Baltimore City Council to pass new regulations, including Styrofoam ban

The Baltimore City Council is set to impose a series of new regulations on area businesses Monday, including a ban on using polystyrene foam containers for carryout food and drink.

The council also is slated to cast final votes on regulations that limit advertising sugary drinks with kids’ meals at restaurants and ban the building of crude oil terminals in the city.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he expects all three bills to pass by large margins.

“The council members who were sponsors of the bills sat down and worked out compromises,” he said. “That’s what good government does.”

The council already gave preliminary approval to the ban on foam cups and containers. The bill, sponsored by Councilman John Bullock, is an effort to cut down on the number of foam cups floating in Baltimore’s waterways.

It would enact criminal fines on businesses that fail to comply and states that “no food service facility may use any disposable food” container made from polystyrene foam, commonly called Styrofoam.

The council also has granted preliminary approval to a bill, sponsored by City Councilman Brandon Scott, that would bar restaurants from including sodas and other sugary drinks as the default option in children’s meals, a move supporters say could improve children’s health. The bill would allow families to request a soda if desired.

The council also has near-unanimous support for a ban on new crude oil terminals as part of an effort to limit the number of oil trains traveling through the city . That bill, sponsored by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, changes the city’s zoning laws to add the oil terminals to a list of banned facilities, ranking them alongside nuclear power plants and incinerators.

Clarke said the three bills all emphasize public health.

“They all relate to a healthier, safer Baltimore City,” she said.

Perhaps the most hotly debate of the three bills has been the ban on foam food and drink containers. Several previous attempts at a ban failed to overcome opposition from stores and restaurants, which continue to resist an environmental initiative that has been enacted in other parts of Maryland and in Washington.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, argued in a letter to the council that the ban wouldn’t help the environment — because people still would litter other products — and it would force eateries to buy more expensive containers.

“Enacting such a costly ban with no measurable benefit would be poor public policy, and would further exacerbate the operational challenges facing our industry,” he wrote.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh has said she plans to support the legislation because the council agreed to amend the bill and give city businesses 18 months to comply with the foam ban after she signs it.

Violating the law would be a misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine.

Young said the 18-month phase-in time shows the council is not anti-business. Businesses will have plenty of time to comply, he said.

“Most businesses think this council is really unfriendly to business,” he said. “But I look at like how can we work together to get this done.”

The foam is a cheap way to package food and a popular method for serving carryout coffee, business owners say. But environmentalists say that when the material is discarded it often ends up in the Inner Harbor, where it breaks into ever-smaller floating pieces, which can be ingested by fish and other wildlife and become toxic.

Baltimore is not alone in its concern. The city would join other jurisdictions in the area with similar bans, including Washington, Takoma Park, and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

This is the latest of repeated attempts to pass similar legislation. In 2013, the council postponed action on a proposed ban after several members withdrew their support.

Bullock introduced a new bill after calculating that younger, more progressive council members voted into office in December 2016 might support the idea. A key moment for the bill’s success came when Young announced his support for a measure he previously had opposed. Young shifted his position at the urging of city school students.

“A lot of business contacted me and they wanted to know ‘What changed?,’ ” Young said. “I told them, ‘The kids.’ How can you tell kids no?”

Council members supporting the ban on crude oil terminals in Baltimore have called the matter “preventative,” and say it’s an effort to limit the number of oil trains traveling through the area.

Two existing facilities in Baltimore would be allowed to remain open but could not expand in any way under the proposal.

For years environmental activists have been sounding the alarm about crude oil that is transported by rail, which can cause deadly explosions in the case of an accident. In 2013, 47 people died when a train carrying crude oil exploded in Canada.

CSX Transportation, the principal freight railroad that operates through the city, has said it has never run dedicated oil trains through the city, but had moved small amounts of crude in the past.

Thomas A. Firey, a senior fellow with the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute, said he believed the foam ban could have merit if the proper research was done to show its environmental benefits outweigh negative impacts to consumers.

But he thought decisions about kids meals should be left up to parents, and he called the ban on crude oil terminals “purely meaningless virtue signaling.”

“You would think in a city like Baltimore, where they need to clean house in the police department, why are they wasting their time on this?” he asked.

But Councilman Zeke Cohen, one of eight new council members , said the legislation marks a positive change for the city

“Our council is putting people above profits,” he said. “We are living out our values and we’re demonstrating through our actions that we believe in the public health of our citizens. We want Baltimore to be a leader in public health.”

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen also hailed what’s expected to be passage of the bills.

“I applaud the Baltimore City Council for their progressive leadership on public health. Numerous studies show that policies matter: they improve health and save lives,” she said in an email. “By changing the default option in kids' meals, the Council is making the healthy choice the easy choice, helping us to reduce the rate of childhood obesity. By cutting styrofoam usage, the Council is acknowledging that environmental justice is a key public health and social justice issue of our time.”

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