Gerald Winegrad: Together we can succeed in protecting public health and the environment
By Gerald Winegrad
Mar 18, 2020 | 2:00 PM
As the nation focuses on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, I suggest that solutions to this threat as well as environmental problems can be achieved if we end partisan rancor and citizens force elected officials to work together to adopt meaningful changes — many affecting public health.
History provides powerful examples: seminal environmental legislation was enacted under President Richard Nixon while the U.S. Senate and House were controlled by Democrats — Clean Water Act; Clean Air Act; Endangered Species Act; Marine Mammal Protection Act; National Environmental Policy Act; bans on lead in gasoline and paint; and establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Chesapeake Bay Program, formalizing bay restoration, was established and funded ($10 million) by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 under a split Congress.
In 2004, Gov. Robert Ehrlich developed the Bay Restoration Fund (Flush Tax), the most meaningful bay legislation in the last 20 years. Expanded and enacted by a Democratically dominated legislature, a $30 per year fee (increased to $60 later) on all households and business is used to substantially reduce polluting nitrogen and phosphorus flows from Maryland’s 67 largest sewage treatment plants covering 95% of wastewater flows.
About $1.5 billion has been raised, which also is used for upgrades to septic systems and for farmers planting winter cover crops to absorb nitrogen. Polluting nutrient flows have been reduced by millions of pounds each day, the singular major success in bay restoration.
While in office from 1978 to 1995, I worked as closely — and sometimes more closely — with Republican lawmakers than I did with some Democratic members. State Sen. Jack Cade, Senate Republican leader, and I developed the Forest Conservation Law that has preserved tens of thousands of acres of forest from development. My phosphate in detergents ban passed with bi-partisan support as did legislation to protect non-tidal wetlands.
Unfortunately, environmental progress at the national and state levels has been set back by bickering along party lines as well as by a stasis that has been fostered by well-paid lobbyists and hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from anti-environmental political donations. The environmental community has been forced into a defensive posture.
President Donald Trump’s administration has undone many sound environmental regulations crafted through non-partisan efforts. Rules under President Barack Obama to lessen mercury emissions from coal-burning won support from electric utilities. But the Trump Administration is acting to gut these restrictions of this toxic element that can harm the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.
Contrast this to 1972 when DDT was banned under Nixon which, coupled with the Endangered Species Act, led to the recovery of Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons and kept Ospreys off the ESA-list. Now, the Trump administration wants to gut the ESA
In 2009, Obama announced an agreement with 13 automakers accounting for 90% of all vehicles sold in the United States to increase fuel economy to 54.5 mpg for cars and light trucks by model year 2025. These Clean Car Rules would greatly reduce greenhouse gases equivalent to shutting down 140 coal-fired power plants for an entire year while saving consumers $100 billion in fuel costs with no adverse impact on automobile safety
Now, the Trump administration wants to gut the requirements and take away the ability of California and 13 other states, including Maryland, to adopt stricter rules. This would stop one of the most major federal efforts to combat global warming.
Public health has benefited from these bi-partisan successes. For example, nitrogen oxide from fossil fuel burning in electrical production and from motor vehicles has been reduced. It is a key contributor to ground-level ozone (smog). A 2006 study for the Harvard School of Public Health, concluded that 700 premature deaths, 30,000 asthma attacks, and 400 pediatric emergency room visits per year are linked to fine particulate pollution from six Maryland coal-fired power plants.
Despite passage of the Healthy Air Act in 2006, those six plants are still operating and legislation to phase them out by 2030 is likely to fail this session.
Besides public health effects, Maryland loses at least 260 acres of coastal lands each year from global-warming induced rising sea levels. Thirteen islands in the bay have disappeared. Nitrogen emissions also are a key bay pollutant.
To successfully tackle the coronavirus, public policy decisions should not depend on whether they are Republican or Democratic ideas. A collaborative and nonpartisan approach is desperately needed.
This is how we made significant environmental progress in the Maryland Senate. Such an approach is critically needed now more than ever by elected officials and citizens to safeguard our environment and waterways, our public health, and the existence of Earth’s critters.