A law doesn't stop sediment

ON THE BAY

Dirt: Despite a regulation crafted to control runoff, too much earth is washing away, toward the bay, after heavy rains.

May 28, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

EARLY MORNING, May 19 -- Hard rain overnight. Phone rings, an angry caller, seeing muddy water, seeing red.

He saw The Sun's story on the Chesapeake Bay's underwater grasses declining 30 percent, the biggest drop in history. Too much sediment washing into the water was a cause, the article said.

Then, on his way to work on Sparks Road in northern Baltimore County, he saw tons of dirt had run off toward the Gunpowder Falls from a home construction site.

"Isn't there a law against that?" he asked.

Indeed, Maryland for about two decades has had one of the country's tougher sediment-control laws. And Baltimore County is ranked among the state's best jurisdictions in implementing that law.

But after 20 years, in a good county in a good state, it's way too easy -- after a hard rain -- to see plenty of violations. Not looking hard, I spotted three on a 10-minute drive from my house on Belfast Road to check out the caller's complaint.

In the 15000 block of Priceville Road, a muddy mess spilled down steep slopes in all directions from a new home site.

Not far away, a grand home going up in the 1200 block of Western Run Road had little evidence of silt fences required by county law. Red earth was washing toward the trout stream across the road.

"I see much the same thing when I ride around the county," said Richard Klein, a local environmental consultant and a key person in passing Maryland's sediment-control law.

Klein said the county does a good job inspecting larger projects, but ignores many smaller ones. I did, however, see single homes under construction that morning doing a good job, like another site on Priceville Road.

"We have six [sediment inspectors] working the whole county, so we don't tend to look at [isolated] single-family sites, and there's a lot of them," said Kevin Sharbonda, a county employee who responded promptly and pleasantly to my complaints.

Contractors know the law, he said, but "a lot know we're understaffed, and a lot just try to get by on the cheap."

He issued "corrective notices" to the contractors in violation, but no fines. Seeking fines, he said, requires going to court in Baltimore County, "and it takes six months to a year to get a court date -- we're working on a better way."

It's nice that after two decades, one of the toughest counties in one of the toughest states on sediment pollution is working on a better way.

Sediment from scofflaw contractors is hardly the only, or even a major source, of the 5 million tons of dirt running into the bay each year. Farms, eroding shorelines and stream banks all contribute.

But there's a larger issue brought to mind by my muddy morning encounters last week. It goes to the heart of our multistate effort to restore the bay to health.

Last year, to make sure its new, tougher goals for reducing all sources of pollution to the bay were realistic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ran a computer scenario known as E-3.

The E-3 simulation envisions doing "everything, everywhere, by everyone" to cut pollution. That means no regard for cost, using state-of-the-art technologies, drastically slowing sprawl development and returning vast tracts of farmland to trees and grasses. You certainly wouldn't be able to find what I found the morning of May 19.

To everyone's relief, the E-3 scenario, when run on the EPA's computer model simulating the bay's responses to pollution changes, produced water-quality improvements well beyond the point scientists think we need to get to. Meeting our goals, in other words, won't take an impossible effort.

But one wonders: given economic turndowns, technology that never works perfectly, human frailty and all else that makes "stuff happen," will shooting for E-3 be what it takes to reach our lesser goals for restoring bay health?

Restoration is a far more ambitious task than most people realize. We can't do it all -- maybe not even the majority of it -- by bolting solutions onto sewer pipes, smokestacks and tailpipes.

It's going to take millions of us, across millions of acres of farm, urban and suburban landscapes, eliminating polluted runoff in a variety of ways. There will never be enough inspectors, enforcement or penalties to ensure that.

It will also take a widely shared sense of obligation, stewardship and caring -- an environmental ethic.

But riding through the developing landscape of Baltimore County on a rainy morning shows that any such ethic continues to elude us.

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