Our view: Rescinding an executive order promoting more trash recycling is an odd, perhaps even Donald Trump-like way, to curry favor with civic leaders — or voters
Toward the end of his administration, Gov. Martin O’Malley signed an executive order formally setting a “zero waste” goal for Maryland. The point was mainly to encourage recycling and stop burying so much trash in landfills, which is costly and can threaten human health. The guidelines on which the order was based didn’t seem particularly controversial at the time, as they reflected a national movement and were mostly aspirational — Maryland has been an overall laggard in recycling rates compared to peer states, and the plan did not actually call for zero waste but for a maximum 85 percent diversion by 2040. It followed similar actions in other jurisdictions across the country, and part of the reason to set such a lofty long-term goal was to encourage manufacturers to stop using environmentally harmful products like polystyrene in their packaging.
This week in a speech to the Maryland Municipal League in Ocean City, Gov. Larry Hogan announced he was signing an executive order repealing the Zero Waste Plan order, which he said usurped local control and created unnecessary hardship for local governments. He vowed to pursue a “balanced approach” to waste management and recycling. On Tuesday, Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles explained that the point was not to discourage recycling but to discourage the air-polluting incinerators that subdivisions might pursue if they can’t expand or create landfills under Mr. O’Malley’s order. Those in attendance were reportedly a bit mystified by Mr. Hogan’s announcement, however, given that only one municipality represented at the meeting — Baltimore — actually operated a landfill, and the city hadn’t requested a repeal, a point confirmed by a spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh on Tuesday. It wasn’t on the Maryland Association of Counties’ current wish list either, according to the organization’s executive director. The most controversial element of the plan, a restriction on future landfill permits, simply hasn’t been a hot topic for MACO members of late.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week formally proposed repealing Obama era regulations designed to protect the drinking water supply by extending federal protections to streams and wetlands. The logic of the Clean Water Rule (a.k.a. the “waters of the United States” regulations) wasn’t hard to fathom: Water runs downhill, and leaving the matter of water pollution in the hands of states alone imperils people living in downstream communities if those living upstream are not vigilant. But the effort to repeal was not much of a surprise given that President Donald Trump had already signed an executive order asking the EPA’s Scott Pruitt to take that action months ago. The decision puts at risk the health of drinking water for an estimated one in three Americans — though, at least in this case, somebody was actually complaining about the regulations; political conservatives had long, if wrongly, derided the rules as a Washington power grab.
What do these two decisions have in common (aside from chief executives sticking it to their predecessor)? Both presume that a majority of the electorate see environmental protections enforced by the government as doing more harm than good. But that simply isn’t the mainstream view. As a 2016 Pew Research Center survey demonstrated, about three out of four U.S. adults believe the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” The phrase “whatever it takes” would seem to cover such situations as making sure fracking in one state isn’t fouling the waters that are swept into a neighboring state’s reservoirs. And it would certainly seem to extend to having people recycle more and create fewer new landfills. How tragic that standing up for the most basic of protections — keeping people safe from their neighbors’ waste — is no longer viewed as a nonpartisan cause.
This is not to equate Mr. Hogan with Mr. Trump. The president’s rhetoric about the environment and the EPA have been terrible, and his policies are just as bad. Mr. Hogan has at times followed Trumpishly inflammatory rhetoric — on the supposed “rain tax,” for example — with relatively reasonable policies. This order may fall into that category, as it directs various state agencies to seek ways to increase recycling and the market for recycled materials. Governor Hogan hasn’t sought to purge agencies of scientific advisers or ignore the perils of climate change, and in a number of respects, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by his environmental record. But he occasionally zags, as with his rollback of rules on septic systems. Maryland Democrats looking toward 2018 clearly see these turn-back-the-clock moments on the environment as a vulnerability for Mr. Hogan even as members of his party might applaud them as a sign the governor is anti-regulation. The truth is that filling costly landfills faster isn’t good for anyone. Maryland voters elected as governor a Republican they viewed as a pragmatist, and backing off stronger recycling rules at no one’s urging hardly fits that bill.
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