Increasing Transparency for Impacted Communities

It is hard to comprehend that we live in a world where your skin color and/or income level have a significant influence on your health and overall quality of life. The daunting truth is communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to live near a toxic waste site. This is especially the case when these two communities intersect. A 2016 study published in Environmental Research Letters lends credence to the idea of “environmental racism,” showing that the biggest polluters in the U.S. – factories, warehouse and other facilities using toxic substances — are overwhelmingly located in poor, non-white neighborhoods. Another supporting study showed that hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal plants also tend to be built in similar low-income, non-white areas. These findings are particularly true for residents living in Baltimore, Brandywine, and many other cities located in the Old Bay state.

The role of the Public Service Commission (PSC) is to, “ensure safe, reliable, and economic public utility and transportation service to the citizens of Maryland”.  The PSC creates standards and policies that protect the safety of the public by regulating gas, electric, telephone, water, and sewage disposal companies.  Maryland residents living near utility and infrastructure works found that they are the last to know about plans and applications for new generating stations or high transmission lines are approved by the PSC. In recent years, residents have voiced their displeasure with the Commission requesting vital reform.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, Keisha Pollack Porter and Delegate Robbyn Lewis all provided testimony in support of the HB1632 bill.

Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, Keisha Pollack Porter and Delegate Robbyn Lewis all provided testimony in support of the HB1632 bill.

What needs to happen?

Currently, there is no direct mandate that informs Maryland residents of new development projects located within miles of homes, schools, and local businesses. There needs to be more transparency between the PSC and residents about proposed activities and new plans coming into their neighborhoods. Maryland is an amalgam of various ethnic groups. For Maryland residents whose English comes as a second language, the information found on the PSC website can be inaccessible as it is formatted in English with a great deal of jargon. Even for those who are native English speakers, the lack of plain text on the PSC website creates barriers to accessing the information. The City of Baltimore is one of highest minority populations in the state and continues to face disproportionate environmental injustices. Increasing accessibility to notifications for proposed activities and health impact assessments during proposal review process are two crucial reforms that must be considered for new development projects. Health impact assessments would help ensure that communities are being protected from poor air and water quality. Health impact assessments are essential for public health because they evaluate the potential health effects of a plan or policy before it is implemented through various data sources. Health impacts of proposed activities should be known by the PSC and community members to help with decision making. Protecting communities near these activities is imperative and must be taken more seriously.

What legislation was considered?

This year, House Bill’s 0715 and 1632 sponsored by Delegate Lewis focused on introducing accessible notifications and health impact assessments at the PSC. HB 0715 required the PSC to directly notify community members and stakeholders when an application for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity is filed for a proposed activity. This included notices to be easily available online and in terms for average people to understand.

HB 1632 demands that the PSC take public health into the consideration of all proposed activity through a rapid health impact assessment (HIA). HIA’s collect data from an array of sources including: stakeholder input, scientific data, and public health expertise. HIAs attempt to identify potential health effects of a proposed policy, project, or plan, and offer recommendations based on possible risks or benefits identified in the assessment.

The overall goal for the PSC reforms is for residents to easily gain information about what is happening in their community and know the proposed activities will impact their health. 

Moving forward

The denial of these bills has shaped a conversation about the need for change in the future. Moving forward, PSC bill reform is imperative for Maryland residents to be protected and informed. Without this, more PSC activities may occur without proper notice to community members. Residents may potentially be impacted by these activities, making health impact assessments necessary so proposed activity risks are known. These are priorities that organizations like the Maryland Environmental Health Network are focusing on in 2018 and beyond to make sure that the PSC is held to higher standards. Both of the proposed bills would’ve been big steps in the right direction; hopefully in the future changes are made