Petition hinders Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts

December 10, 2009

Since 2007, the Department of the Environment has made enforcing environmental laws one of our top three priorities - along with increasing transparency and improving our fiscal structure. Progress includes enacting standard operating procedures to correct enforcement delays, increasing enforcement activity 34 percent in fiscal year 2008 and securing two of the highest penalties ever collected for state environmental violations. We did this without additional inspectors or resources.

Over the past three years, due to the national economic recession and necessary state budget reductions, MDE reduced its budget by $27 million - equivalent to about a third of our annual operating budget. It's an unfortunate fact that MDE, like similar state agencies across the country, faces a shortage of resources. Our own 2007 fiscal study detailed the agency's growing monetary and personnel-related deficit.

Faced with this challenge, MDE restructured and prioritized programs that most greatly affect public health and the environment. We added new requirements and fees for coal combustion byproducts disposal, wetlands and air pollution.

The petition by University of Maryland law students for the Environmental Protection Agency to retract state authority over Clean Water Act permits ("Environmental groups call Md. water regulators lax, will ask U.S. to step in," Dec. 7) is surprising, given the fiscal issues and the caliber of this program. This same program just enacted the first-ever state controls on poultry litter and proposed one of the most progressive municipal storm water permits in the country - with no additional funding or staff.

Ironically, the petition itself will divert precious resources from the same program the petitioners seek to improve. While we appreciate the students' intent to draw attention to our resource shortage, this petition - based on a review of just one program - does not provide a complete picture of MDE's efforts to oversee more than 110,000 regulated entities.

MDE will carefully review the petition to make sure we have not overlooked any responsibilities. In the meantime, Marylanders should know that, during difficult economic times, the state is prioritizing our work to protect clean water, even as we ramp up our efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and work on the bay's EPA-mandated "pollution diet."Shari T. Wilson, Annapolis

The writer is secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

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