EPA pushes Md. on polluters Action comes as state shows decline in prosecuting violators

August 11, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

When 70,000 gallons of coal slurry blackened the waters of the North Branch of the Potomac River last fall, state environmental regulators didn't fine the Mettiki Coal Co. or publicize its spill. The state acknowledged the incident only after Western Maryland residents living downstream complained.

A second, much smaller spill occurred last winter at Mettiki's facility in Garrett County, further threatening the state's effort to restore trout to the mining-degraded river. Even then, no fines were levied. Instead, Mettiki signed a consent order last month agreeing to take preventive measures.

Increasingly, persuasion rather than punishment has become the policy of the Maryland Department of the Environment under the Glendening administration. A review by The Sun has found that enforcement of environmental laws has declined, sharply in some categories, in the past two years.

The drop-off has prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to press state officials for explanations and to step in periodically when the federal agency perceives Maryland's action as weak or lagging.

Encouraging polluters to clean up voluntarily "is a very important part of environmental protection, but it doesn't take the place of rigorous enforcement," said Michael McCabe, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator.

The EPA most recently threatened to take enforcement action for 2-year-old pollution violations at Baltimore's Back River wastewater treatment plant. On Aug. 1, with no publicity, the state issued a $10,000 penalty against the city for allowing the plant to discharge excessive phosphorus, a nutrient that harms Chesapeake Bay water quality.

The number of criminal prosecutions brought by the state has fallen by 29 percent since fiscal 1993, while the dollar amount of penalties collected for all violations has declined by 61 percent in the same time. The state Environment Department brought 22 criminal cases and levied $675,500 in penalties in fiscal 1995, the most recent year for which the department has compiled overall enforcement figures.

In fiscal 1993, by comparison, the department prosecuted 31 cases and collected $1.7 million in fines.

State officials say the decline reflects state budget cuts, better compliance and a shift in philosophy. "We are looking at a balance between compliance and enforcement," said Arthur W. Ray, deputy environment secretary, who oversees the agency's enforcement efforts.

But activists say the drop-off confirms their fears that environmental protection is suffering in the Glendening administration's zeal to streamline regulations and make Maryland more business-friendly.

"I think the administration is bowing to the political climate," John V. Kabler, regional director for Clean Water Action, contended in an interview shortly before his death Aug. 1 from cancer. "There are explanations for some of this, but not all."

The number of environmental citations increased overall from fiscal 1994 to 1995, but most of that increase came in one area -- radiation safety. The state inspects medical radiation devices in hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices.

Enforcement activity in several more traditional categories has declined. Citations for water, wastewater and wetlands violations combined dropped by half from fiscal 1993 through 1995.

In the past two years, the department's violation notices for air pollution grew 8 percent, but those are the regulatory equivalent of a warning. Penalty actions -- where violators are actually fined for pollution -- fell by nearly two-thirds in the same time.

Environmental enforcement activity seems to be declining in Maryland's neighboring states as well, and EPA's McCabe said he has asked all of them for evidence that public health and natural resources are not endangered.

But the situation in Maryland is particularly troubling to EPA officials, in part because Glendening has been far more vocal than the governors of neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania in vowing to protect the environment. Glendening tapped Jane T. Nishida, formerly with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, as his environment secretary.

The decline in enforcement actually began during the final years of William Donald Schaefer's second term as governor, as business complaints about regulation grew in Maryland and nationwide.

But it has continued since Glendening took office pledging to boost Maryland's business climate while still maintaining environmental protections.

In at least one politically sensitive area -- wetlands -- enforcement has dwindled sharply since a Glendening-ordered reorganization of environmental agencies shifted regulation of wetlands, coal mines and waterways from the Department of Natural Resources to the Environment Department.

Violation notices handed out for illegal development of freshwater wetlands have fallen by 90 percent in the past year alone, from 72 in fiscal 1995 to just seven in the 12 months ending June 30. Inspections declined by 20 percent.

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