Water Pollution Abuses 'A Reporting Error'

December 10, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler , tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

A series of water pollution violations reported at the University of Maryland's Horn Point environmental laboratory were not violations at all, but "a reporting error," the Maryland Department of the Environment said Wednesday.

The university's laboratory near Cambridge on the Eastern Shore was identified as an example of poor state enforcement of water pollution laws in a report by a coalition of environmental groups. The Waterkeepers Chesapeake of Maryland said federal data show the lab had reported 80 violations of its discharge permit requirements over the past five years, and that there was no record of a state inspection of the facility during that time. The Waterkeepers listed the lab among dozens of examples in a petition delivered to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking federal intervention to tighten enforcement in Maryland.

Donald F. Boesch, president of the UM Center for Environmental Science, said he wanted to correct the information about his lab in the Waterkeepers' petition, and in a story Monday in The Baltimore Sun about the issue. The lab does not have a wastewater treatment plant, but it does have a state permit to discharge water into the Choptank River from its shellfish and fish hatcheries, which are "filtered and returned cleaner than withdrawn," Boesch wrote in an e-mail.

MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus wrote in an e-mail that state records indicate that the lab may have filed late "some" required reports on its discharge, but there was only one minor exceedance of water-quality limits in 2001. The "vast majority" of the 80 infractions attributed to the lab in the EPA's database on water pollution violations stem from a computer glitch, the spokeswoman indicated. The lab was only required by the state to file reports on its discharge every three months, but the federal computer was programmed to expect monthly reports, so it tallied a violation every month a report was not filed.

Eliza Smith Steinmeier, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, wrote in an e-mail that the environmental groups relied on enforcement data supplied to the EPA by the state, and that Maryland officials should have corrected any errors in that data months ago, when they were first published online by The New York Times.

"We share the frustration of anyone blamed for activity reported by MDE incorrectly," Steinmeier wrote. "However, this further illustrates the problems with MDE's Clean Water Act permitting system."

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