What can Maryland do about its legacy of environmental harm done to low-income communities of color? | COMMENTARY

Should the Maryland Department of the Environment consider how certain communities have already been overburdened by pollution from sources like this waste-to-energy incinerator in South Baltimore when making choices about permits in the future? Legislation pending before the Maryland General Assembly would require it. File (Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun)

“It’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past.”

That was an important observation made recently by U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume in the context of the “Highway to Nowhere” in West Baltimore. That 1.4-mile stretch of eight-lane blacktop and the extraordinary damage it did to predominantly Black, middle-class neighborhoods in an attempt to connect Interstate 70 with Interstate 95 is a fitting symbol of government running over a disrespected population. This month, the federal government approved $2 million to help devise a plan to repair the damage — more than 50 years after it was done. The effort’s cost could prove substantial. Yet, as the congressman notes, it’s never too late to undo wrongs, and that especially applies to communities harmed by racial and economic inequities. Not to stretch the metaphor too far, but while there’s still a long road ahead to reconnect West Baltimore with its past and the shuttered businesses and homes lost by this misguided and ultimately abandoned attempt to bypass the area, the enormous size of the challenge is not a sufficient reason to be deterred.


Yet this is but one example. How many other disadvantaged communities across the state have been treated as shoddily? And how can these actions be undone? Legislation pending before the Maryland General Assembly raises one intriguing possibility. What if the Maryland Department of the Environment were required to consider past discriminatory actions brought on communities when determining whether certain permits should be granted or renewed? In other words, the past burdens heaped on certain neighborhoods — often populated by low-income people of color — would be factored into how such choices are made in the future.

That may seem like a small thing, but the implications could be profound. Permits to decide where roads are built, for example, would have to consider how highway pollution might hurt neighborhoods already burdened with higher rates of lung disease. If one is renewing a permit for a plant with toxic discharge, such as an incinerator or a coal ash landfill or a wastewater treatment plant, regulators should consider whether neighbors already dealing with higher cancer cases. Are there more cases of asthma? Heart disease and stroke? All can be tied to pollution sources. As proponents of the Climate, Labor, and Environmental Equity Act of 2023 (Senate Bill 743/House Bill 840) point out, it’s surely no coincidence that low-income Black Marylanders are many times more likely to face such maladies than others. Could we resolve to at least stop adding to that unfair burden?


Granted, there are some unanswered questions here. Exactly how the agency would evaluate the impact and how much this process would cost aren’t yet known. Would a lot of existing polluters be shuttered? We don’t know. Even legislative analysts expressed concern about this lack of information. And we are going to guess that manufacturers and other permit applicants will be none too happy about this additional regulatory oversight. A similar proposal last year was opposed by business interests — but favored by environmentalists — and never made it out of committee. Yet the election of Gov. Wes Moore offers some hope that the new administration has a higher opinion of environmental justice than its predecessor. Democrats in the General Assembly are more likely to share that value.

Still, that’s not a reason to abandon this effort to right past wrongs, only a reminder that this is a complex area of public policy. Much as fixing the “Highway to Nowhere” will require study, devising a system to promote climate and environmental equity — and perhaps labor equity, too, as is also outlined in the proposal — is a serious undertaking. There’s simply no question the goals here are correct. But if all this ends up accomplishing is to shutter existing businesses, many of which may employ low-income Marylanders, we’re not sure that’s a positive outcome. At least not when it comes to providing a better future for communities that have suffered enough.

Expect the usual suspects on the political right to condemn the whole enterprise as wokeness. But those who do should be required to live in neighborhoods with dirty air from belching smokestacks, polluted water from leaking underground storage tanks or other profound health risks and see how much they like it. None of this long-standing inequity can be fixed overnight but, as the congressman says, it’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past — or, we would add, the ongoing environmental racism of today.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.