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Environmentby Timothy B. Wheeler12:24 pmApr 22, 20240

Environmental losses this year in Annapolis include bill to end Baltimore incinerator subsidy

Despite some victories, setbacks in the just concluded 2024 Maryland General Assembly have some environmental advocates taking legislative leaders and Governor Wes Moore to task

Above: The BRESCO trash incinerator emissions stack looms as children cross the street in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood. (Fern Shen)

Maryland’s 2024 General Assembly session yielded what one activist called “a mixed bag” of legislation dealing with the Chesapeake Bay, climate change and environmental justice, according to the Bay Journal.

During the 90-day session, lawmakers okayed a reboot for Bay restoration efforts, gave boosts to solar and offshore wind projects and renamed the invasive snakehead fish. They put $90 million toward fighting climate change.

But legislators also killed or simply passed over other measures environmentalists backed. Bills failed that would have stopped subsidizing trash incineration, enhanced shoreline protections and made it easier to deny permits for projects that pollute economically disadvantaged communities.

The final straw for many activists – a “dark-of-night” budget amendment that delayed new rules that would reduce climate pollution from buildings.

“We accomplished actually a lot,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. But, he added, “I think the losses, while not as many, were probably more significant than we had anticipated.”

(This rundown of environmental wins and losses was first published in the Bay Journal.)

A Boost for the Bay

The main Bay-related legislation to pass was the Whole Watershed Act, which would pump $20 million over five years into coordinated efforts to reduce polluted runoff and improve fish and wildlife habitat in five Chesapeake tributaries. It is an attempt to remedy shortcomings in the long-running Bay restoration campaign that were spelled out last year in a sobering scientific report.

“We’ve been at this work for years and we’re seeing only limited results,” said Democratic state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth at a hearing on the bill, which she cosponsored.

Elfreth said the measure would direct the state to focus on reducing pollution and improving habitat in shallow waters, benefiting fish and people while combating “dead zones” in the Bay’s deepest waters.

Lawmakers left it to state agencies to select rivers for the five pilot projects, but specified that at least two must flow through underserved communities.

Included in the bill are new guardrails on stream restoration projects, which aim to curb sediment and nutrient pollution, but have sparked complaints over the clearing of streamside trees.

Other Victories

Poultry sludge: Farmers planning to store or use food processing residuals would have to get a permit and face fines of up to $5,000 per day for violations of new rules. An influx of feathers and semi-solid waste from chicken processing plants has sparked an outcry in rural communities over odors and flies.

Clean water justice: Residents and community groups would have the right to go to court to enforce state laws protecting inland wetlands and headwaters streams after a U.S. Supreme Court decision removed federal protection.

Energy efficiency: Maryland’s EmPOWER program to help residents lower their energy bills was retooled to emphasize greenhouse gas reductions. It also provides incentives for homeowners to switch from natural gas to electricity for heating and cooking.

Climate: Lawmakers stripped an exemption for manufacturers from limits on carbon emissions. They provided tax credits and other financial incentives for community solar projects and solar panels on nonresidential rooftops and parking lots. They also opened the door for additional state subsidies to an offshore wind project planned off Ocean City. The money that Gov. Wes Moore proposed for climate efforts in the budget will go to electrify community buildings, install more electric vehicle chargers and buy more electric school buses.

Snakeheads: Hoping to make Northern snakeheads more palatable to consumers, lawmakers decided to give the invasive fish from Asia the new name of “Chesapeake Channa.”

Predatory, non-native snakehead fish, now being referred to as Channa by Maryland officials hoping to eradicate it. (Department of Natural Resources)

The non-native, predatory snakehead is being renamed “Chesapeake Channa” to make it more acceptable to consumers. (Maryland Department of Natural Resources)


Data centers: Lawmakers streamlined regulatory review of proposed data centers after one was denied an air quality waiver, leading to the project’s cancellation. (Environmentalists withdrew their initial opposition after the bill was amended to allocate some data center tax revenue to emission reductions.)

Environmental justice: A bill died in the Senate that would have authorized the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to deny permits for certain projects because of their impacts on overburdened and disadvantaged communities. (The measure divided environmentalists, with some groups objecting that it didn’t go far enough.)

Solar: Legislation aimed at settling disputes over the siting of large-scale solar projects on farms or in forests never got out of committee.

Living shorelines: A bill aimed at nudging waterfront property owners to install “living shorelines” failed to get out of committee. It would have required MDE to give greater scrutiny to requests to replace failing bulkheads or rip-rap with additional armoring rather than using a living shoreline.

Incineration: For the third time since 2021, lawmakers refused to strip subsidies for trash incineration operations, such as Wheelabrator’s BRESCO plant in South Baltimore. (These polluting, trash-burning, waste-to-energy operations receive the subsidies because the state continues to classify them as a form of renewable energy.)

Fossil fuel fees: A bill proposing stiff one-time fees on the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers would have raised $9 billion to help carry out the state’s climate pollution reduction plan. The legislation died in committee.

Building energy: A last-minute provision slipped into the state’s budget bill blocks MDE from finalizing new building energy performance standards until it performs additional studies. Under the 2022 Climate Solutions Now Act, private building owners must reduce their carbon emissions to net zero by 2040. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said the budget amendment may delay rollout of the building standards, but doesn’t change the requirement.

Drone footage from 2015 shows Baltimore's Wheelabrator incinerator smokestack towering over the waterfront. (YouTube, Exploring with Purkz)

Drone footage from 2015 shows Baltimore’s Wheelabrator incinerator towering over the waterfront. (YouTube, Exploring with Purkz)

Backsliding on Climate?

Jamie DeMarco, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, accused the legislature of not just delaying, but weakening the 2022 climate solutions law.

He also lamented that Moore, after vowing to shift Maryland to 100% clean energy by 2035, did not list any climate measures among his legislative priorities.

“I think people are noticing that our leaders in Maryland are not taking action on climate at the scale of the crisis,” DeMarco said, “and we are calling on them to show increased commitment.”

“People are noticing that our leaders are not taking action on climate at the scale of the crisis”  – Jamie DeMarco, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

MDE’s Apperson countered that the 2024 legislative session “laid a solid foundation” for the Moore administration’s climate and environmental agenda.

He predicted the governor would include the agenda among his priorities for next year.

“We are confident we will meet our climate goals,” Apperson added, “and we remain committed to them.”

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