MD backing away from Bay cleanup deadline?
Is the O'Malley administration backing away from the 2020 deadline it set for Maryland to complete its share of the regional Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort?
On Tuesday, members of the governor's Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal suggested delaying the cleanup deadline - dropping back to the 2025 target previously agreed to by the other five states engaged in bay restoration. The members making those suggestions just happened to be O'Malley cabinet secretaries.
John R. Griffin, secretary of natural resources, presented recommendations from a committee of the task force, including one urging a gradual tripling of the $30 annual "flush fee" every Maryland homeowner pays now to help restore the bay.
Gov. Martin O'Malley called it a "stretch goal" in 2009 when he committed Maryland to reaching the state's pollution-reduction goals five years earlier than the other states involved in the bay restoration effort. He said it was to "maintain our own sense of urgency" about the cleanup, which has dragged on for more than 25 years and repeatedly missed other goals.
Without more funds, the state won't be able to take all the actions needed by 2020 to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, officials have said. But Griffin said state and local officials could use more time to raise the funds and get programs and projects in place to fulfill the state's obligations under the baywide "pollution diet" set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Trying to raise enough funds to meet the 2020 deadline just nine years hence would require such high increases in the so-called "flush fee," Griffin said, that he feared any authorizing legislation would be "dead on arrival" in the General Assembly.
Some local officials also have told him, Griffin said, that they'll have trouble identifying and planning all the projects they'll need by the end of the decade to reduce polluted storm-water runoff from urban and suburban streets, lawns and parking lots.
Griffin's committee did call for increasing the fee in stages, doubling it to $60 next year and then tripling it to $90 by 2015. The funds would be spent upgrading 9 large and 10 medium-sized sewage treatment plants, replacing failing septic systems and providing half the money expected to be needed planting trees, creating rain gardens and other storm-water control measures. One task force member questioned if a gradual increase would raise enough funds and suggested tripling the fee outright - an approach Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat co-chairing the task force, called "ripping the Band-Aid off."
A separate task force committee headed by Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance also urged delaying the state's bay cleanup date to 2025 or even 2030.
"2020 is getting closer every day," Hance said, noting that budget-cutting in Washington has made officials uncertain how much federal funding will keep flowing to help farmers control their polluted runoff. Hance also noted that farmers and their supporters would like to have more time to resolve issues they have with the computer model of the bay that the EPA is using to direct the cleanup effort.
The 28-member task force, created by O'Malley after his legislation to curb development on septic systems failed this year, didn't vote on the recommendations. The task force isn't slated to finalize its recommendations until the end of November.
The natural resources secretary stressed that officials are not proposing a slowdown in the pace of cleanup activities, but rather that more time is needed to ramp up efforts across the state for reducing nutrient and sediment pollution. Picking a more realistic deadline now would be more open and honest with the public than waiting until time is almost up, he suggested.
Kim Coble, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, reacted cautiously to the suggested easing of the state's cleanup deadline.
"If there is a sincere and focused effort to get all the tools in place, including incentives and regulations, then yes, 2025 is okay, " she said. But not, she added, if the delay means state and local officials throttle back on cleanup efforts.
"The jury is still out on which way it's going to go," Coble said.
(Baltimore Sun photos: Gov. Martin O'Malley with scientists checking health of Bush River, 2009, by Barbara Haddock Taylor; Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, by Kim Hairston)