Pollution-law leniency pledged by Sauerbrey CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

October 28, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Accusing the Schaefer administration of intimidating small businesses that run afoul of environmental regulations, Ellen R. Sauerbrey says that if elected governor, she will give companies a chance to clean up their pollution before penalizing them.

In a pair of interviews, including one earlier this week, the Republican candidate said that several business owners had complained to her of being fined by the Maryland Department of the Environment for alleged pollution violations, only to have additional penalties piled on when they protested their innocence.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, who has vowed to roll back "excessive regulations" that she says hurt the state's economy, would not identify the businesses. She said they feared retribution from state regulators.

She criticized the department's practice of offering to reduce fines if a business pays promptly. And she charged that state inspectors "penalized or intimidated" companies that denied wrongdoing.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said that she would install regulators "who understand the importance of small businesses" and who would not be as quick to fine alleged violators.

"The first effort ought to be to go identify the problem and give the owner an opportunity to correct deficiencies," she said, adding that a crackdown is warranted if there's no improvement.

Sandra Palmer, spokeswoman for the state Department of the Environment, acknowledged that the state routinely offers to reduce fines if they are paid promptly. But the practice spares taxpayers and businesses the legal expense of trying the case before an administrative law judge, she said. "We think that our system is simply usually less costly to business, and it gets quick results," Ms. Palmer said. She denied that inspectors slap new violation notices and fines on companies that appeal citations.

And she pointed out that the department has a small-business assistance office to advise companies on compliance with state and federal regulations.

The office handles more than 100 inquiries a month, she said, and does not report its information to compliance inspectors.

Some business groups welcomed Mrs. Sauerbrey's remarks about intimidation.

"It's becoming more of a norm: 'Hey, look. Pay us this now, or pay us a whole lot more later on,' " complained Robert Latham, director of the Maryland Highway Contractors Association.

Highway contractors and other business groups teamed up earlier this year to support a bill in Annapolis that would have prohibited the department from filing criminal charges against violators of sediment- and erosion-control laws.

The measure, inspired largely by a $25,000 criminal fine imposed in a mud-pollution case on the Eastern Shore, passed the House overwhelmingly but died in the Senate. Mrs. Sauerbrey voted for it.

"The ones who have the biggest problems are small businesses," said Ernie Kent, vice president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "They don't have the technical expertise on staff . . . to make sure that everything's complied with."

Retiring state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, the legislature's leading environmentalist derided Mrs. Sauerbrey's charge about intimidation of companies by regulators. "If anything over the years, no matter who the administration is, the criticism is they've been too soft," said the Anne Arundel Democrat. "You've got to be a gross violator to get more than your wrist slapped."

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