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Lawmakers Ban Styrofoam and Pass Controversial "Clean" Energy Bill


The Maryland General Assembly wrapped up its annual session at Midnight on Monday with a solemn and emotional tribute to House Speaker Michael Busch, the veteran lawmaker and Chesapeake Bay champion who died of pneumonia on Sunday.

Governor Larry Hogan addressed lawmakers: “God bless Speaker Mike Busch, and may God bless his family and all those who loved him,” Hogan said. “And may God continue to bless the great state of Maryland.”

In part as a tribute to Busch’s leadership, lawmakers passed important environmental legislation. This included a bill that would make Maryland the first state in the U.S. to ban Styrofoam food containers, reducing petroleum-based litter that does not break down in the environment. 

Legislators also voted to protect five oyster sanctuaries in the Chesapeake Bay that watermen have lobbied the Hogan Administration to open up to harvest. This pressure has come despite the reality that severe over-harvesting has helped to drive down oyster populations to about 1 percent of historic levels.

Governor Hogan, a Republican, vetoed the oyster protection bill, but the majority Democrat General Assembly overrode his veto.

“Speaker Busch was a champion for the oyster sanctuary bill, and we were very happy that passed and that lawmakers overrode the veto,” said Karla Raettig, Executive Director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.  “He also felt strongly about the foam ban and he put that in the leadership priority package that passed. You just see a legacy from the speaker’s office of environmental stewardship and caring about the bay.”

In an effort to better control pollution from the Maryland’s growing poultry industry, lawmakers also passed a bill that will require additional permitting, fees, reporting, and water pollution monitoring on the lower Eastern Shore.  Senate Bill 546, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky, Democrat from Prince George’s County, requires Maryland to resume water quality monitoring at nine locations near the heart of the poultry industry that had been shut down in 2015 by the O’Malley Administration.

The most controversial bill to pass this year was the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act, which had an amendment that was hotly debated until a final vote late Monday night. 

The legislation mandates that power companies in the state purchase half of their electricity from renewable sources by energy by the year 2030, up from 25 percent today.  But the bill also includes language that continues to define trash incineration and the burning of wood waste at paper mills--both of which release large amounts of air pollution -- as so-called “clean” and renewable sources of energy, worthy of state subsidies equal to those for wind and solar.

Mike Tidwell, founder of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, led advocacy efforts to get the bill passed.

“The General Assembly was very conflicted on this issue,” Tidwell said. “The labor unions really want there to be a continuation of subsidies for trash incineration. Environmental groups like mine were not favorable on that issue.  Legislators went back and forth.”

The millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for trash burning infuriate Baltimore city advocates trying to shut down toxic emissions from the state’s largest incinerator – the BRESCO waste to energy plant next to Interstate 95 in South Baltimore.

“In subsidizing trash incineration as a renewable energy source Maryland continues the practice of paying private companies to make money polluting neighborhoods,” said Emily Ranson, Maryland Program Coordinator for Clean Water Action.

The question now is whether Governor Hogan will veto the Clean Energy Jobs Act, as he vetoed similar but more limited legislation two years ago – only to see his veto overridden. The bill passed this year by veto-proof majorities, 31-15 in the Senate and 95-40 in the House. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.