By Teresa Johnson, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Letting a balloon float away in Maryland would draw in a fine of $250, under a bill sponsored by Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, legislation that is similar to a Queen Anne’s County law.
Lam said he hopes that this bill does two things: reduces the amount of waste that ends up in the environment, and raises awareness of the need to properly dispose of balloons.
He said there would be a $250 civil fine for each act of intentionally releasing a balloon, but no one would go to prison for it because it’s not considered a criminal offense.
Lam said that the state, unlike in Queen Anne’s County, will not allow biodegradable balloons.
Since there is not a definite label that states when a balloon will biodegrade, they are still considered damaging and could affect farms, water, and wildlife, he said.
Lam said that it’s a bipartisan issue and Republicans may be in favor of the bill because of their support toward farms and protecting rural lands, where balloon waste can be found.
Scott Tiffin, Lam’s chief of staff, said that the issue of balloon releases specifically was put on Lam’s radar by the Queen Anne’s County law.
“After he heard about the bill, we reached out to Commissioner Chris Corchiarino and learned that balloons washing up on the shore is a common problem,” Tiffin said.
Three senators are co-sponsoring the bill, including Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, R-Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester, Sen. Ronald Young, D-Frederick, and Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s, Lam said.
The bill is expected to be co-sponsored in the House of Delegates by Delegate Wayne Hartman, R-Wicomico and Worcester, and Delegate Regina Boyce, D-Baltimore, Lam said.
Carozza said she received concern from her constituents for birds and other wildlife that have been killed by mistaking balloons for food, and about balloon entanglements causing injury to wildlife.
“We even have local cases of our beloved Assateague ponies harmed by balloon releases,” Carozza said.
Lam said that the bill will be enforced by law enforcement at a state and local level and the Maryland Department of the Environment will also be tasked with enforcing the ban.
Lam said that balloon waste from releases could end up in farms, waterways and other spaces where it could harm the environment.
“What goes up must come down, and you won’t know where they will land,” Lam said.
Tiffin said that there is an exemption for the negligent and unintentional release of balloons, which would protect children from being affected.
“The goal of the bill is not to fine children for letting go of their balloon. It is to protect our environment from intentional balloon releases,” Tiffin said.
The bill will be considered during the next legislative session, which starts on Jan. 8. If the bill becomes a law it would go into effect on Oct. 1, 2020.
Bob Friday, association executive of the Bay Area Association of Realtors, said that celebratory balloons for open houses have never been something that their organization uses, instead members have been using flags or open house signs.
Even though the office space in Chester, Maryland, is in Queen Anne’s County, the balloon release ban never had any sort of impact on their office, he said.
Stores like Party City and local Maryland event planning businesses sell and use balloons in their businesses and don’t advocate for balloon releases.
Party City’s website said that they use messaging in stores and online to provide tips for people to properly handle the disposal of balloons.
Sara Parent, owner of Southern Maryland Balloons & Events, said that her company does not organize balloon releases and has concerns with enforcement of the law and how officials would be able to identify these releases, unless it’s a massive one.
Parent said that the bill won’t affect her business.
“I don’t do balloon releases; foils and other balloons should never be released, they could cause issues with power lines,” Parent said. “I don’t advocate releasing balloons into the environment like that but if they’re going to do it, no matter what, it should be with latex and no ribbon because at least it would be biodegradable.”
Luke Blume of Berlin, Maryland — whose children, Josh and Emily Blume, started a balloon clean up contest called Blume’s Balloon Round Up — is in support of the Queen Anne’s County law and potential state-wide ban of balloon releases.
“We are all for the law and obviously don’t want to see people at a birthday party fined if a balloon floats away, but it’s more along the line of these big releases, we want to see these stopped,” Blume said.
The family’s balloon contest started at the end of June 2018 and has existed for over a year and four months, and they’ve collected approximately 2,800 lost balloons since the start, Luke Blume said.
He said that they find balloons in waters from five to 60 miles offshore some days, and that one of the farthest balloons they found appeared to have traveled all the way from a car wash in Arizona.
Blume said that balloons are found on the beaches a lot, and even though latex balloons break down over time, most have an attached string with a knot attached.
“We’ve had farmers call us about balloons getting into the hay and into cows’ stomachs. There is also an osprey project in New Jersey where the parents will make their nests with some balloon waste, and the string from the balloons will cause their babies to get tangled in it,” Blume said.
He said that foil balloons are most commonly picked up and they turn clear when they’re left out for a long time. Not only does it make them harder to spot, but if they’re in the water they can look like jellyfish which turtles mistake for food, Blume said.
Blume said that he has also found notes on balloons, and even though people’s thoughts may be well-intentioned it’s important to bring awareness and opt for an alternative method.
“We picked up a balloon one day that had a note attached to it that included a note about a child that passed away — from a funeral,” Blume said.
He said that June and July are common months to see a lot of graduation balloons, or Valentines Day balloons a month after the holiday.
Wicomico and Worcester counties, on the Eastern shore, are also looking into banning balloon releases.