Environment loses with Ehrlich

BREAKING NEWS, exclusively from On the Bay:

Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announces he's appointing a professional environmentalist with strong ties to Greenpeace to head his Department of Business and Economic Development.

Never mind that DBED's stated mission is bringing jobs and businesses to Maryland and advocating a better business climate -- it's high time business struck a better "balance" with environmental concerns, the guv explains.

Gee, we thought that's why the state also has a Department of Environment, mutter businessmen. "Stop the whining," says Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

The Chamber of Commerce can rest easy. Such a thing will never happen, under any governor; nor should it.

Nor should it be happening in reverse at the state's Department of Environment, whose stated mission is "to protect and preserve the state's environmental resources" and to "safeguard the environmental health of Maryland citizens."

I can't find anything about boosting business in MDE's mission, except to help them "take responsibility for pollution."

But what is unthinkable when it comes to business advocacy seems to be all the Ehrlich administration thinks about when it comes to environmental protection. "Maryland is an anti-business state, and it starts at the Department of the Environment. ... We are going to restore balance," the governor's spokesman, Paul Schurick, told The Sun in December.

Ah, "balance." It has such warm and fuzzy connotations, as if to reassure that the governor would never allow anything important to go out of kilter.

And so last week we hear Lynn Y. Buhl, Ehrlich's nominee as MDE secretary, vow to "find a balance" between environmental and economic interests.

Buhl is a former auto industry lawyer and was, until last week, a minor functionary in Michigan's stridently anti-environmental Department of Environmental Quality.

Her deputy secretary at MDE will be Kendl P. Philbrick, who comes from Lockheed Martin Corp.'s properties management branch. Perhaps both have yearned for the chance to lead the charge for badly needed improvements in Maryland's air and water quality, but I haven't heard that yet.

What I have heard is Ehrlich, in nominating Buhl, say that the department she and Philbrick will lead is no longer going to be "in the permanent 'gotcha' mode." So forgive me if all this talk of "balance" sounds like an all-too-familiar code word for easing up on regulation and pollution control.

The governor and his new secretary would do well to consider how the real balance sheet on Maryland's environment reads:

  • Some of the nation's worst air quality outside of Houston and Los Angeles, and no improvement in the number of smog alert days in recent years.

  • Some of the nation's worst traffic congestion (and worsening), the result of decades of sprawl development.

  • A historic loss of more than 70 per cent of all state wetlands. Efforts to reverse the losses have just begun to bear fruit.

  • An 80-percent- to-90-percent loss of vital sea grass habitat throughout the Chesapeake Bay caused by pollution from sewage and farm runoff.

  • A tripling of the amount of Bay waters afflicted by lack of oxygen for aquatic life since 1970 -- a trend that has steadily worsened during the 1990's.

  • Outdated or non-existent permitting fees at MDE that don't even cover the costs of writing the permits that regulate pollution.

  • Enforcement programs handicapped by having only 44 inspectors to monitor 700 sources of water pollution, and 18 inspectors for 10,000 air pollution sources.

  • Far from operating in Ehrlich's "permanent gotcha mode," MDE "has de-emphasized traditional enforcement, creating a climate that does not effectively deter violations ... especially where compliance is costly," says a recent study by the University of Maryland that involved more than 40 representatives of business, government and public-interest groups.

    Add to this federal and state budgets that fall billions short of documented state environmental restoration needs for the next decade, along with the continuing erosion of federal protection of air, water and wetlands.

    How can anyone dream this situation needs balancing with a weaker, more business-oriented MDE?

    Steele has told environmentalists to "stop the whining" and give Buhl a year to see how she does. I say give her a couple weeks until her confirmation hearings by the Senate and politely, but firmly, press her on how she will move forward in all the above areas.

    Buhl has said state government needs to be "customer orientated." Of course it does.

    But her customers include everyone who breathes the state's air, drinks its water and enjoys the Chesapeake Bay -- including business persons and their families.

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