Md. pollution enforcement stepped up Environment officials say there's been no crackdown

First report filed

Inspections, citations, fines all increased during past year

December 21, 1997|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials appear to have stepped up enforcement of environmental laws in the past year, reversing a decline at the beginning of the Glendening administration that outraged environmentalists and drew pressure from the federal government.

Though state Department of the Environment officials deny any conscious crackdown on polluters, the agency's first examination of its enforcement activity -- prompted by an article in The Sun -- indicates a significant increase since 1996 in the number of inspections, cleanup orders and fines collected.

In a report submitted without fanfare to the General Assembly, the department said it had collected $964,215 from enforcement actions in the year that ended June 30. The amount paid for air, water and hazardous waste pollution violations -- the three largest categories -- was more than 2.5 times what the agency collected in the previous year.

"We haven't changed anything we do," said Arthur W. Ray, deputy environment secretary. He said the state remains committed to giving first-time or minor polluters a break, despite apparent increases in citations and penalties.

"Maybe we put it in the report and are more forthcoming about it," Ray said of the enforcement actions, but "there has not been a push to be more aggressive."

More than one-third of the money collected last year resulted from one case, officials noted -- a $380,000 fine paid by Perdue Farms for water pollution violations at a poultry processing plant in Worcester County.

More than 25,000 inspections and spot checks of businesses, waste facilities and construction projects were conducted in fiscal 1997. The report said regulators obtained injunctions or issued cleanup orders in 232 cases while giving violators a chance to correct problems without penalty in more than 15,000 instances.

State environmental officials say they still penalize flagrant or repeat violators, but through "compliance assistance" can get many businesses to clean up pollution more quickly than by issuing citations or going to court. The more lenient approach was adopted a few years ago in response to complaints from businesses about over-regulation.

Environmentalists, who complained, in turn, of lax enforcement, say it's evident that the state has gotten tougher lately -- a shift they attribute to pressure from the federal government and the General Assembly.

"What you're required to report gets attention," said Daniel Pontious, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. "So it wouldn't surprise me that over the last year there's been more attention to enforcing environmental laws."

Indeed, in the wake of complaints last year about developers bulldozing freshwater wetlands, inspections of construction projects increased by more than one-third, from 3,233 to 4,430, according to the report. Regulators issued 51 orders to stop building in marshland or restore damage, more than twice the 21 orders issued the year before.

State lawmakers, responding to an August 1996 story in The Sun detailing a two-year decline under the Glendening administration citations issued and penalties collected, enacted a law earlier this year requiring annual reports on enforcement activity. Until last year, the Department of the Environment did not even keep tabs on its inspections and violations.

EPA notices change

"I think the improvements have been significant," said W. Michael McCabe, mid-Atlantic regional administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

As an example, McCabe cited last week's lawsuit filed by state and federal regulators against Baltimore alleging long-standing water pollution violations at the city's Ashburton water-filtration plant and Patapsco wastewater treatment plant.

"This kind of thing just wasn't happening prior to this year," McCabe said.

State officials resented federal interference, and even expressed fear that if they were too strict, businesses would flee Maryland ,, for states with more relaxed environmental regulation.

"I am not interested in fining people or closing businesses," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said at one point last year. "I am interested in compliance with environmental law."

Last year, with McCabe publicly questioning the state's willingness to let polluters evade punishment, the EPA prodded the state into levying a $10,000 fine for two-year-old violations at Baltimore's other major sewage treatment plant on Back River.

Now, state and federal regulators are working together on problems such as those at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant, where the company agreed this year to pay $350,000 in fines and spend upward of $50 million on cleanup of extensive contamination and on air pollution controls.

"I don't want to say we're totally there yet," McCabe said. "You can't turn this around overnight, but the direction is good."

One of the few apparent declines in environmental enforcement activity came in the area of criminal prosecutions.

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