures from environmental and business interests.
“There wasn’t any group or person she would not sit down and talk with,” the bay foundation officer said. “I think this is a loss for the state, although I respect her decision,” Coble concluded. “She did a very good job of representing the state of Maryland, its environmental needs, and its environmental future.”
Even some of those who've complained about MDE had kind words about her. Thomas M. Farasy, a leader of the Maryland State Builders Association, credited Wilson with working last year to resolve industry complaints about the new storm-water pollution rules.
“We didn’t get everything we wanted,” he said, but he added, “she listened.”
And Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper, who was among the most vocal critics of the storm-water compromise, said he believed Wilson was a "warm and wonderful person who cares deeply about the environment."
Still, in keeping with the keepers' unflinching advocacy, Tutman couldn't resist questioning whether Wilson's willingness to listen hadn't been a handicap in being the state's top environmental cop.
"But I hope her permanent replacement," Tutman added, "is someone incredibly zealous and fearless who will strike fear into the hearts of polluters all over MD."
The challenges of the last four years are only likely to be greater in the next four. Maryland faces a budget crisis that means staff and resources will be stretched even more thinly for at least the next couple years, even as the state must find ways to accelerate cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. Money will have to be raised or found, and rules tightened still more. MDE also will have to begin cranking down on state greenhouse gas emissions under the 2009 law. Both are likely to stir controversy.
Wilson, 49, said after the grueling pace of the last four years she wasn't sure she could keep giving the job "120 percent" for another four, and the agency needed a leader who could. She plans to take a little time with family and then figure out what to do next. Her last day is Dec. 3. Deputy Secretary Robert Summers, a longtime MDE manager, will be interim secretary.
Before taking the helm at MDE, Wilson had worked for Baltimore city in the law and planning departments. She'd also previously worked at MDE for about a decade in various positions, including policy director and overseer of Superfund and brownfields cleanup programs.
“I was very fortunate to be able to work on a number of policy and organizational changes,’’ she said. “If I’ve done a good job, it will stick.”
(Top: Wilson at first Cabinet meeting after O'Malley's reelection. Bottom: Wilson viewing Baltimore harbor with MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus at kickoff of waterfront business group's campaign to make it swimmable by 2020. 2010 Baltimore Sun photos by Kim Hairston and Amy Davis)