Attorney general launches public meetings seeking tips on curbing bay, river pollution

The Baltimore Sun

Taking on a new role as environmental watchdog, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler says he plans to hold town hall-style meetings across Maryland to find strategies to cut pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

One goal of the meetings - which start tomorrow in Chestertown - is to get tips from residents about polluters the state could prosecute, Gansler said.

But a broader goal is to come up with new public policies that could help solve environmental problems, and to help coordinate the efforts of other state agencies, he said.

"We want to change the culture in our office, and do more outreach," said Gansler, a Democrat who took office last year. "We want to go out and find out what people think are the biggest issues causing environmental degradation of their rivers and the bay."

While environmentalists praised more involvement from the state's top lawyer, some Republicans accused Gansler of overreaching.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said Gansler is trying to usurp the role of the Maryland Department of the Environment, which traditionally has policed pollution.

"I think it's political grandstanding," said Smigiel. "I would hope he'd help Baltimore City curb its violent crime, maybe hold some meetings there instead of having an environmental attack on waterfront homeowners and farmers."

Smigiel said some farmers and other property owners along Eastern Shore waterways are worried Gansler might start filing lawsuits against them for minor problems.

Del. Richard A. Sossi, a Republican who represents the Chestertown area, said both Gansler and state Comptroller Peter Franchot came out of the box "wanting to be more activist, more involved" than past state officials in their roles. "My only concern is that sometimes they can get a little off the mark in their zeal to make a statement," Sossi said.

Shari T. Wilson, the state secretary of the environment, welcomed Gansler's efforts and said her agency doesn't feel like he's stepping on the MDE's toes.

"It's new to Maryland but certainly very consistent," Wilson said of Gansler's expanded role. "It means we can have more eyes and ears out there to assist our environmental efforts."

The first public meeting will be at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Washington College in Chestertown. Gansler will travel to Pocomoke City in June and hold about a half-dozen similar meetings a year.

The goal is to collect information and perform an annual "audit" of how well the state is doing on enforcing pollution laws and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Gansler has hired a special assistant for the environment, Erin Fitzsimmons, a former regional coordinator with the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group. Gansler is scheduled to take a boat tour of the Chester River with the Chester Riverkeeper tomorrow.

Michele Merkel, the current regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said: "It's great that the attorney general is reaching out to local communities to help him identify polluters. However, his audit will only be successful if he is able to use the information he gathers to bring polluters to justice."

Gansler campaigned on a pledge to take a more activist role on environmental issues. In November, he spoke out in favor of higher fines for agricultural polluters at a "Poultry Summit" in Salisbury organized by the Waterkeeper Alliance.

He also said Maryland should help create a waste-burning plant that could turn chicken litter into electricity. Gansler successfully lobbied the General Assembly this year to define chicken waste - which pollutes the bay - as an alternative energy source that power companies will be required to use in the future.

"The environment is my priority," Gansler said. "I'm the head lawyer in the state, and my job is to promote and advocate for good public policy."

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