Enforcement of water pollution laws in Maryland has trended downward over the last two decades but has nosedived under the Hogan administration, according to a new report by several environmental groups.

Drawing on data reported annually by the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Chesapeake Accountability Project, a coalition of four groups, tallied a 39% decline in water-related inspections and a 67% drop-off in enforcement actions under the Hogan administration, compared with its predecessor.

Environmentalists contend that lax enforcement undermines efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay and threatens public health.

The Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore County, MD, features a distinctive, gold-domed pair of anaerobic digesters used to process sewage sludge. Credit: Kristian Bjornard / Wikimedia Commons

“Imagine how our roads would be if there were no speed cameras or police officers to pull over speeders,” said Katlyn Schmitt, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform and lead author of the coalition’s report. “In Maryland, polluters can essentially get away with polluting and breaking environmental rules.”

The coalition — Center for Progressive Reform, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and Environmental Integrity Project — released an “enforcement scorecard” on March 9 in support of pending legislation that would require the MDE to conduct more inspections and impose harsher penalties on polluters.

The coalition focused on compliance and enforcement activity reported by the MDE on discharges to surface and groundwater, disturbances of wetlands and waterways, and stormwater runoff from existing and new development. It also took stock of staffing levels at the state agency and a long list of facilities operating on so-called “zombie” permits with outdated discharge limits.

Annual MDE reports show water-related inspections and enforcement, while peaking at times, have declined overall since 2001. The 75 enforcement actions reported by the MDE’s Water and Science administration in the year ending last July 1 marked a 20-year low, the coalition said. That was less than half the annual average of 168 actions taken since 2001, according to the coalition report.

Under Hogan, the coalition reported, the MDE identified 70% fewer significant pollution violations – those generally deemed threats to public health or the environment – than it had in the previous administration and collected 47% less in fines. The number of significant violations cited last year was the lowest in 20 years, it said.

While some of the drops in violations might suggest the MDE’s enforcement has had a deterrent effect, the report said a review of industrial stormwater compliance indicated otherwise. State inspectors found non-compliance in nearly two-thirds of the processing plants, auto salvage yards, and landfills it checked for stormwater pollution controls from 2017 through 2020. Of those, nearly half were repeat offenders, yet only 14 formal enforcement actions were taken, the report said. 

At Valley Proteins’ poultry rendering plant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, workers clean up sludge that was discovered in a stream leading to the Transquaking River. Credit: MD Department of the Environment

Early in the  Hogan administration, the MDE said it was providing more “compliance assistance” without taking enforcement action, to address supposedly minor violations before they could become significant. The number of cases handled that way did increase markedly for a few years but have since declined. Last year compliance assistance was 67% below the 20- year average.

The coalition said the MDE has suffered budget and staffing cuts over the past two decades that have chronically hampered its ability to ride herd on a growing number of regulated entities. Its workforce is about 14% smaller than it was 20 years ago, and its share of state government funding has shrunk by one-third, the report said.

The emergency workplace restrictions imposed at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic may have caused some inspections to be delayed or even skipped, but the coalition pointed out that sharp declines were occurring even before COVID-19 showed up.

“This is a terrible time for a drop-off in water pollution enforcement,” said Courtney Bernhardt, research director for the Environmental Integrity Project. The Bay restoration effort has made limited progress to date, and it faces increased stresses from population growth, development, and climate change.

MDE spokesman Mark Shaffer said officials had not had a chance to review the report before its release so could not provide an immediate response. But he issued a statement saying that “MDE has never wavered in its commitment to compliance and enforcement, which continues to be a priority.”

He cited examples of “significant and impactful” water-related actions taken to stop water pollution at the Verso paper mill in western Maryland, the Dominion coal ash ponds at Possum Point on the Potomac River, and in Baltimore city, where there have been sewage overflows and wastewater treatment violations. He also pointed to Maryland’s lawsuit, with two other states and the District of Columbia, seeking to compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take more aggressive action against Pennsylvania and New York over their inadequate plans for helping with the Bay restoration.

But the coalition’s report noted that some of the biggest pollution cases recently — including those involving the state’s two biggest sewage treatment plants in Baltimore and the Valley Proteins poultry rendering plant on the Eastern Shore — were first spotted by watershed activists, not by the MDE’s inspectors.

“We can’t fix pollution problems that aren’t being identified due to lack of inspections and enforcement by MDE,” added Doug Myers, senior Maryland scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

This photo from the state inspection report for the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore shows settling tanks rendered inoperable by an accumulation of solids and fats, oils and grease. Credit: Maryland Dept. of the Environment

The report comes after a legislative briefing in January when lawmakers grilled MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles over his department’s oversight of drinking water supplies, shellfish safety, poultry runoff, sewage treatment, and industrial waste. Grumbles acknowledged some lapses and pledged to hire more staff to increase inspections of drinking water systems and chicken farms.

Two bills pending in the General Assembly seek to boost enforcement of state environmental laws. One measure, SB221 /HB402, backed by Attorney General Brian Frosh would give the MDE more leeway in pursuing violators and would increase penalties for some offenses. The other, HB649/SB492  seeks to compel the MDE to hire more staff and conduct more inspections while also increasing penalties.

That measure also orders the MDE to eliminate its lengthy backlog of more than 150 facilities with so-called “zombie” or outdated discharge permits, some of which have been allowed to continue without updated requirements for years.

The  MDE has pushed back, warning that the second bill would force it to hire more than 200 new staff at a cost of nearly $23 million. But Del. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of the measure’s prime sponsors, called that a “ridiculous” overestimate but said sponsors are working on amendments to lower the potential cost.

“Everybody recognizes that this is a problem and that MDE has been short-staffed, and that it cannot continue,” Love said. “I believe that the [MDE] secretary is going to hire some people; I think he already has. But the question is: Is that going to be enough? And we need to make sure that it is enough.”

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com.

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or twheeler@bayjournal.com.

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