Mr. Philbrick's opportunity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AIR POLLUTION from cars and smokestacks gives Maryland too many Code Red air quality days. Toxic mercury from various sources still finds its way into state waterways. Runoff from farms and development contributes to the growth of "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay. As always, the environment faces a long list of dire threats.

That's why Maryland needs an aggressive, knowledgeable and experienced hand at the helm of the state's Department of the Environment. As it happens, the man in charge, Kendl P. Philbrick, has yet to prove that he qualifies in any of these areas. It's not all his fault: He was appointed to be a second-in-command administrator. Politics handed him the top job.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made him acting secretary after Lynn Y. Buhl, the governor's first choice, failed to win confirmation in the state Senate. A businessman with no real experience as an environmental administrator, Mr. Philbrick was regarded by some in the environmental community as a representative of commerce -- eager if not determined to relieve business of an alleged regulatory overload, too determined to replace aggressive environmental advocacy with a tolerant attitude.

He could prove them wrong. Between now and next January when the General Assembly meets, Mr. Philbrick should consider himself on probation. He's got more than four months to show he will be a vocal advocate for programs that are necessary to achieve the water and air quality Marylanders want.

Environmentalists were heartened to read that the Ehrlich administration might be stepping away from President Bush's Clear Skies initiative, a proposal they regarded as a sly attack on air pollution standards. They'd be impressed also if Mr. Philbrick pushed for Maryland to join other states in support of the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gases.

Smart Growth is another area where he might establish his environmental bona fides. Downgraded and all but eliminated because it was the favorite policy offspring of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, its attack on sprawl is worth continuing.

Environmentalists, who were instrumental in the defeat of Ms. Buhl, will surely be players if and when the state Senate is asked to confirm a secretary again. The administration must reject any thought of continuing with Mr. Philbrick or anyone else on an acting basis simply to avoid another confrontation with the General Assembly.

The environment is too vital to be compromised, too fundamental to our quality of life. It needs a secretary with authority and status at the policy-making table of this or any other administration.

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