Local Lawmakers Gear Up For Big Year Of Environmental Decisions (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Local Lawmakers Face Big Year of Environmental Decisions

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." The theme for our first brand-new show of 2013 is into the future. Now, we've already talked with preppers. Those are people who are doing their best to get ready for the worst of what may lie ahead. Well, now we'll hear about the people who will be shaping our future in the months to come. Or particularly, are environmental future. Joining me now is environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour. Hi, Sabri.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:32
Hi, Rebecca.

SHEIR

00:00:33
So, Sabri, give us the quick and dirty on some of the environmental issues that we'll be talking about over this next year.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:38
Well, you know, you can't live in this area and not talk about the Chesapeake Bay. It's a trillion-dollar resource, the nation's largest estuary and the focus of this massive cleanup effort between six states, D.C. and the EPA. So to refresh your memory, this is how this all goes, the states have all promised to reduce pollution, the EPA made them come up with concrete plans on how they're going to do that and now they're putting them into place. And that's the big story.

SHEIR

00:01:02
Okay. So what exactly do those plans entail then?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:06
We're fixing sewage treatment plants so they don't release so much waste water into rivers. The other thing is controlling runoff from agriculture. And thirdly, controlling runoff basically from gutters, from streets, roofs, what we call storm water. There are different ways that's going to get paid for, to put it succinctly, bonds, taxes and utility bills. And they are things we are all probably going to notice. So D.C.'s wastewater treatment plant, that upgrade is going to cost $2.6 billion. And that is going to be paid for by utility bills. Now, for some of the other things, counties are going to start collecting fees or increasing the fees they do collect. We're going to see that. And then they are going to use those fees to back bonds to pay for all of these big infrastructure changes. You know, I talked to Alison Prost. She's Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. And she says, you know, it may not end up being all that expensive.

MS. ALISON PROST

00:02:04
We are seeing that as counties start to delve into the details of their plans, they are being able to find some more cost-effective ways to meet their reduction. For instance, Talbot County, they have decided as they're working on highway improvement to do some work in the drainage ditches, convert them back to working wetlands and natural filters so that you're getting reductions from farm field runoff and also their storm water runoff off the road. We have seen the costs that Talbot originally estimated go down by tens of millions of dollars.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:39
These are the sorts of things we're going to see figured out this year. And, you know, frankly, people are going to see that in their bills. So that's why I bring that up.

SHEIR

00:02:47
But, right now, as we speak, I mean is all of this paying off? Is the Chesapeake Bay getting any cleaner?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:53
Well, you know, I asked Bill Dennison that very question. He is with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and he says we might start seeing improvements from some of the upgrades that states have been working on.

MR. BILL DENNISON

00:03:04
We're going to start to see some of the impact of consistent increasing cover crop utilization. When you drive around the watershed you really do see these green fields. The other thing that we've got coming online this year is we are really getting some progress on our sewage treatment upgrades. So we're very hopeful.

SHEIR

00:03:23
So we've been talking a lot about water so far. I want to switch gears a bit and talk about wind, off-shore wind. Where does that issue stand, as lawmakers head back to Annapolis?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:33
Yeah, so a bill to subsidize a wind farm off the coast of Maryland is going to be under consideration for the third year in a row in Maryland's General Assembly. And I think it has a better chance than it ever has before. Here's Jim Mathias, he's a state senator from Ocean City, Md.

MR. JIM MATHIAS

00:03:48
There was some concerns brought up in 2011 from Farm Bureau and Dhumal Poultry. They're big consumers of electric. They were concerned about the surcharges. And we went to the governor last year. We've been able to work through some things. But President Miller says that this will see a full debate. I just got word yesterday when I was traveling home, there's been a change in my committee.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:11
And that last bit, you know, it sounds insider politicky, but it really may be the big difference. Last year there was a Democratic senator who basically just stuck it to the governor. He didn't let the wind bill out of committee, reportedly out of a grudge over endorsement. So he's gone and it'll go to a floor debate. President of the Senate, Mike Miller, is insisting it'll pass there. I think a lot of the issues have been worked out. And a lot of the horse trading has been done. So I think this might be the year that it passes. It will mean Marylanders will probably pay around $1.50 more on their electric bill, according to Miller.

SHEIR

00:04:47
And then turning to Virginia, the General Assembly is going to consider uranium mining in the commonwealth. What are some of the issues we'll be hearing about on that front?

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:55
Well, you know, it's all about safety. There are 119 million pounds of uranium ore in Southeast Virginia worth about $10 billion and the state has banned anyone from digging it up for 30 years. On the one hand, you know, market demand for uranium is heating up, there are new power plants coming online in the next few years, supplies from Russian warheads--that's where they used to get a lot of their uranium--are running out. So there's a lot of demand, a big business opportunity. On the other hand, of course, as I mentioned, is the safety issue. What do you do with the mine tailings or waste? In just that it's radioactive gravel is what it is. Where and how do you store it? Some analyses shows that if there were some kind of release it could contaminate drinking water supplies for a year or two, but reports done for the industry say, you know, we're talking about gravel, it's easy to contain, there's a one in ten million chance any contamination could ever occur or get into the water supply. The state's Coal and Energy Commission voted 11-2 in favor of the General Assembly considering legislation to overturn the ban on uranium mining. You know, we're going to see how legislators respond.

SHEIR

00:06:03
Well, we look forward to seeing how all of these issues pan out. Thank you so much for joining us today, Sabri.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:06:08
You're very welcome.

SHEIR

00:06:09
And if you have questions about these or any other environmental topics, send us a note. Our email address is metro@wamu.org or you can find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.
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