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January 2013

Senator Threatens "The Stick" for Counties That Ignore Anti-Sprawl Law

Joan Carter ConwayAn important Maryland state senator and Governor Martin O’Malley this week turned up the heat on rogue counties that have refused to follow a 2012 state law designed to limit suburban sprawl and reduce water pollution.

To loud applause from the crowd of 400 environmental activists at the annual Maryland Legislative Environmental Summit meeting in Annapolis on Tuesday, State Senator Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, suggested she might support legislation to strengthen the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (also called the “septic bill”) to add penalties to counties that flout the law and fail to protect farmland and forests.

“I was a little upset about the way a number of counties had actually divided up their landscapes,” Conway told the crowd.  “We need to be a lot greener….A carrot may be better, but I like the stick.”

In response to the “septic bill,” two of Maryland’s fastest growing counties –- Frederick and Cecil -– have submitted planning maps to the state that leave most of their farmland and wooded areas open to large developments on high-pollution septic systems.  This is not in compliance with the law, which directs counties to allow large developments not in rural areas, but instead in towns and areas to be served by sewer systems and sewage treatment plants, which produce far less water pollution than septic systems. 

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Rural Counties Refuse to Follow Anti-Sprawl Law

Frederick county mapsThis starkly contrasting pair of maps reveals something troubling about Maryland’s efforts to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay by limiting suburban sprawl.

The large green areas on the map at left are the farms and forests of Frederick County  that should be protected from large development projects under a 2012 law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

The law encourages growth in existing towns and areas to be served by sewer, and is designed to prevent construction of major housing projects in rural areas using outdated septic tank technology, which creates about 10 times more nitrogen water pollution for Chesapeake Bay tributaries.  In the map at right, however, most of Frederick County’s green areas have been stained lemon yellow (meaning open to large developments) on the Frederick County’s version of the planning map – meaning that the county doesn’t want to follow Maryland’s new guidelines for protecting farms and forests.

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New Study Adds Fuel to Argument that Natural Gas is Worse than Coal

FlareResearchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently added fuel to what is already a fiery debate over the climate impact of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. They reported that between 4 and 9 percent of natural gas can leak into the atmosphere during extraction, according to an article in the journal Nature.

Those numbers appear to vindicate controversial studies by Cornell Scientist Robert Howarth, who estimated that up to 8 percent of natural gas escapes during extraction –- enough to make natural gas worse for the climate than coal.  Other studies, including one by a Cornell colleague of Howarth’s, L. M. Cathles –- estimate the leakage rate to be much lower, perhaps 1.5 percent.

Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he believes the new NOAA research gives additional reasons to question the environmental benefits of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which is often portrayed as a “clean fuel” from a climate perspective.

“If you frack for natural gas, the resulting gas, when you burn it, produces half the carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas) as coal,” Tidwell said.  “But that’s not the whole story.  When you look at the lifecycle pollution of natural gas – i.e. the global warming pollution that is emitted into the atmosphere during the drilling process itself, and the amount of escaped gas in the piping… it turns out that a lot of it leaks in that process. And that gas is by other name methane, and methane is 21 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.”

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Good, Bad, and Ugly in the Virginia Legislature

For Bay Daily readers in the Virginia part of the Bay watershed, here’s a quick update on a few good, bad, and ugly Chesapeake Bay bills now being considered by the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.

Two good bills (SB 1291 and HB 2254) that bring the Old Dominion into compliance with a coast-wide Atlantic menhaden management plan continue to make their way through the legislature without opposition. Success of the Virginia legislation is critical to the success of menhaden conservation efforts up and down the East Coast and to avoid possible sanctions, including shutdown of all menhaden fishing in the state, for noncompliance.

Menhaden photoThe bills will reduce annual harvests of menhaden by 20 percent as a first step toward rebuilding the severely diminished menhaden population. Most Atlantic menhaden (80 percent of the annual harvest) are caught and landed in Virginia by Omega Protein Corp. in Reedville, which processes the fish into oil and meal. The fish are also caught and used as bait by crabbers and lobstermen.

Besides their commercial value, menhaden are a critical food source for important Chesapeake Bay finfish, birds, and marine animals. For more about this important legislation, click here.

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The Sprawl Penalty: Weak Zoning Laws Hurt Value of Farmland

SprawlBayProgramToo much freedom for developers hurts real-estate values.

Contrary to claims that laws passed to control suburban sprawl depress the price of farmland, a state analysis of sales figures shows that farms tend to be more valuable in counties that have more protective zoning laws, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

Maryland Planning Secretary Richard Hall testified to this trend yesterday in front of a state senate committee that is discussing the results of a 2012 anti-sprawl law called the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act.

“One thing we’ve heard is that we’re going to stop growth....  That is not true,” Hall told the committee.  “We like good growth. What we are trying to do is limit growth of major subdivisions on septic systems in the rural parts of the state.”

The law –- which is now under attack by lawmakers trying to repeal it --  requires counties to set aside areas for future development, and other areas for the preservation of farmland and forests.  In the protected areas, developers could not build large new subdivisions with septic tanks, an old fashioned waste control system that pollutes more than wastewater treatment plants.

The intent of the law is to protect about 100,000 acres of forests and farms in Maryland from development, Hall told the senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. The law is also meant to prevent the installation of about 50,000 septic tanks, and prevent about 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen pollution from seeping into  Chesapeake Bay tributaries by 2035,  Hall said.  Because the law restricts the use of septic tanks, it is sometimes called the "septic bill."

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Menhaden Find More Favorable Virginia Currents

After years of swimming against the legislative tide in Virginia’s General Assembly, Atlantic menhaden finally are finding more favorable currents.

This week, identical bills to better protect the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast were unanimously voted out of legislative panels with recommendations for approval in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. (Read news reports here and here.)

If ultimately passed and signed into law by the governor as expected, the legislation will bring Virginia into compliance with menhaden conservation measures adopted last month by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The interstate commission concluded that the coast-wide population of menhaden has routinely experienced overfishing, is currently at historic lows, and the annual harvest should be cut 20 percent to begin rebuilding the population.

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MD Lawmakers Propose 5 Cent Bottle Deposits to Boost Recycling and Reduce Litter

Dan NeesDan Nees scrambled down the banks of the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch in Baltimore, near M & T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens play.

He trudged into an ankle-deep carpet of malt liquor cans, water bottles, plastic cups, and other containers that have washed up into the reeds fringing this Chesapeake Bay tributary.

“Wow. This is unbelievable -– so much trash, and a lot of it’s bottles,” said Nees, a senior research associate at the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center.

Maryland consumers buy 4.1 billion cans and bottles for beverages every year -– but only 22 percent of these containers are recycled, according to a recycling study that Rees co-authored.

That means that more than three quarters of bottles and cans in Maryland are still getting thrown into landfills or onto roadsides, where rain often washes them down stormdrains to foul into streams and rivers.

Maryland is recycling fewer of its beverage containers than the 35 percent national average -– and  only a fraction of the 67 percent recycled in New York, or the 97 percent in Michigan, according to Nees’ study.

Why the difference? 10 states with much higher recycling rates than Maryland have drinking container deposit laws. These add five or ten cents to the cost of a can or bottle. Consumers get the money back when they return the empties to stores.

These "bottle bill" programs use an economic incentive to transform average citizens into paid street cleaners. “These types of incentives have proven to be very, very effective,” Nees said.

Maggie mcintoshOn Monday, Maryland State Delegate Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, held a press conference at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with fellow lawmakers to announce similar legislation for the state that would create five cent deposits for cans and bottles. She said the bill’s goal is to more than triple the state’s recycling rate for drinking containers, to 75 percent.

“There is a great deal of cost that goes into cleaning streets and also cleaning up the streams and the Chesapeake Bay and the Inner Harbor,” McIntosh told WYPR 88.1 FM public radio in Baltimore.  “I think you would not only would get citizens more serious about recycling. I think you’d save cities and municipalities money.”

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Menhaden Now in the Virginia Hopper

Menhaden photo
The oldest continuous legislature in the New World will now grapple with the most important fish in the sea.

The Virginia General Assembly (c. 1619) convened this week to begin the 2013 legislative session, and among the first bills dropped in the hopper for consideration was a measure to bring Virginia into compliance with a coast-wide plan that better protects Atlantic menhaden, a little fish with big ecological and economic roles.

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MD General Assembly Opens Amid Challenges to Environmental Laws

State houseThe best legislative strategy for the Bay may be a strong defense.

As Maryland’s General Assembly session begins today, a critical goal for Chesapeake Bay advocates will be to keep water quality improvements on track by defending anti-sprawl laws and septic tank pollution regulations approved last spring -– but which since have drawn fire.

A second goal will be finally securing full-funding, pledged by the Maryland General Assembly back in 2007, for an innovative program that pays for runoff pollution control projects through car rental and vehicle fuel taxes.

The five-year-old Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund was designed to receive $50 million a year to clean up waterways. But it has never received close to that amount, last year getting $24 million, with the rest siphoned off into general state spending.

This underfunding came despite the well-documented success of the program. Between 2009 and 2012, the Bay Trust Fund paid for farm and urban runoff control projects that prevented 3.56 million lbs of nitrogen pollution, 335,000 lbs of phosphorus, and 478 tons of sediment annually from contaminating local waterways, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

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Video Highlights Communities Taking Action to Save the Bay

While some industry lobbying groups have sued to overturn EPA pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay, many communities are moving ahead and hiring workers to build improved pollution control systems and a stronger local economy.

Check out this new music video about the efforts of counties and cities in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to meet these pollution limits and follow the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint. Then forward it to all your friends who care about restoring the nation's largest estuary.

The video is set to an inspiring song, “Chesapeake,” that Grammy award-winning guitarist and musician Al Petteway generously allowed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to use. Many thanks, Al!  To learn more about Al and his partner Amy White, click here.

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