CBF: Time is running out to pass critical Bay cleanup legislation

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By Alison Prost

The end is near. Of the Maryland 2012 legislative session, that is.

But we fear something else could soon expire: the recent renewed energy to restore the Chesapeake Bay. The two are connected, the legislative session, and the future of the Bay.

Maryland has always been a leader among the six Bay states in making progress to clean the Bay, and the creeks and rivers that feed it. But we are at a critical time in the history of this effort. Momentum has been building to finish the job of restoring the Bay. Again, Maryland is leading the rally.

But two pieces of legislation pending in the General Assembly are absolutely necessary to this effort. If lawmakers drop the ball on these initiatives, there is no chance Maryland can meet its commitment to finally make our water clean enough for safe swimming and fishing. That’s just not our conclusion. It’s the official view of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the bills would double the so-called flush fee to $60 a year for Maryland households. The increased revenue would allow the state to nearly finish upgrades of the state’s 67 biggest and most polluting sewage plants.

The second bill would require the state’s nine most populated counties, as well as Baltimore City, to collect a fee to be used only for reducing polluted runoff. The local governments alone would determine the size of the fee, and the projects to pursue. Many of these counties have come out in support of the bill. They know they have a problem. The system of ponds, ditches and pipes that controls flooding, and drains rainwater from the suburban landscape, has been badly neglected for years.

Both bills enjoy widespread support among stakeholders, and in the General Assembly. Both have been passed by the House of Delegates.

But both bills are being held hostage while legislative leaders debate the state’s budget. That debate is understandable. But if the tempest continues till the last scheduled day of the session on Monday, and the environmental bills aren’t allowed to move forward pending its outcome, the bills effectively will die as the clock ticks toward adjournment.

As difficult as it has been this session to raise revenue, it will be more difficult next year, with elections looming. This is our best chance perhaps for years to lay the foundation for finishing the job of restoring a national treasure. That foundation requires funding.

These investments will pay off, both in the short and long term. Passing the stormwater bill, for instance, will create thousands of jobs. Montgomery County, which already has a fee, projects it will employ 3,300 people over the next four years using those resources to reduce polluted runoff. Prince George’s County estimates it will create 2,600 jobs if the legislation is approved. Other counties will see similar job growth. The flush tax increase also will create thousands of engineering and construction jobs as treatment plants are upgraded.

Long term, the bills will gradually reduce the impact of two of the major sources of pollution to the Bay: human waste and contaminated runoff from our urban and suburban landscapes. Finishing the upgrades of our biggest sewage plants alone will reduce nitrogen pollution by 3.7 million gallons a year.

Pollution reduction realized through these bills also would help the Chesapeake Bay turn the corner to health. With that recovery would come a surge in employment as the seafood, recreation and tourism industries rebound. We lost more than 4,400 jobs in the seafood industry between 1998 and 2006, and $640 million in income to watermen, restaurants, processing houses, wholesalers and grocers. Reduced pollution means sustained prosperity in the region.

If the bills die, pollution won’t abate. Jobs won’t return. All the benefits that clean water provides may go down the drain.

Alison Prost is the Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
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