By MADISON HUNT
Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau
A bill in the Maryland Senate would reform a commission to reflect the diversity within the state and expand to help vulnerable communities affected by environmental justice issues.
SB674, cross-filed as HB1207, would revitalize the commission to meet the needs of vulnerable communities facing environmental hazards, which have only increased because of the coronavirus pandemic, advocates said.
The Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities was established in 2001 and consists of at least 20 members staffed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, according to the bill.
Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, signed a new environmental policy Dec. 31, 2020, which he said outlines modifications to improve the commission and help affected communities.
Environmental justice issues disproportionately affect marginalized groups — people of color, immigrants and low-income communities — according to advocates.
Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel, lead Senate sponsor of the bill, said her own district suffers from poor air quality, lack of public water access and more.
Elfreth said there have been shortcomings from the commission in recent years.
“It’s not meeting regularly, not filing its reports on time, not being particularly representative of the very communities it’s intended to serve,” Elfreth said during a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 24.
The bill would require the commission chair to be appointed by its members, membership to reflect the diversity within the state, and the commission to meet six times per calendar year.
New membership would include at least three members from communities most negatively affected and they would be required to attend a tailored orientation, Elfreth said.
Sen. Melony Griffith, D-Prince George’s, one of the Senate sponsors of the bill, said the orientation is critically important.
“Without appropriate orientation and being brought up to speed it takes one a while sitting in the room to get the vocabulary the group is using,” Griffith told Capital News Service. “To get the history of the group’s work, the progress that’s been made and the gaps that exist in their topic area.”
The commission would work with different state agencies and use scientific data and mapping tools to analyze the cumulative impacts of state laws and policies on these communities, according to the bill.
Sacoby Wilson, associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, worked with the Senate sponsors to bring this bill forward.
In August, Wilson and other Maryland environmental groups sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, R, calling on the Maryland Department of Environment to address clear racial disparities in Maryland’s environmental harms.
Wilson testified, during a House hearing on Feb. 26, that the bill should be taken a step further to address these environmental disparities.
His suggested amendments include the commission having at least four representatives from four parts of the state: Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, Central and Southern Maryland.
As well, the commission should reflect the current census and use the most recent data sets and tools to assess the cumulative impacts on these communities, he added.
Wilson said the commission should get the same resources as the state’s commission on climate change and work with health agencies to determine the health impacts on these communities.
“We can look at the health impacts and really support communities with (environmental justice) issues and all members having safe environments moving forward,” Wilson said.
Michael Sakata, president and chief executive officer of Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, testified in opposition, saying that resources should be used to fix the current damage to the state following the pandemic.
“We must focus our resources on the most pressing issues like our crumbling roads and highways, improving public transit options, and addressing economic disparities within Maryland,” Sakata said in his written testimony.
General fund expenditures for the Maryland Department of Environment will increase by $122,648 in fiscal year 2022, which reflects the cost of hiring two administrators to implement the expanded duties of the commission, the bill states.
Currently the bill doesn’t have any local impact and has minimal effect on small businesses.
The Senate advanced the legislation on Friday and is expected to take up a final vote next week; the House committee has not yet scheduled a vote on its version of the bill.