4 water watchdog groups sue EPA over levels of pollution in Maryland

Aim is to have federal agency, not MDE, set acceptable limits

December 10, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Four Maryland water-watchdog groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today, claiming that the federal government is not doing enough to protect the state's rivers and streams from pollution.

The lawsuit, which is expected to be filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, seeks to force the EPA to take control of setting limits for acceptable pollution levels in state waterways. The Maryland Department of the Environment is supposed to set those limits.

The plaintiffs - the Potomac Riverkeeper, the Chester River Association, the South River Federation and the Assateague Coastal Trust - say the MDE is woefully behind in setting the limits, called total maximum daily loads. At the rate MDE is going, they say, the agency won't complete the work until 2037, which would be 58 years after the deadline set in the Clean Water Act.

"It will strike any Marylander that 58 years is too long to wait for clean water," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic, which is filing the lawsuit on behalf of the water groups.

The state has written thresholds for pollutant levels, but the lawsuit says it has neglected to write standards for several hundred more.

MDE spokesman Richard McIntire said the agency is on track to complete the standards by 2011 and that its team of analysts and field staff members has been completing more than 20 standards each year. This year, he said, the staff has completed standards for 38 pollutants.

"We have problems with [the plaintiffs'] math," McIntire said. "MDE is equipped to do this job, has been doing this job, has been sued over it once, and the challenge didn't stand."

In that 1998 lawsuit, the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued the EPA over what they considered the agency's failure to require the state to set limits. The suit resulted in a memorandum of understanding between the EPA and the MDE in which the state agency made commitments to write limits.

Jon Capacasa, director of the EPA's regional water protection division, said his staff reviewed Maryland's efforts and is satisfied that the state is on track. He said he hadn't seen the lawsuit, but that the 58-year figure in the plaintiffs' news release is misleading.

If the plaintiffs are basing their numbers on the progress made in the early years of the Clean Water Act, he said, they are being unfair.

"You can't look back to 1979 and say they're 20 years late," Capacasa said. "Maryland is not unique in the fact that many states didn't get started in earnest until the late 1990s."

The plaintiffs have said that while the state slowly revamps its limits, pollution is getting worse in the bay's tributaries. Drew Koslow, who patrols the South River, said he saw some of the worst algae blooms that he can recall this summer.

Ed Merrifield of Potomac Riverkeeper, a plaintiff in the first lawsuit as a Sierra Club member, said this one is necessary because the MDE is not meeting its obligation.

"They're still way behind where they should be," he said. "This [lawsuit] is really a last resort."

The watchdog groups are not the first to sue the EPA over the Clean Water Act. Last month, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed suit to compel the agency to place discharge limits on sewage treatment plants, a major source of bay pollution.

CBF Maryland Executive Director Kim Coble said she hopes the latest court challenge will speed up the revising of limits and make sure the limits are enforced.

"They've raised a good issue," she said. "The more voices calling for environmental improvements, the faster the environment will get cleaned up."

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