Cosmic Cocktail in 2 weeks: Get your ticket today before they sell out.

Candidates differ on bay, environment

Like just about every other Maryland politician of the past three decades, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. each say they are dedicated to restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Each can point to actions he's taken as governor to help the ailing body of water that occupies the heart of the state. But in their rematch for the state's highest office, both take pains to point out the differences in their approaches.

And when it comes to other environmental issues, such as climate change and clean energy, they're even more at odds.

Ehrlich pledges, much as he did when he was elected governor eight years ago, to give farmers, watermen and developers "a seat at the table" in fashioning policies and laws affecting their livelihoods. While the Obama administration is preparing a tough pollution "diet" requiring states to reduce pollution or face sanctions, Ehrlich says he prefers a federal "partner" that offers money and help but doesn't dictate.

"I like to do things in a more collegial approach," he says. "I don't like that top-down, mandated, 'You do this,' one-size-fits-all."

He vows to revisit the O'Malley administration's new plan for restoring the bay's depleted oysters, which would reduce the waters open to traditional wild harvest while promoting cultivation of the shellfish on leased tracts of bay bottom. He calls it unfair to watermen.

Ehrlich says he'll restore balance to environmental regulations affecting developers and other businesses. And he suggests he'll try to soften or repeal laws requiring the state to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases and to get one-fifth of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

O'Malley says he, too, believes in forging consensus and encouraging voluntary conservation, especially among the state's independent-minded farmers. He says his administration has listened to growers, builders and fishermen in shaping rules that govern them. But to safeguard the environment, he adds, some business and individual activities must be regulated more tightly.

He defends the greenhouse gas and renewable energy mandates, and welcomes "an EPA that's actually pushing," since the states and federal government have repeatedly failed to achieve cleanup goals over the past 27 years.

"I think a dead Chesapeake Bay is bad for business," O'Malley says. "And there are some things we can only do together as a people," such as "preserving the health of our natural resources."

There's at least one thing on which O'Malley and Ehrlich agree — though barely. Ehrlich touts the Bay Restoration Fund that he pushed through the legislature in 2004 as "the most important environmental initiative in a generation."

Financed through a $2.50 monthly "flush fee" paid by every Maryland household on its utility or property tax bill, it has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for upgrading the 67 largest sewage treatment plants — a significant source of the nitrogen and phosphorus that are fouling the bay and causing a sprawling dead zone in the estuary every summer.

Portions of the fund also go to homeowners to install septic systems that release less pollution and to farmers to plant cover crops to keep excess fertilizer from washing off their fields and into the bay.

O'Malley credits Ehrlich for the initiative, saying that "it was a good thing to do" and calling the funds "very needed and very important."

And there the comity ends. Ehrlich accuses O'Malley of raiding $200 million from the fund to help shore up the state's budget and vows to protect it from future fiscal transfers if elected. O'Malley counters that he replaced the diverted funds with proceeds from bond sales, so no treatment plant projects were affected — though the borrowed money must be paid back with interest.

O'Malley points out that when Ehrlich was governor, he took $480 million in funds supposedly earmarked for buying parkland and preserving farmland without replacing any of it.

"If those were the decisions he made in easier times on open space, imagine what he would do in these tough times," O'Malley says.

They seem to agree on one other key point, to varying degrees. Neither is eager to raise the "flush fee," even though there's a looming $530 million shortfall in the fund to finish upgrading the state's 66 largest sewage plants. Officials estimate that doubling the fee to $5 a month would cover the gap.

"That's not option one or two," Ehrlich says.

An advisory committee has suggested several alternatives to raising the fee, including requiring municipalities and counties that own the treatment plants to pay a share of the upgrade costs. Ehrlich indicated that he would be open to that.

O'Malley wants the federal government to help out by paying to upgrade Washington's Blue Plains treatment plant, which handles sewage from the Maryland suburbs as well as the District of Columbia. Beyond that, he says, he'd look for other ways to deal with the shortfall, even if it meant shuffling state funding for other capital projects, before asking homeowners to pay more.

"I have not taken the pledge of 'no new taxes, no new fees of any kind' at any time," O'Malley says. "But we're going to be on a constant diet of cuts until our economy recovers." He says the state would have to find "innovative ways" to pay for environmental improvements over at least the next couple of years.

With bay cleanup funds stretched thin, Ehrlich says, he'd target specific rivers and "bring the government, conservation groups and the private sector together" to concentrate efforts on restoring them.

He points to the initiative he launched in the final year of his term to do that on the Corsica River, which feeds into the Chester River on the Eastern Shore. It's murky with sediment and nutrients, and has fish kills every year or so, officials say.

Five years later, the Ehrlich initiative is showing mixed results. The sewage treatment plant at Centreville was upgraded, but residents and farmers have been slow to embrace other measures to deal with the more diffuse pollution from septic systems and farms, which make up two-thirds of the river's watershed.

Levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment have declined somewhat in streams feeding into the river, but not in its main channel, says Bruce Michael, director of resource assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

As James Malaro, president of the Corsica River Conservancy, sees it: "A lot of stuff is being done on the ground, but if you turn around and look at the river itself, you don't see a whale of a lot of difference."

Walter Boynton, an ecologist with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory who has studied the Corsica, says the idea of targeting cleanup resources is a good one. But even if stepped-up efforts there can be maintained, it might take a decade or more before the river shows improvement. And the Corsica is just one tiny river among dozens feeding into the bay; cleanup efforts are needed across the 64,000-square-mile watershed to see results within the next couple of decades.

"If you do one Corsica at a time," Boynton warns, progress restoring the bay "will be nonmeasurable."

The two candidates have also differed on restoring the bay's crab and oyster populations.

O'Malley points to his decision two years ago to reduce the commercial harvest of blue crabs after scientists had warned that the population of the bay's iconic crab was getting dangerously low. The curbs angered watermen, who complained they were losing thousands of dollars each in income. Scientists say the crab population has rebounded in the past two years, allowing a slight easing of catch limits.

Ehrlich does not dispute the crabs' recovery, but vows to revisit some of the restrictions O'Malley has put on commercial fishing, starting with his plan for restoring the bay's depleted oyster population.

The O'Malley administration expanded the number and size of sanctuaries in the bay where wild oysters cannot be harvested, and opened up vast new tracts for leasing to individuals and companies wanting to try their hand at raising oysters privately. But watermen remain skeptical and contend that the O'Malley administration is driving them from the bay by undermining their ability to make a living in their traditional way.

Scientists back O'Malley's oyster policy, saying that while it is not certain to succeed, it offers the best hope of rebuilding the bay's bivalve population, which has been diminished over the decades by diseases, habitat loss and overfishing. And they note that aquaculture is the main source of oysters nearly everywhere else in the world, including in neighboring Virginia.

But Ehrlich sides with the watermen, calling the cutbacks in public harvest areas "unfair" and suggesting that those who have spent their lives fishing on the bay know things scientists don't about how to bring oysters back.

This isn't the first time Ehrlich has found common cause with Maryland's watermen. His administration backed calls to try Asian oysters in the bay after research indicated that they were more resistant to the diseases killing native oysters. Environmentalists and scientists expressed concerns about the ecological and health risks of putting a non-native shellfish in the water. Study of the idea was not completed until after Ehrlich left office, and the O'Malley administration persuaded Virginia and federal officials to drop it.

O'Malley points to his moves to protect crabs and oysters as examples of his "willingness to make unpopular decisions that are in the best long-term interests of all of us, and in the best long-term interests of the health of the bay."

In addition to watermen, many builders and farmers are still fuming over regulations and restrictions imposed by the O'Malley administration. Developers and local officials succeeded in getting the Maryland Department of the Environment to ease some provisions in new rules requiring tighter runoff controls on new development and redevelopment.

But Tom Farasy, president of the Maryland State Builders Association, says his industry nevertheless feels bruised.

"We would hope that whoever gets elected that at the end of the day, MDE and the regulated community could develop a better working relationship because we certainly have a lot to work on," he says.

Environmental groups that can do so legally are endorsing O'Malley. Activists credit Ehrlich's advocacy of the flush fee, but say it is outweighed by other things he did to kill or relax environmental regulations, by cuts he made in environmental agency staff and in funds for environmental programs such as parkland acquisition.

But not all environmentalists are thrilled with O'Malley. The Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella group of river and bay watchdogs, has pushed for tougher storm water and poultry farm regulations and accused the administration of lax environmental enforcement. Some conservationists complain that O'Malley is failing to protect rare bats and birds from commercial wind development in Western Maryland.

On climate and energy issues, Ehrlich said that if elected he would sit down with legislative leaders to review a 2009 law committing the state to reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020. He indicated that he's skeptical of scientific evidence that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases from human activity are changing the Earth's climate.

"The skeptical side of me has increased," Ehrlich says, since news reports last year alleging that scientists manipulated data showing that the climate is changing. Though scientists later acknowledged a few errors in a voluminous report that says humans are causing climate change, subsequent outside reviews of the document have upheld its overall conclusions.

Ehrlich also has doubts about another 2009 law requiring that 20 percent of the electricity generated in Maryland in 2022 come from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.

He says he favors expanding energy production in the United States to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and "clean and green makes sense." He favors setting ambitious goals, he adds, but questions the technical feasibility of getting 20 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources.

O'Malley defends both laws, which he backed.

O'Malley acknowledges that the renewable energy mandate is ambitious, adding that the only way he believes the state could achieve it is with development of large-scale offshore wind projects. Toward that end, he says, he's working with the federal government and other mid-Atlantic states.

"The science and the imperative to act before this planet burns up is very real," he says.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

THE ISSUES: BAY & ENVIRONMENT

Chesapeake Bay

O'Malley :

Got $20 million "bay trust fund" to help control farm and urban runoff

Curbed catch to rebuild bay's depleted crabs; pushing oyster farming

Set rules for Eastern Shore chicken farmers to curb manure runoff

Preserved more than 28,000 acres

Ehrlich:

Got "bay restoration fund" paid via "flush fee" to upgrade sewage plants

Eased crab catch limits; proposed putting Asian oysters in bay

Proposes "targeted" cleanup efforts, focusing on selected rivers

Promises "seat at table" for developers, farmers, fishermen

Clean air, climate, energy

O'Malley:

Got law pledging to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020

Got law requiring 20 percent of state's electricity to come from renewable wind, solar

54 percent increase in environmental enforcement actions

Ehrlich:

Signed law requiring power-plant pollution reductions, including climate-warming carbon dioxide

Favors energy independence, but skeptical of climate change, renewable energy mandate

Pledges to eliminate needless rules, pursue sensible enforcement

Governor's debate

When: Broadcast at 7 p.m. Monday

Where: WJZ, MPT and WUSA's digital subchannel

For coverage and analysis during the 10 a.m. taping and after, go to baltimoresun.com

For highlights from the debate and other breaking news alerts sent to your mobile device, text NEWS to 70701.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
45°