Mixed green bag: Bay bills advance, energy measures stumble

In a legislative session marked by discord over taxes and gambling, lawmakers came together to pass three major bills aimed at boosting Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts. They failed to agree, however, on other environmental priorities - a bill to subsidize building wind turbines off Ocean City, and a measure requiring natural gas companies to pay for studying the impacts of drilling for energy in western Maryland.

The General Assembly approved two bay billls that were priorities of the O'Malley administration bills, one doubling the 'flush fee' to pay for upgrading sewage treatment plants and another limiting rural development on septic systems.  A third late-moving bill pushed by environmentalists would require Baltimore city and nine suburban counties to levy local fees to pay for curbing polluted runoff from their streets and parking lots.

Gov. Martin O'Malleyand Robert E. Summers, his secretary of the environment, both declared the General Assembly session "good for the environment."  He said he was disappointed that his offshore wind bill died for a second year in a row - though the House overwhelmingly approved it, it failed to get out of the Senate Finance Committee again.

A bill also failed to pass that would have raised funds for an ongoing administration study of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in  Marcellus shale formations in Garrett and Allegany counties. O'Malley had ordered a three-year holdup on permits to drill in western Maryland while administration officials analyze impacts and possible legal and regulatory changes to protect water quality and the environment.  But officials had said they needed more than $1 million to finish the analysis, and a bill was introduced with administration backing that would have levied a per-acre fee on all drilling leases held by gas companies.

The gas industry opposed the fee, however.  Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, said he had urged officials to trim the study and find funds elsewhere rather than impose the fee.  He suggested it was the governor's fault to order a study last year without figuring out how to pay for it.

Summers said the administration would seek to pursue the study with available funds, but he suggested it may take longer to finish - meaning the de-facto drilling ban may be extended as well.  In fact, Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, chief sponsor of the fee bill and other 'fracking' measures, warned that she may push for a permanent ban on fracturing in the face of the industry's opposition to the fee bill.

In other environmental matters, lawmakers agreed to expand state efforts to eliminate childhood lead poisoning, requiring regulation of more rental homes and of painting and renovation of even owner-occupied homes containing lead-based paint.

But lawmakers took only modest steps to sort through a bitter controversy over mounting litigation filed against landlords, mainly in Baltimore city, by people claiming to have been poisoned when living or visiting rental homes containing lead-based paint.  Legislators opted instead for a study of mandating lead-poisoning liability insurance for rental properties, and for guidelines urging judges to penalize frivolous legal claims over the issue.

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