In Annapolis, green agenda a "heavy lift"

Environmental activists rallied in Annapolis yesterday evening, as their leaders described this year's General Assembly session as a make-or-break one for restoring the Chesapeake Bay and fighting climate change.

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. and House SpeakerMichael E. Busch vowed to press for green legislation but appealed for help from the hundreds of activists crowded into a Senate conference room for the annual environmental legislative "summit."

Environmental groups have declared renewable energy, bay cleanup and reducing plastic bag litter among their top priorities for this 90-day session.  They're backing Gov.Martin O'Malley's bill offering subsidies for offshore wind energy projects, which a Sierra Club spokeswoman argued would help the state meet its renewable energy goals while improving air quality, boosting jobs and mitigating global warming.

Green groups also are rooting for O'Malleys proposed increase in the "flush fee" to pay for upgrading more sewage treatment plants, and for limiting development on septic tanks, which they say will rein in sprawl while helping to keep nutrient pollution out of the bay. 

Other causes on the greens' radar include protecting environmental programs and park acquisition from budget cuts, and shielding the University of Maryland environmental law clinic from critics of its participation in a pollution lawsuit against an Eastern Shore farm and the Perdue poultry company.

But legislative leaders warned activists that with all the budget and economic issues lawmakers have to deal with, the green agenda will be a tough one.

Miller, in particular, cautioned that the environment is "under assault" from conservatives who are accusing the O'Malley administration of waging a "war on rural Maryland."  He said some of the green groups' legislative priorities are "heavy lifts," but pledged to win passage of the governor's proposal to increase the "flush fee" toward upgrading the state's largest sewage treatment plants.

"We're going to get the votes to do that," he said, though he cautioned that rural lawmakers and Republicans are likely to be "very recalcitrant," especially with other tax and fee increases under consideration.

Busch, for his part, said "everything's a challenge," though he noted that the flush fee had passed his chamber 129-19 when it was first adopted in 2004.  The speaker said he supported the O'Malley administration's state development blueprint, PlanMaryland, despite complaints by rural lawmakers that it usurps local prerogatives to control land use.

Busch also praised Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, for her leadership in helping to craft proposals for strengthening the state's Smart Growth policies while protecting the bay by limiting new development on septic tanks.   He pledged to support those initiatives, but said he needed activists to contact and persuade reluctant lawmakers.

Environmental group leaders attempted to infuse a sense of urgency in their members, saying the bay is starting to show signs of recovery even as farming and development groups attempt to derail the "pollution diet" imposed on Maryland and other bay states by the federal government.

"It's a moment in time for the Chesapeake Bay ... It's a moment in time for Maryland," said Will Baker, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's president.  While the bay is showing modest improvements, he said, it's a very, very fragile success.  Failure to keep the cleanup momentum going could doom the effort, he warned. "We must not be complacent.  We will never be able to declare victory and go home."

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