Dan Rodricks: Vanished faces of a West Virginia boom town

Backtracking on the Bay

Is it fiscally prudent to delay Chesapeake Bay cleanup to spare taxpayers pennies?

Baltimore County has no shortage of polluted water. From the Gunpowder to the Patapsco rivers and the Upper Chesapeake Bay to the Jones Falls, the county has eight bodies of water that have been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as "impaired," meaning they are too polluted to meet minimum water quality standards.

Given that reality, it came as a bit of surprise to hear Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz offer two recent pronouncements. First, that he would seek to reduce the stormwater remediation fee by one-third (from $39 per year to $26 for most county residents). Second, that he'd like to see the timetable for court-ordered water quality improvements delayed beyond the current 2025.

Here's the logic behind it: The county has discovered it can meet short-term cleanup goals more cheaply than officials anticipated two years ago. Projects like enhanced street sweeping and stream restoration not only turned out to be less costly than anticipated but the county also secured outside grants that are helping in these efforts.

Mr. Kamenetz is pushing for a delay, meanwhile, because he believes the burden to meet that timetable is too great. In this, he is at least acknowledging that the county has a great deal more to do to address water quality standards as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

But here's what Mr. Kamenetz is really saying: "I know the so-called 'rain tax' is really unpopular right now so I'm dialing it down. I'm also willing to sacrifice long-term Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals to reduce the tax burden." This is not terribly surprising given the county executive's disdain for higher taxes and the likelihood that he may run for governor, but it's disappointing nonetheless.

No shortage of ink has been spilled on this page attempting to explain the harm that polluted runoff from parking lots, streets, rooftops and other impervious surfaces is doing to local water quality and the necessity of the stormwater remediation fee to pay for federally-mandated remedies. Ten Maryland subdivisions have been required to impose the fee, but they've also been given an opportunity to pay for such projects through other local funds if they prefer.

Gov. Larry Hogan has railed against the tax, and some other county executives are looking for ways out of it as well. Most recently, the Harford County Council voted this week to repeal that county's version (while simultaneously imposing a hotel tax, by the way). Rarely has a tax so minuscule caused such a big uproar in this state.

Here's the real craziness of it all: No matter who serves as this state's governor, the EPA is going to hold Maryland accountable for these violations of the Clean Water Act. Right now, counties like Baltimore only have to meet 20 percent of the goals for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Eventually, they'll have to meet 100 percent and throw pollutants like solid waste and toxic chemicals into the regulatory mix, too.

So in order to "save" taxpayers $13 a year, or less than 4 cents per day, Mr. Kamenetz is willing to ignore the threat posed by polluted runoff and potentially risk fines and loss of federal funds on top of the multi-million dollar cost of a cleanup. To spare residents pennies, he's turning aside $8.1 million annually that might be used to make the Gunpowder a place where people can swim safely a bit sooner and ultimately accomplish that goal more cheaply. Now explain again how that is fiscally prudent?

And add this to the mix — it’s not even clear whether existing state standards are sufficient to meet cleanup goals. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental advocates are already in the process of taking the Maryland Department of the Environment to court on the grounds that subdivisions aren’t meeting the requirements of existing stormwater permits and won’t do enough to reduce polluted runoff.

What a mess. And if that's not bad enough, one of Governor Hogan's first actions after he took office Wednesday was to withdraw regulations intended to reduce phosphorus-laden polluted runoff from Eastern Shore poultry manure days before they were to become official. Let's just say it's been a tough week for the Chesapeake Bay and anyone who cares about its health — or the billions of dollars in economic benefits and thousands of jobs that are associated with it.

 

 

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