Southern Maryland lawmakers concluded their weekly delegation meeting Friday with an impromptu debate over Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to construct a wind farm off the coast of Ocean City and the impact it could have on Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Just as his colleagues were breaking from the meeting to attend to other matters, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary’s) suggested that the delegation set aside some time at one of its weekly meetings in early March to discuss the effect pending federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, could have on the base and, by extension, the region.
The Naval Air Systems Command informed its employees earlier this month that it was planning to absorb $3.5 billion in cuts this fiscal year.
”There is going to be significant disruption in all of our communities as a result of this,” Bohanan said.
Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) placed the blame on Congress’ use of continuing resolutions, rather than an annual budget, to fund the federal government. The latest continuing resolution expires in March.
”We’ve been operating off of CRs for four years now, so you’re right, it’s a big problem, we haven’t passed a budget,” he said.
At that point, Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s Charles) brought up O’Malley’s wind proposal, saying he was recently pressed by a constituent to support it but that he couldn’t get behind the legislation until he was certain it would not affect Pax River.
The constituent claimed that the U.S. Navy supported the bill, which Wood said was news to him.
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) and Bohanan both recalled a meeting last February with O’Malley (D) and then-Vice Adm. David Architzel, who retired as NAVAIR commander in September.
During that meeting, Bohanan said, it was established that the U.S. Navy’s principal concern was the planned construction of wind turbines on farmland in Somerset County.
The legislature took action to ensure that the onshore turbines would not be built if they interfere with Pax River’s mission, Bohanan said.
“They would be building those today if not for the actions that we took,” he added.
As for O’Malley’s offshore wind proposal, Bohanan, who has worked extensively with Pax River as a staff member for U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), called it “pretty tangential” to the base’s mission.
”If you talk to the folks on the ground at Pax River, they will tell you they’ve reached accommodation. The offshore wind is not a huge issue for them,” Bohanan said. “There isn’t any showstopping concern that is going to cause the loss or impact of even a single job [at Pax River] if the governor’s wind plan went into effect.”
Bohanan said the Navy officially supports alternative energy proposals and has directed Pax River to “make an accommodation for this to work if at all possible.”
Even though the governor’s bill is supported at the Navy’s departmental level, Bohanan said the delegation needs to ensure that the base itself has input.
“I was very clear with the governor and others at the state level in saying, Big Navy will tell you they’re supportive, but we really need to listen very carefully to the local folks and what they say, and rather than hear just the direction coming from Big Navy, which is the [Obama] administration, saying that we’re going to make this work, let’s drill down and make sure our local folks are happy with this.”
But O’Donnell said he has spoken with high-level defense contractors “who do still have concern, who do still have an uneasiness, and they believe that a political accommodation has been reached that we might regret someday, and they’re willing to say that privately but they’re not necessarily willing to do it publicly.”
Bohanan told O’Donnell that they should quickly set up a meeting to “narrow specifically what those concerns are.
“I will be the first one to take them to” Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which will review O’Malley’s bill, “and I will become the most vocal opponent of the governor’s wind plan if” legitimate concerns are raised, Bohanan said.
He said that in a community of roughly 280 defense contractors, “you’re going to find a couple VP-level who say they don’t like it and they have concerns because fundamentally they object to wind power, but by and large, those folks who work at the [Atlantic Test Ranges] will tell you [that] if they had their druthers, they’d like to keep the sandbox pristine, but they can make this work.”
Middleton said the governor’s wind proposal has become too politicized, with both sides taking hard-line positions in opposition or support.
“If I thought this project would have any negative impact on Pax River, I’d be as opposed to it as anybody else,” he added.
O’Donnell said he might be open to changing his position on the bill.
“It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about making damn sure in this context, with budget cuts at the federal level threatening our viability in Southern Maryland, that we’re not adding” to the base’s challenges.
During the bulk of the discussion, Wood sat back and listened quietly, waiting until the end to reiterate his unease with O’Malley’s proposal.
“f I had to [vote] on the wind bill now, I could not do it because I would not be comfortable,” Wood said. “I don’t care who asks me to change my vote. I’ve been to the woodpile many times in my 27 years, and I don’t care. I got 40,000 people in my district that I care about.”
“We all do,” Middleton said.