Report: Maryland's water pollution enforcement is lagging

April 07, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Baltimore Sun reporter

Maryland is failing to ride herd on water pollution in the state because of serious funding shortfalls and its own flawed enforcement practices, according to a Washington-based think tank.

The Center for Progressive Reform contends in a new report that while Maryland has some of the nation's toughest environmental laws, its enforcement of water pollution is lagging.

"They could do better," Robert L. Glicksman, the report's co-author and environmental law professor at George Washington University, said of state environmental officials. "If you don't have a credible enforcement regime to back up the regulations, then the mere presence of stringent regulations on the books is not going to have the kind of impact that you would want to achieve."

The report, commissioned by the Abell Foundation, echoes complaints made last year by some activists that the state Department of the Environment is failing to do enough to deter water polluters. The Waterkeeper Alliance and its member river and harbor watchdogs petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December to revoke the state's authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

The department's water pollution oversight is "drastically underfunded," the center's report says. Funds to monitor facilities discharging into streams and rivers have declined by nearly 25 percent since 2000, as have the ranks of inspectors. Yet the number of businesses, sewage plants, farms and construction sites to be monitored has doubled. Each inspector now is responsible for checking up on nearly 1,200 permits, the report says, triple the workload in 2000.

Funding shortages also have slowed enforcement action when violators are found, the center contends. Nearly 40 percent of the cases that MDE referred to the state attorney general last year for legal action were still awaiting any action at the time the report was being written.

Though more funding would help, the report says, the department could do more with what it has. The agency relies too much on reviewing paperwork and not enough on physical inspectionsof regulated facilities, the center says, while its fines are far below the maximum allowed under federal law. Glicksman said polluters may not be deterred if fines are too low, figuring the cost of getting caught is worth the risk.

State environment officials also hamper overall enforcement by blocking citizen groups from taking legal action against alleged polluters, the report says. Activists complain that the department frequently steps in to take enforcement action after they have threatened to sue, duplicating their efforts.

Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson acknowledged in a written response that her agency is short of staff and funds, and that enforcement actions are backed up. But she contended that more actions are being taken, noting a combined 44 percent increase on all types of pollution since 2007. MDE spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus said the drop in water-pollution inspections resulted in part from focusing more staff time on problem facilities.

Wilson denied that state officials block all citizen suits, saying outside enforcement is weighed on a case-by-case basis, and her spokeswoman said they have no reason to think their penalties are too low to be effective. Just last week, since the center's report was shared with department officials, MDE filed suit against Atlanta-based Mirant Corp. alleging its coal-ash landfill in Prince George's County is polluting a local waterway. The state's suit came after environmental groups had threatened to go to court, but the department filed its case in federal court, where the citizen groups may join with the state in the legal action.

Meanwhile, the backlog of 325 cases awaiting legal action earlier this year has been whittled down to 130, said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. She said the backlog actually is a byproduct of more aggressive action against alleged polluters – the number of cases referred for civil or criminal action in 2009 eclipsed the combined total of the previous two years.

An EPA spokesman, meanwhile, acknowledged that federal regulators met two weeks ago with the Waterkeepers to discuss their complaints about the state's enforcement.

"We take the allegations very seriously and we're looking into them," said EPA spokesman David Sternberg.

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