The 2023 Maryland General Assembly session was certainly an eventful one for Waterkeepers Chesapeake, our Maryland Waterkeepers, and other partners. With a new Governor and strong environmental leadership in his administration, it became clear that change had come to Maryland. While many of our priority bills passed, others were altered or withdrawn to give agencies the opportunity to maximize previously underutilized legislation or authority. We will be closely following the success of these efforts, ready to re-introduce our priorities in 2024 if we’re not seeing progress.
Our advocacy efforts focused on issues such as PFAS (“forever chemicals”) and plastics pollution, stormwater runoff, water quality, and environmental justice. Working with our Waterkeepers and partners, we were pleased that some crucial bills did pass. However, a few of the legislative efforts we supported, such as a bill requiring owners of publicly owned treatment works to monitor and report PFAS levels in their biosolids and effluent, and a bill to require the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to conduct an evaluation of the environmental justice impacts when issuing certain environmental permits were withdrawn. A bill eliminating PFAS in pesticides did advance, but as a study bill requiring the Department of Agriculture to study the use of PFAS in pesticides in Maryland, with a report of findings and recommendations to be delivered to the General Assembly by November 1, 2023.
With increasing severity and frequency of storms due to climate change, it’s more important than ever to stop polluted runoff from construction sites and to protect and expand our forests. That is why we were pleased that two priority bills of our Waterkeepers passed. The Construction Stormwater Runoff Permit Bill went through several amendments, but in the end requires MDE to provide greater public notice and attention from permit writers for these sites, and Maryland’s construction site regulatory program will be adapted to our changing climate. The Forest Conservation Act also went through amendments, but in the end the bill sets new, stronger statewide forest cover and tree canopy goals, gives counties and local governments flexibility in designing a forest retention strategy, and provides stronger protections for areas determined to be priority forests.
A bill that would have shifted the burden of responsibility to reduce plastic pollution to the producers also went through several amendments. The Producer Responsibility to Reduce Packaging bill defines who producers are, requires MDE to designate a ‘Producer Responsibility Organization’ by October and appoint an Advisory Council on Producer Responsibility. Based on a “Needs Assessment,” the Advisory Council will recommend legislation in 2024.
Led by our partners at the Center for Progressive Reform, the Private Well Safety Act of 2023, was a big win for drinking water safety, though it went through several amendments. The bill creates a new regulatory program that will provide much-needed transparency about well safety to renters, prospective homebuyers, local health officials, and the broader public. The new law protects the drinking water for tens of thousands of Marylanders, particularly in our rural areas.
Three bills, built on past legislation that our Fair Farms initiative supported, will help create a more resilient food and farm system, and protect waterways. The Urban Agriculture Grant Program was established earlier but will now receive funding, and will establish an Urban Agriculture Advisory Committee. The Food System Resiliency Council bill makes the Council a permanent program in the Department of Emergency Management. Waterkeepers Chesapeake has participated in the Council since its inception. The On-Farm Composting Facilities bill expands the area for on-farm composting of food scraps from the current 5,000 square feet or less to 40,000 square feet or less without an MDE permit. Another bill we were happy to support was the Greenspace Equity Act that will provide annual state funding to support projects that increase and enhance community greenspace (including urban agriculture) in Maryland’s underserved and overburdened communities.
We were pleased to support a bill introduced by the Office of the Attorney General that enables that office to investigate and prosecute cases against persons that violate state criminal environmental and natural resources laws. It assists the Department of Natural Resources in investigating or bringing a civil action regarding a violation of state civil environmental and natural resources laws; and requires the unit to report to certain entities in the state on all its activities, findings, and recommendations.
Another important win was not legislation; it was budgetary. After last year’s major water pollution permitting and compliance bill, the Governor’s budget added 43 new positions at MDE. This has been a priority for our coalition because the lack of enforcement from that agency is attributed to low staffing. This year, other provisions were written into the budget directing MDE to fill its vacancies and report on its efforts to raise additional funds by resetting its antiquated fee structure.
Waterkeepers Chesapeake is committed to working with and maintaining a positive relationship with the new administration. We strongly believe that developing these partnerships and keeping MDE accountable will help advance our goals and the new administration’s climate goals.
In Virginia, the legislative climate was different with a divided government. The conservation community’s efforts were largely devoted to defending past progress made, and opposing rollbacks in pollution protections and climate-smart bills. Several bills that would have protected waterways and communities from PFAS, plastic, and pavement sealants were defeated or weakened. But a bill that would have eliminated erosion and sediment controls for clearcutting forests was defeated, and attempts to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) were prevented. In a compromise, the Chesapeake Bay restoration 2025 deadline was extended to 2028, instead of 2030. Another significant loss was a bill that would have strengthened environmental protections from data center developments. Virginia is home to the largest concentration of data centers in the world, but has no regulatory oversight of data center development. Unfortunately, attempts to even study their impacts on land, water, and energy use were defeated.
In a big win for clean water, historic amounts of funding for clean water programs were proposed by the Governor, the House, and the Senate – but the General Assembly failed to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of session. Items we want to see make the final budget include: over $12 million in additional funding to incentivize high-return agricultural BMP implementation on farms; $500,000 to accelerate achievement of Virginia’s Tree Canopy Chesapeake Bay WIP goals; and essential investments in the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund. The proposed 2023-2024 budget also included record funding for the Virginia Agricultural Cost Share Program and substantial funding for wastewater treatment upgrades.
For more information on Virginia’s bills and budget, visit James River Association and Virginia Conservation Network websites.