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Decline in MD Water Pollution Enforcement and Inspectors

The Maryland Department of the Environment recently released its annual report on the agency’s efforts to enforce environmental laws in the state.

Tim Wheeler, associate editor and editor for the Bay Journal, examined the state’s water pollution enforcement numbers as part of his ongoing scrutiny of the bay cleanup.

He noticed a significant dropoff in actions by the agency under the most recent year of Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration.  “For water enforcement last year, the year that ended the end of June 2017, MDE (the Maryland Department of the Environment) took 771 enforcement actions. That’s 46 percent fewer than the year before, and the fewest number in the last decade,” Wheeler said.

But it’s not just water pollution enforcement actions that are down. According to the state report, the number of state water pollution inspectors has declined over time from 62 in the year 2000 to 47 last year.


And this is at a time when the number of sewage plants, industrial facilities, and other sites that inspectors need to examine has more than tripled, from fewer than 2000 two decades ago to about 6,800 last year.

 “When you take that long look, yes, the overall compliment at MDE has shrunk considerably,” Wheeler said. “There has been some pressure on MDE in recent years to build up its field staff.  And there was additional money provided in the last budget to hire additional inspectors.  And the outcome of that is still in question.  MDE had told the legislators they were working on it.”

Nationally, the Trump Administration tried to slash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent this year, before being stopped by Congress, which approved level funding for the agency.

Nevertheless, because of a change in political leadership of the agency, civil penalties against polluters fell by 49 percent in the first year of the Trump Administration, and the number of enforcement cases dropped by 44 percent, compared to the first year of the Obama, Bush, and Clinton Administrations, according to an analysis of federal data by the Environmental Integrity Project.

“We’re seeing the same story in a lot off states,” said Evan Isaacson, Chesapeake Bay policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform. “I mean the dropoff in Maryland has been particularly striking. Just like the dropoff in enforcement at EPA in the last year. ...But generally if you look around the country you see a similar situation everywhere, especially on the budget side of things. The agencies are getting hit pretty hard.”

In Maryland, Environmental Secretary Ben Grumbles declined to be interviewed for this program. But his agency sent a written statement that said, in part: “While penalty amounts vary from year to year, our commitment to environmental progress through compliance assurance and pollution prevention is absolute and unwavering. Results matter and key report cards show positive trends for Maryland’s environment, including the highest grade for Bay health in decades.”

It is true that the annual Chesapeake Bay health report cards issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science do show a recent upward trend. But that trend started in the year 2010, five years before Governor Hogan took office. That was when President Obama’s administration imposed a new system of pollution limits and potential penalties on the bay region states that failed to meet their cleanup targets.

That Obama-era program of increased federal oversight of the bay appears to be working. But it is at risk under the Trump Administration, which claims to prefer a state-led approach to environmental issues even though states themselves are cutting back.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.