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Balloon Release Ban Rises Rapidly In Maryland

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Jay Falstad, Executive Director of the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, first became obsessed with balloons a few years ago. He was out strolling with his daughter and noticed some litter.

“My daughter and I found a cluster of balloons here on Unicorn Lake,” Falstad said. “And on those balloons was a note written in Sharpie pen that said, ‘If you find these balloons, call this number. We want to see how far they’ve travelled.’ And so, I called the number and it turned out they originated from Dayton, Ohio, and had been released four days earlier, and travelled almost 500 miles and ended up landing here. It was after that that I began to see balloons everywhere. You’d see them in farm fields, and hanging in trees.”

He was not the only one haunted by balloons…kind of like a character in the movie It based on the Stephen King novel about the sinister clown. But in this case, the victim was the Chesapeake Bay.

Farther south on the bay, Katie Register, director of Clean Virginia Waterways program at Longwood University, performed a systematic survey of litter in the Chesapeake region. She also kept stumbling upon balloons. They were even in the most remote wetlands and wilderness areas.

“Well, we did a four-year study on some of the barrier islands in Virginia, and found a total of 13,348 pieces of balloons and/or balloon ribbons,” Register said. “A second study we did that was monthly on four different beaches – we found 15,000 pieces of debris.  And of that, balloons were the second most common thing that we had on those four sites.”

Disturbed and irritated at this easily preventable – and apparently growing -- form of pollution, Jay Falstad worked with officials in his local county government, the Queen Anne County Board.  On August 28, the county passed an ordinance banning the intentional release of balloons and imposing a $250 fine for violations.

Wicomico County, also on the Eastern Shore, followed suit in December by passing a similar law.

Inspired, state Senator Clarence Lam, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties, introduced his own proposed balloon release ban at the state level.  Lam’s bill carefully exempts children under 13 years from any fines, as well as any balloons released by mistake or for research purposes.

Senator Lam said one of his main concerns was protecting wildlife.

“There’s some wildlife that is mistaking this for food,” Lam said. “Birds and turtles often eat them up, and it could cause harm or death to animals in that way.  And so, it’s a real concern.”

Jay Falstad, as one of the advocates for the bill, has received a little bit of criticism for pushing what some right wing bloggers call ‘the nanny state’  -- pushing government rules for every corner of life.

“In terms of the nanny state, I don’t buy that argument, only because this is a deliberate form of pollution,” Falstad said.

His argument – and battle against litter -- appears to be taking flight in the Maryland General Assembly.  Last week, the state Senate voted 38 to 3 in favor of the ban on intentional balloon releases, and the state House is expected to take it up this week.

Not even the dreaded balloon lobby is testifying against the law.   In a time of turmoil and political polarization, litter from the skies appears to be an annoyance that everyone – Republicans and Democrats, liberals from urban areas and farm-county conservatives – agrees deserves a pin prick.

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.