Md. enforcement on water pollution failing, report says

April 08, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler

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 regulations is lagging.

"They could do better," Robert L. Glicks- man, 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 Maryland Department of the Environment is failing to do enough to deter water polluters. The Waterkeeper Alliance petitioned the 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 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 the Maryland Department of the Environment referred to the state attorney general last year for legal action were still awaiting action as 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 inspections, the center says, while its fines are far below the maximum allowed under federal law. .

State environment officials also hamper enforcement by blocking citizens groups from taking legal action against alleged polluters, the report says.

The state's 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 by the department, noting a combined 44 percent increase in all types of anti-pollution enforcement 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 lawsuits, saying that outside enforcement is weighed on a case-by-case basis, and her spokeswoman said the department has no reason to think its penalties are too low.Meanwhile, the backlog of 325 cases awaiting legal action earlier this year has been whittled down to 130, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. She said the backlog is a byproduct of more aggressive state action against polluters.

An EPA spokesman 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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