Clean Water Bills Pass in Maryland, Backtrack in Virginia

In a victory for protecting clean water and preventing environmental injustices, the Maryland legislature passed several bills championed by Waterkeepers Chesapeake that significantly improve the monitoring and enforcement of pollution permits, require an evaluation of environmental justice impacts for new permits, ensure public participation, and limit toxic pollutants. Unfortunately, Virginia backtracked on progress made and passed several bills that will harm public health and the environment, and decrease public access to information.

In the year of its 50th anniversary, it’s critical to remember that the Clean Water Act gives every person the power to reclaim their right to clean water when the government fails to do so.”
The Clean Water Act, which turns 50 this year, is a powerful law, but only if states make the investments necessary to ensure equitable protections and enforcement. States have the responsibility under the federal Clean Water Act to protect public health and the environment by limiting pollution discharged into our waterways, and ensuring transparency and public participation in the regulation of polluting facilities. In the year of its 50th anniversary, it’s critical to remember that the Clean Water Act gives every person the power to reclaim their right to clean water when the government fails to do so.

MARYLAND

“The Environment – Discharge Permits – Inspections and Administrative Continuations” Bill (SB492/HB649) sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky (District 22), and Del. Sara Love (District 16), and supported by a broad coalition of community groups, requires the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to clear the backlog of more than 200 outdated or expired water pollution control permits, nicknamed “zombie permits”, and update them by 2026, and to inspect facilities in significant noncompliance with their  permits once per month.  

“The Environment – Permit Applications – Environmental Justice Screening” Bill (SB818/HB1200) sponsored by Sen. Arthur Ellis (District 28), and Del. Melissa Wells (District 40) requires the use of an environmental justice screening tool when a new or renewing permit is being requested. This screening tool helps to identify environmental and socioeconomic injustices that are already existing in that same neighborhood, and allows for greater community involvement and awareness at the early stage of a process where there is a greater opportunity to address these concerns.  Many communities, in particular low-income communities of color often bearing the brunt of such development projects, will now be able to request changes be made to proposed developments in order to prevent harm to their communities’ health.

“The Patuxent River Commission-Membership” Bill  (SB367/HB716): When Secretary of Planning Robert McCord went outside of his jurisdiction and did not reappoint several community advocates, including Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, to the Patuxent River Commission, the public outcry was loud. Maryland legislators acted quickly to introduce and pass bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky (District 22) and Del. Mary Lehman (District 21) to make the Patuxent Riverkeeper a permanent seat and add additional citizen seats to the Patuxent River Commission. 

The George “Walter” Taylor Act (HB0275/SB273), sponsored by Sen. Sarah Elfreth (District 30), Del. Sara Love (District 16), restricts the use and disposal of toxic PFAS chemicals. It stops the use of PFAS in firefighting foam, food packaging, and in rugs and carpets, and protects our air and water by banning the mass disposal of these chemicals by incineration and landfilling. PFAS are a class of chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency says can cause harmful health effects in humans. These “forever chemicals” have been found in 75% of the drinking water tested by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Climate Solutions Now Act (SB528), sponsored by Sen. Paul Pinsky (District 22), is a comprehensive climate bill that commits the state to net-zero climate emissions by 2045 and requires a 60 percent carbon reduction goal by 2031, the strongest near-term goal in the country. It requires emissions reductions from large buildings and creates a 15-month study to determine steps needed to electrify new buildings. It codifies the definition of “overburdened” and “underserved” to ensure equitable treatment of communities and sets goals for state clean energy investments in overburdened communities. It does several other things, including allocating $500,000 per year for the Maryland Healthy Soils Program for years 2024-2028.

VIRGINIA 

With the shift in political parties in the Virginia Governorship and the House, a main priority was preventing rollbacks in environmental, climate resiliency, equity and justice, and public participation policy, including opposing the nomination of Andrew Wheeler as Secretary of Natural Resources and defending citizen boards’ authority. The water advocacy community in Virginia advocated for over 30 pieces of water policy this session, and successfully defeated a handful of bad bills which would have weakened water protections and diverted flood funding away from those who need it. However, Governor Youngkin recently issued a round of vetoes and amendments to bills. These will be taken up by the General Assembly later this month along with approval of the budget.

Despite strong opposition by the conservation community, SB657/HB1261 passed. It removes the citizen boards’ roles in important decision-making that protects Virginia’s air, water, lands and communities, and places our public permitting process behind the doors of the Department of Environmental Quality. Conservation advocates were able to amend the bill to include public hearings in the case of certain permits but continued to oppose the bill that ultimately passed.

On Thursday, April 7th Governor Youngkin signed Executive Order 17 that “encourages the use of post-consumer recycled (PCR) products,” which will incentivize increased production of single-use plastics in order to develop waste centers. The Executive Order also revokes former Governor Northam’s Executive Order 77, the state’s ongoing plan to phase-out on single-use plastics from public agencies and institutions, including colleges and universities. Andrew Wheeler’s nomination as Secretary of Natural Resources was stopped, but the governor appointed him as Special Advisor, which means he will have significant influence over policy for the next 4 years.