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MD Lawmakers Target Coal Pollution And Factory Farms

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The Maryland General Assembly’s annual legislative session opened today. The two most important environmental issues being debated this year in Annapolis are – once again -- climate change and the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

State Delegate Kumar Barve, a Democrat from Montgomery County and chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, is proposing legislation that would shut down Maryland’s six remaining coal fired power plants.

“I do want to emphasize the pernicious effects of coal on our environment,” Barve told a telephone press conference organized by the Sierra Club. “Of course, coal not only produces more carbon dioxide for the atmosphere, but coal soot – the soot that’s not caught by the power plants, and ends up going into the atmosphere. It’s a terrible pollutant for human and animal life.”

The amount of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants in Maryland has dropped by more than half over the last decade. That’s because hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has made gas cheaper than coal. Solar and wind power have also become more affordable.

The state’s largest coal-fired power plant, Chalk Point on the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County, followed the lead of an increasing number of power plants nationally and recently switched from mostly coal to mostly natural gas generating units.

However, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that about 21 percent of the electricity generated in Maryland still comes from coal. That’s compared to 35 percent from natural gas, 39 percent from nuclear power, and only five percent from renewable sources.

Paul Pinsky is chairman of the Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee. He cautioned that any such a phase-out of coal plants might be opposed by labor unions. The plan would need to pay for career retraining for the coal plant workers who lose their jobs, Pinsky said.

“The problem that we must address as a state and as a nation is: we have to have a just transition plan,” Pinsky said. “I mean, when we do that (shut down coal plants), what do we do with the people who work at those plants? Some of them are making decent salaries. And then we put them on the street.”

In the area of Chesapeake Bay cleanup, both Senator Pinsky, of Prince George’s County, and state Delegate Vaughn Stewart, of Montgomery County, are both considering different pieces of legislation to control farm runoff pollution. The bills would require Maryland to figure out a way to deal with the half billion pounds of excess chicken manure generated every year by poultry industry on the Eastern Shore.

“The amount of chicken litter already on the Eastern Shore has proven to be untenable and poses significant risks to the restoration of the Bay,” Stewart said. “So in areas that are in particularly high risk of these toxins running off into the Chesapeake Bay, we should halt the construction of the largest factory farms.”

Any pause or delay in permitting approvals for new industrial-scale chicken houses in over-saturated areas of the Eastern Shore will likely be strongly opposed by the influential Maryland farm lobby and Eastern Shore lawmakers. 

However, many public health and environmental advocates support the idea. This includes Dr. Clarence Lam, a public health scientist at Johns Hopkins and a state senator representing Howard and Baltimore counties.

“We in Maryland have seen an increase in the number of concentrated animal facilities (or CAFOS),” Lam said. “The industrialization of farming and agriculture recently has led to very large farms that contribute a lot of potential pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, particularly when it comes to phosphorus, and nitrogen as well.”

Both of these legislative proposals – on factory farming and coal-fired power plants – are expected to face an uphill battle in the Maryland General Assembly, which historically has shown itself as relatively conservative despite the state’s overwhelming Democratic majority.

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.