Michael A. Sawyers
CUMBERLAND — Local elected officials had the Maryland attorney general’s ear Tuesday morning and they bent it, asking for a break from stringent environmental regulations that they say are blocking economic growth in far Western Maryland.
Attorney General Douglas Gansler and his staff traveled to Cumberland to ask for local input about environmental issues, particularly the health of the North Branch of the Potomac River that eventually feeds the Chesapeake Bay. What he heard ranged from comments about hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus Shale to coal extraction.
“We’re not the problem,” said Frostburg Mayor Robert Flanigan, referring to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Flanigan explained that the city is 60 percent through a 20-year program to separate storm water from sewer water. “We are one of the forerunners in this kind of work,” Flanigan said.
The mayor told the attorney general that five deep mining permits approved by the Maryland Bureau of Mines are being held up by the Department of the Environment. Those mining operations would provide jobs and improve economic development in and around the Mountain City, according to Flanigan.
“Many places in this area you can find black coal two feet below the surface of a backyard,” Flanigan said. “We sit on top of coal. We need jobs. If it wasn’t for the (Frostburg State) university we wouldn’t be on the map anymore.”
Flanigan said Western Maryland has the natural resources to provide thousands of jobs. He said he favors a balanced approach that will protect the environment.
The meeting took place at the Allegany County office complex where Commissioner Michael McKay said the costs being asked of the county to clean the bay far exceed the amount of pollution generated here.
“The water we release into the river is cleaner than required by EPA,” he said. “One major weather event every 10 years such as Hurricane Sandy damages the bay more than Allegany County ever could.” McKay encouraged Gansler to find a way to have Pennsylvania and other bay drainage states take more responsibility for the cleanup.
Gansler described Pennsylvania as being very lax about environmental protection.
The attorney general said he believes that hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, will eventually come to Western Maryland, but in a safe way that won’t compromise drinking water. He said his staff is working to inform landowners about the intricacies of leasing their lands to drilling companies.
Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine urged the state to investigate dry fracking.
“If the problem is the fracking water, eliminate the problem,” Valentine said. He said other states are looking into the process.
Valentine said county officials have offered to allow a dry fracking test site in the county so that it can be evaluated.
Allegany County State’s Attorney Michael Twigg said his office is not seeing cases dealing with the violation of environmental law.
Following the meeting, Gansler traveled to the Savage River State Forest to visit a potential fracking site. Also Tuesday, the attorney general was briefed about watershed issues by Brent Walls of Potomac Riverkeeper and visited an acid mine drainage site on Georges Creek near Barton.
Contact Michael A. Sawyers at email@example.com.