Politicians are famous for reneging on, or conveniently ignoring, campaign pledges and other promises. In some cases, politicians put themselves in untenable positions, such as when they offer conflicting promises to different interest groups. This is when it becomes easy to see what an elected official’s true priorities are. Governor Hogan proclaimed that he would be “the best environmental governor that’s ever served.” Of course, he also campaigned for “regulatory reform” in Maryland.
The Governor established a Regulatory Reform Commission by executive order in July, stacking it with an almost all-industry roster of members, and charging it with “fixing our burdensome, antiquated, broken, and out-of-control regulatory environment in Maryland.” This week, we got to see the results of the commission’s work, and the biggest victim was the environment. Of the 29 specific regulations or regulatory chapters targeted by the commission, all but 10 were Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) regulations. It’s not as if “cutting red tape,” or streamlining administrative processes necessarily means weakening standards designed to protect public health or the environment. There’s no reason that the commission needed to focus on rolling back environmental protections to achieve its stated objectives. But that’s what it decided to do.
One MDE regulation that finds itself on the chopping block stands out. 26.04.02.07 of the Code of Maryland Regulations was revised just a few years ago to give teeth to the state’s promises under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL) to reduce nitrogen pollution from septic systems. As most Marylanders are aware, the state experienced explosive population growth over the last half century, with much of that residential growth occurring in new suburbs and exurbs. Importantly, this sprawl occurred beyond the borders of sewer systems and at a rate that didn’t allow municipalities to catch up. The result is several hundred thousand homes that discharge barely-treated human waste literally right into their back yards – waste that includes Bay-choking nitrogen at levels many times greater than sewage treated by an upgraded wastewater treatment plant. Indeed, between 1984 and 2015, the number of septic systems and percentage of the population served by septic systems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is estimated to have increased faster in Maryland than any other state in the watershed, except rural Delaware.
Reversing the environmental impact of decades of sprawling growth will itself take decades of effort, and will require a multi-faceted approach. But one thing that Maryland could do immediately is to require new homes served by septic systems to at least utilize the best available technology (“BAT”) for nitrogen removal. The idea is simple – hold the line on new pollution while we chip away at existing pollution sources. And the converse is equally simple – if we don’t account for the growth in new pollution sources, that growth could overwhelm and nullify any of our investments in restoring the Bay. So, in 2012, MDE crafted a regulation that requires new development served by septic systems in any impaired watershed in the state to have BAT technology. This would limit the amount of nitrogen pollution coming from new land development in Maryland.
But the Governor is a developer by trade, and the concerns repeated at the six regional meetings of the Regulatory Reform Commission were tailor-made for his interests. Again, compare the purpose of the commission (streamlining administrative processes and enhancing customer service within government) to what the business interests serving on, and appearing before, the commission were asking for (rolling back environment and safety regulations specific to the development industry). There are thousands of regulations on the book in Maryland on all sorts of topics. Yet, the regulations specifically targeted were those pertaining to land development. Sprinkler systems that save lives in new homes? Nitrogen-removing septic systems to protect the Bay? Stormwater and erosion control requirements to keep bulldozed soils out of the local streams? In the commissions estimate, apparently these are the specific regulations spoiling Maryland’s regulatory climate as a whole.
If this commission really wanted to change the way state agencies work with businesses in Maryland it would start with obvious things like reviewing administrative protocols, streamlining duplicative or overly complicated processes, providing additional “customer service” training, and, most importantly, adding staff at agencies so that they can quickly and efficiently perform their jobs and serve their clients. (When was the last time a business decided to enhance customer service by cutting cashiers, clerks, or customer service representatives?) Instead, we got exactly what we should expect out of this commission – the same old giveaways to favored industries. The interests of a few over the public interest. Increasing profit margins for land developers, decreasing water quality and public health and safety for the rest of us.
They may want to call it a “new day for business,” but its business as usual for politics.