Environmental Groups Call Md. Water Regulators Lax, Will Ask U.s. To Step In

December 07, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler , tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Environmental groups plan to ask the federal government to crack down on state environmental regulators, accusing them of going easy on water pollution discharged from businesses, sewage plants, farms and developments.

The state's Waterkeepers - a network of environmental watchdogs - are expected to file a petition today with the Environmental Protection Agency charging the state Department of the Environment with "systemic failure" to carry out its legal responsibility to ride herd on water pollution piped into Maryland's rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. They say they've been driven to take such an unusual legal step out of frustration with the way the state is handling its duties to safeguard water quality.

"The bay's in trouble, and they don't seem to have the capacity to really deal with these problems diligently," said Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper. "What we're asking for is better oversight to help the [state] find the willpower, the spine, the ownership of the regulatory problems it's facing."

The groups' 58-page petition, prepared by the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic, calls on the EPA to require the state to tighten its enforcement of water pollution laws, or take over the enforcement itself. The groups' complaint alleges a litany of shortcomings in the way state regulators handle water pollution discharge permits, which are required of any private or public facility that is piping wastes into rivers, lakes and other surface waters. The permits typically limit the amount of pollution facilities can discharge and require them to report any problems to the state.

Dawn Stoltzfus, an MDE spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that it was "simply unfounded and baseless to say that MDE does not have the diligence or will to protect clean water."

Among the Waterkeepers' allegations:

* State inspectors visited only 20 percent of the more than 13,000 plants and businesses in Maryland with pollution discharge permits in fiscal 2008, down from nearly 90 percent the year before; plants with dozens of repeat violations, have gone uninspected for a decade or more.

* The MDE took 23 percent fewer enforcement actions in fiscal 2008 than the year before against violators of their permits; of more than 200 facilities reporting 30 or more permit violations in the past five years, the MDE took formal action against only 27.

* Of more than 2,400 facilities that reported violations on themselves to regulators, the MDE did not penalize a single one.

With about 1,000 employees and an operating budget exceeding $100 million, the MDE enforces dozens of state and federal laws governing air and water pollution, disposal of hazardous wastes and even climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The agency has been given authority by the EPA to administer the federal Clean Water Act in Maryland, which requires any industry, sewage plant or other facility discharging wastes into surface waters to get a permit and comply with state requirements to control its pollution.

Stoltzfus acknowledged that inspections are "low" and have declined even further - to just 10 percent in the past year. But she asserted that enforcement has actually strengthened over the same period, with a 34 percent increase in actions against polluters and a record-high amount of fines levied.

She also released a letter to the Waterkeepers from Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson, in which she said the agency has been struggling with budget shortfalls, as funds have failed to keep up with the department's expanding workload. Staff were diverted to draft new regulations of the state's chicken and livestock farms, the secretary added, but the agency is now refocusing on wastewater permits.

Even so, Wilson acknowledged, there are 16 major industrial plants and 12 major sewage plants operating on permits that have expired and not been updated - a condition she called "undesirable and needs to be addressed."

"Lack of money and staffing is a significant problem, but it's not the only problem," said Eliza Smith Steinmeier, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. She contended that MDE is not requiring adequate pollution controls in many of the permits it issues, jeopardizing stream quality. The group's petition contends that the agency also has issued permits to some industrial facilities without even reviewing their plans for keeping pollution from washing off their parking lots and roofs.

The state's riverkeepers and harbor keeper are part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of waterway watchdogs formed and led by environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. They have sparred before with the MDE over the adequacy of individual permits and state regulations, challenging proposed rules governing chicken farms and storm-water pollution. But Steinmeier said the problems with the agency's oversight of water pollution permits are "pervasive. ... In many ways, the system's not working."

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