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Maryland environmental justice bill excludes key concerns, advocates say

Maryland environmental justice bill excludes key concerns, advocates say
Maryland environmental justice bill excludes key concerns, advocates say 02:32

BALTIMORE -- State lawmakers will weigh a bill Tuesday that aims to take a step closer to fighting environmental injustice. However, some South Baltimore community members say the bill is not doing enough.

House Bill 24 would require the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to review environmental justice issues in a community before approving specified permits for new, renewal, or applications for modification.

The environmental justice evaluation would have to be performed if a permit facility is in an area deemed as "underserved and overburdened" with pollution. The MDE deems these areas as such if the community scores in the top 75th statewide percentile in MDE's EJ Screening Tool

In a letter testimony supporting the bill, MDE stated "The EJ evaluation would focus on community health and would not be a cumulative impact assessment; as such an assessment is beyond MDE's expertise." 

After the evaluation, MDE would decide whether to deny or modify the permit request.

This bill was partly inspired by the study published in December 2023 that confirmed coal dust from the CSX coal terminal was impacting residents' health in Curtis Bay.

"This is something residents have been dealing with for decades now," Carlos Sanchez-Gonzalez, a member of the SB7 Coalition, said. "Communities don't want that in their communities anymore."

The SB 7 Coalition is a community-driven organization that represents the South Baltimore and Curtis Bay areas.

Though they appreciate MDE's effort to tackle community health issues stemming from environmental injustice, the group said the bill does not do enough. 

The coalition said the bill largely excludes air pollution permits, which is one of the biggest concerns in their area.

"The truth of the matter is most areas that have these environmental concerns have taken on the issues of industrialization is served as the sacrificial lambs and low-income communities and communities of color," SB7 Coalition Executive Director Michael Middleton said. "And it's time to stop that type of nonsense."

The bill would in part require the Department to provide opportunities for Maryland residents to opt in to text, phone, e-mail, or receive mail notifications about any facility with a pending or final permit approval in their community.

WJZ reached out to MDE and they sent a letter of their testimony supporting the bill. It partly reads that "House Bill 24 would take the second critical step by establishing the basic framework of how MDE can incorporate EJ (environment justice) into its permitting decisions. But it is not and cannot be the last step. MDE is committed to working with both the bill's proponents and opponents to address their concerns going forward. No one should be left behind."

Greg Sawtell is the president of the Community of Curtis Bay under the coalition's board. 

Sawtell said he is hopeful for change to be made after MDE's efforts with the pollution and health report

"The process of generating that report is a path forward that shows MDE can do a process in a community-driven way," Sawtell said. 

However, the coalition said they wish they could have worked with MDE to draft the bill and still wish MDE to eliminate CSX's permit.

The Senate is set to review a similar bill Tuesday at 1 p.m.

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