Tuesday 22 May 2018

Maryland’s 2018 Legislative Session Wrap-Up Featured

With the 2018 Maryland Session coming to a close earlier this month, we’d like to let you know about the important legislative victories we achieved along with some of the policies we may revisit in 2019. Over the past few months, Waterkeepers Chesapeake partnered with Maryland waterkeepers and other environmental organizations in the General Assembly to increase public access to government records, increase public participation at the Public Service Commission (PSC), prevent the use of harmful chemicals, decrease the amount of foam in local waterways, and close loopholes under current law that enable the net loss of forests in Maryland -- to name a few.

 

Legislative Victories

Thanks to the work of Fair Farms and others, we were able to secure funding for the Maryland Farms and Families program.The Maryland General Assembly included $200,000 in the final budget for this program that matches purchases made by low-income Marylanders using federal nutrition assistance like SNAP (food stamps) at participating farmers markets. While the Governor still needs to allocate the funds for this program -- you can ask him to do so here -- we are now one step closer to having Maryland fund a successful program that directly supports small farmers, food-insecure Marylanders, and our local economy.

This past session the General Assembly also legalized hemp production in Maryland. Hemp has a number of benefits for our environment, provides a new income stream for farmers, diversifies our state’s agricultural system, and may bring new jobs and opportunities to Maryland. You can find out more about the benefits of this beneficial crop in this educational report from the Abell Foundation.

South Riverkeeper, ShoreRivers, Clean Water Action, and other partners were able to secure the passage of legislation that incentivizes the development of Septic Stewardship Plans in localities. The Plans incorporate best management practices and will allow the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to more readily identify failing septic systems across the state. This policy is on the way to be signed by the Governor and once it’s implemented, we’ll have less nitrogen in our waterways across the state.

Another legislative win includes the passage of the Complete Streets Program, which provides grants to local jurisdictions to update their roads to include retrofits for bicyclists and green stormwater infrastructure, among other improvements. This program aims to reduce stormwater runoff, promote healthy communities, and improve the safety of Marylanders. A big thank you to Delegate Brooke Lierman for sponsoring this legislation.

This session we also supported the work of Assateague Coastkeeper and others to establish strict liability for any future offshore drilling activities in Maryland. With three proposed lease areas for drilling off the coast in Maryland under a new program from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, this bill acts a stopgap measure to prevent and discourage any drilling from taking place by establishing offshore drilling as an “ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity” - meaning that any company that drills will be held liable for any damage or injury to a person or property due to any activities associated with drilling, regardless of the circumstances. It is our hope that this bill and other efforts will ultimately make offshore drilling in Maryland not viable.

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Issues to Revisit in 2019

Improved Public Participation and Notification at the Public Service Commission

A suite of bills we promoted would have modernized the public notification process at the Public Service Commission (PSC) and would have built health considerations into the review process. For instance, House Bill 715 would have required public notice via multiple forms of print and social media, and the opportunity to opt-in to direct text messaging for major projects, like power plants, going through the PSC. While this bill had strong grassroots support and educational messaging, unfortunately this bill did not make it out of the House Economic Matters Committee due to inaction from House Leadership. Over the interim, we plan to ramp up education around these much needed issues and work with Delegate Robynn Lewis, the Maryland Environmental Health Network, and others to garner support from key legislator champions.

Public Access to Records

According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs) “protect Maryland’s waterways from nutrient pollution... [and] ensure that nutrients [and manure] applied to crops and lawns are not impacting waterways." While the Maryland legislature intended to make NMP summaries and associated cost-share documents available to the public, the high costs and large amount of redactions to this information has virtually rendered it inaccessible. House Bill 1221 sought to address this problem, while still protecting the identity of the NMP holder - simply bringing NMPs in line with other information that’s available through Public Information Act. While this bill ultimately failed in the House Environment and Transportation Committee, we plan to work with Environmental Integrity Project and other partners over the interim to obtain fair access to this information.

More Forests, Cleaner Waterways

Conserving forest acreage is vital for clean water as forests act as one of nature's best water filters and reduce runoff. The Forest Conservation Act would have closed loopholes that enable the net loss of Maryland's priority forests due to development. While this bill was turned into a Task Force bill, and then ultimately died in the Senate, we believe the issue will be ripe for further discussion in 2019.

Safer Communities

House Bill 116 and Senate Bill 500 would have prevented the use of chlorpyrifos--a toxic, nerve agent pesticide--in the state of Maryland. Despite having a preponderance of credible science that links chlorpyrifos with brain damage in children and support for the bill from thousands of Marylanders, special interests were able to kill the bill quietly in the Senate. We’ll continue our work in ensuring safe and clean waterways from harmful chemicals and pesticides, like chlorpyrifos, and revisit this issue in 2019.

Less Foam in Local Waterways

House Bill 538 and Senate Bill 651 would have lessened the amount of disposable foam products in our local streams and rivers by reducing the amount of foam used for food services. Foam breaks into tiny pieces that absorb 10 times more pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals than other kinds of plastic. This increases toxin exposure to our marine life and threatens local waterways and drinking water sources alike. While Senate Bill 651 was voted out of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, it ultimately failed on the Senate Floor.

Community Healthy Air Act

House Bill 26 and Senate Bill 133, otherwise known as the Community Healthy Air Act, would have required a one-time study of air emissions from industrial livestock farms to see if there may be health impacts on neighboring communities.While this bill simply sought science and and basic information to ensure the safety of Marylanders living in areas overburdened with farming operations, the Community Healthy Air Act did not move out of committee. By working on this bill, legislators and their staff were able to learn about this important issue and hear directly from citizens concerned about their health.

These past few months had a few challenges and unexpected surprises, and while we wish all of our priority bills had passed, we are feeling incredibly inspired and hopeful to make progress on our issues moving forward.

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In 2015, Waterkeepers Chesapeake joined more than a half-million comments from people supporting the safeguards that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now seeking to remove in its proposed rule. The 2015 coal ash regulations were imposed after lengthy negotiations with utilities, other industries and environmentalists. Relaxing those common sense, science-based rules now – even as utilities are in the process of reporting the extent of coal-ash contamination and devising plans to address it – would mean the lessons learned from the coal ash accidents in Tennessee and North Carolina are being ignored. The proposed rule (‘remand rule’) would once again put our water and public health at risk – with more than 1.5 million children living near coal ash storage sites and seventy percent of all coal ash impoundments disproportionately impacting low-income communities – this is a risk that the EPA should be unwilling to take.

Background

Coal-fired power plants in the United States burn more than 800 million tons of coal every year, producing more than 110 million tons of solid waste in the form of fly ash, bottom ash, scrubber sludge and boiler slag—commonly known as coal ash. Hazardous chemicals present in coal are concentrated in the ash when coal is burned. Consequently, coal ash contains a toxic brew of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and poisons—including arsenic, boron, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, lithium, mercury, molybdenum, selenium, thallium, and radioactive substances. These toxics raise the risk for cancer, heart disease, and stroke, and can inflict permanent brain damage on children. When this dangerous waste is not disposed of properly, the toxic chemicals are released to air, groundwater, surface water, and soil.

For decades, billions of tons of coal ash have been dumped in unlined pits next to our lakes and rivers. Toxic chemicals from coal ash leak into those waterways and pollute groundwater and drinking water wells. Fugitive dust from coal ash dumps foul the air of nearby residents. And hundreds of aging earthen dams hold back billions of gallons of toxic sludge, threatening the communities that live downstream. This holds true for the Chesapeake Bay region on rivers like the Potomac, James, Patuxent and Susquehanna.

In 2015, the Obama administration adopted the first-ever national standards for the disposal of coal ash. The federal rule requires numerous critical safeguards, including regular inspection of ash ponds, monitoring of groundwater, shutdown of leaking dumps, shutdown of dumps in dangerous locations, cleanup when contamination is found, safe closure, and public posting of monitoring and inspection results. Following President Trump’s inauguration, however, industry groups demanded EPA weaken the rule. EPA agreed and is now proposing the very changes industry so badly wants.

Trump’s proposed remand rule clears the way for polluters, and polluter-funded politicians, to avoid the minimum national standards and employ their own weak standards for groundwater monitoring, coal ash cleanups, and several other core health and environmental protections included in the 2015 rule. As justification for the rollback, EPA points to millions of dollars of cost savings for owners of coal ash dumps. But the facts and science on which the 2015 rule was based have not changed. What has changed is the Trump EPA’s prioritization of polluter interests over the protection of public health.

On April 30, 2018, we filed coments opposing the proposed rollback that included the following:

EPA’s Remand Rule

1. The remand rule weakens groundwater protections and removes protections for children’s health.

EPA is proposing to allow states to set different, less protective, standards for cobalt, lead, molybdenum, and lithium. Additionally, EPA deliberately excluded a requirement that states consider risks to sensitive subgroups—including children—when setting alternative standards. Now, EPA is telling states it is okay to ignore those risks. EPA is also suggesting owners and operators of coal ash dumps write their own standards for those pollutants without direct government oversight.

2. The remand rule makes toxic cleanups discretionary.

EPA is proposing making cleanup of groundwater contamination discretionary—that is, to let polluters do nothing even where contamination above groundwater protection standards is found. More than half the U.S. population, including 99 percent of the rural population, relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply.

3. The remand rule eliminates the requirement that leaking unlined ponds install liners or close.

EPA is proposing to eliminate the requirement that unlined coal ash ponds that leak toxic chemicals above groundwater protection standards install liners or close by a date certain. EPA is proposing to remove the requirement that sources of coal ash pollution be controlled at all.

4. The remand rule removes the requirement for polluters to respond immediately to coal ash spills.

The existing rule requires that polluters “immediately” act to control the release of coal ash pollutants into the environment in the event of a spill. Shockingly, EPA is proposing to remove that requirement altogether.

5. The remand rule eliminates the requirement to close coal ash ponds that fail safety standards.

EPA is proposing to eliminate the requirement that coal ash ponds close if they fail to achieve minimum structural stability standards established in the 2015 rule. Catastrophic failure of coal ash dams threatens lives and entire communities and ecosystems.

6. The remand rule allows coal ash dumps to continue to operate in dangerous locations.

Under the existing rule, coal ash disposal units that are located in areas where harm to health and the environment is likely must demonstrate by October 17, 2018 that they are not violating location restrictions or they must cease accepting waste and close. Even coal ash dumps that are sitting in groundwater may no longer have to close by a date certain.

7. The remand rule allows political appointees to decide if a cleanup is adequate or even required.

EPA has proposed to allow directors of state agencies—political appointees, instead of professional engineers, to make at least 40 different technical determinations that would allow a facility to deviate from the requirements of EPA’s 2015 rule. The proposal allows the potentially politically driven judgment of a state regulator to be substituted for the technical judgment of an expert or the wisdom of EPA in setting the standards.

8. The remand rule shortens the post-closure care period and letting polluters off the hook.

EPA is now proposing to reverse course and allow states, or the owners themselves when there is no state permit program, to dramatically reduce the 30-year post-closure care period. Because hazardous chemicals leaking from ash dumps often move slowly through soil and groundwater, a short post-closure care period will mean that leaks go undetected and polluters avoid cleanup of their toxic messes.

9. The remand rule removes the requirement to post compliance data, leaving citizens in the dark.

Post certain information on publicly available websites allows folks who live and work near coal ash dumps to know that their communities are safe. However, EPA is considering eliminating important internet posting requirements, which will leave residents in the dark about coal ash pollution.

Conclusion

Power plants have had a free pass to pollute our water and have put the health of downstream communities at risk for far too long. The 2015 coal ash rule is currently protecting hundreds of American communities. Despite some weaknesses in the current rule, coal plant owners have already established publicly accessible websites and fugitive dust control plans, completed hundreds of inspections, and published critical groundwater quality data. The commonsense standards of the 2015 rule—which received more than a half-million supporting comments from the public—are helping to protect clean water and safeguard public health. EPA’s current attempt to weaken this rule is nothing more than a total giveaway to the industry and must be rejected.

DOWNLOAD OUR FULL COMMENTS

 

Under the Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted federal protections against the dangers posed by toxic coal ash. That rule requires closure of ash dumps in dangerous locations (including within five feet of groundwater), regular inspection of coal ash ponds, monitoring of groundwater near coal ash sites, closure of leaking ponds, cleanup when contamination is found, safe closure of dumps, and public posting of monitoring and inspection results.

Under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to weaken or eliminate the federal safeguards and protections against the dangers posed by coal ash. EPA is holding one public hearing on April 24th.

These changes put the health and well-being of communities on the Potomac, James, Susquehanna, Patuxent and many other rivers at risk!

Join your local Waterkeepers at the public hearing in Arlington on April 24th: CLICK HERE to register to speak.

When: Tuesday, April 24 (9AM–12PM; 1–4PM; 5–8PM)

Where: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, 300 S Army Navy Drive, Arlington, VA 22202

If you cannot attend, submit your written comments by Monday, April 30th -- CLICK HERE 

EPA has proposed to:

  • Allow operators of coal ash ponds and landfills to write their own standards
  • Make cleanup of contamination discretionary (i.e., let polluters do nothing)
  • Eliminate the requirement that leaking ponds install liners or close
  • Give polluters extra time to close ponds and landfills located in unsafe areas and eliminate the strict location prohibitions entirely
  • Allow political appointees, instead of professional engineers, to decide if a cleanup is adequate or even required.

Every year, more than 110 million tons of coal ash are generated — the toxic waste left after coal is burned at power plants. It contains arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, radium, and other hazardous chemicals that present serious risks to human health and the environment. For decades, coal ash has been dumped in unlined pits from which toxic chemicals leak into groundwater and pollute drinking water wells and our lakes and rivers.

Make your voice heard – we will not stand for EPA rollbacks that will endanger our drinking water and put the health of millions of people at risk!