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Baltimore County Prepares For Climate Change

John Lee

Joe Lowe recently was having a beer in a bar in Bowleys Quarters in Middle River. Bowleys Quarters is prone to flooding, most infamously in 2003 when Tropical Storm Isabel destroyed more than 200 homes.

But Lowe does not believe climate change is a threat.

“Some summers are hotter than others,” Lowe said. “Some winters are colder and warmer. I don’t see the difference. I think it’s a hoax.”

And that is a political reality facing Baltimore County’s first sustainability officer, Steve Lafferty. Lowe, a conservative Republican, represents the views of many in Eastern Baltimore County. Lafferty, a former Democratic legislator, is charged with preparing the county for the effects of climate change. And Eastern Baltimore County, with its waterfront, is conservative, overwhelmingly voting for President Trump in 2016.

“If the community is resistant, let’s find a way to address the most significant problems,” Lafferty said.

How to deal with those problems will be part of a climate change plan Lafferty hopes to have in place early next year. 

Rising waters from climate change is a threat to Baltimore County because of its more than 200 miles of waterfront. The county is beginning to prepare for that reality, as well as looking for ways to reduce its own contribution to greenhouse gasses.

Lafferty said the county already is doing some things.

At Cox’s Point Park in Essex, part of the coast has been shored up with plants and fencing.

Lafferty said the county also is doing a vulnerability analysis on pumping stations.

“If there are storm surges or disasters like that, that we can protect our system from failing.”

But the county’s own Hazard Mitigation plan states the county has allowed unsustainable development in high hazard areas.

And in Dundalk, there is a superfund cleanup site, the now closed Sauer Dump. The Government Accountability Office has it on a list of sites that are vulnerable to the threats of climate change.

Baltimore County Delegate Dana Stein, vice chair of the House Environmental and Transportation Committee, said if more isn’t done internationally to cut greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise could go higher than the 2050 prediction of two feet.

“And that would just swamp the coastal areas, including parts of Baltimore County that are on the water,” Stein said.

Another part of Lafferty’s job is figuring out how Baltimore County can reduce its dependency on fossil fuel.

Four years ago, then county executive Kevin Kamenetz announced a goal that by 2022, renewable energy would fuel at least 20 percent of power in county buildings. The current county executive, Johnny Olszewski, said little was done to reach that goal before he took office In December 2018.

“We were effectively close to zero percent when we came into office and we think by the end of next year we will be near or exceeding 20 percent,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski last year created the job of sustainability officer and chose Lafferty for the position.

The county’s strategy to get to 20 percent includes capturing methane gas at the landfill and converting it to energy. It also wants to use more solar. The county wants to find places like rooftops to put the panels rather than on rural land. There is opposition to that because it displaces farmland.

Lafferty said the county wants to match or exceed the state’s goal of using 50 percent renewables in 10 years. But a student climate change advisory group appointed by Olszewski said that’s not aggressive enough. Lafferty said they are pushing for 75 percent.

Pikesville High School student Omer Reshid, a member of the advisory group, said students are going to realize that they’re the ones who are going to be impacted first hand.

“And we need to do something about it,”Reshid said.

Lafferty pointed out climate change doesn’t just threaten Eastern Baltimore County. Heavy rains in 2018 ruined crops in north county and flooded out neighborhoods in Catonsville. 

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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