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Short-staffed MDE could spell trouble for Maryland's drinking water

Maryland Department of the Environment

The enforcement and inspection crews at Maryland’s Department of the Environment are woefully understaffed, a situation that could lead to a Flint, Michigan, style water crisis here, state Attorney General Brian Frosh has warned.

Frosh told the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee Tuesday that the number of employees in the department’s enforcement sections has dropped significantly since 2015. The problem, he said, is agency wide, but particularly acute in the water supply system.

Citing a May 2021 EPA report, Frosh said Maryland once had a robust drinking water safety program that went above and beyond the minimum federal requirements.

“But now,” he added, quoting from the report, “due to declining resources, increasing demands in the need to make cutbacks MDE may not be able to meet the minimum requirements needed to maintain primary enforcement responsibilities.”

Frosh said the EPA report found that Maryland should have 126 employees dedicated to inspecting the state’s 3,300 drinking water systems but has barely a third of that number. That means those systems only get inspected, every three to five years instead of the recommended 12 to 18 months.

We all, at least five and a half million of us, depend upon clean drinking water, for our health, for our kids’ health,” he told the committee. “And we've seen what happens in cities like Flint, Michigan, when people are asleep at the wheel.

Committee chair Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat, called for the hearing after a sharply critical report by the Environmental Integrity Project released last October. It found that MDE inspections of Eastern Shore poultry operations had fallen by 40 percent since 2013. The hearing expanded to include questions about the department’s staffing.

Sen. Clarence Lam, a Howard County Democrat, called the lack of staff an embarrassment to the state.

“It's like, the department is barreling down the highway at full speed when you know that you have four flat tires,” he said.

MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles conceded that he was short staffed and blamed at least some of it on COVID and what he called a “silver tsunami.”

“The reality is that, particularly during COVID, there were a lot of early retirements,” he explained “And also the changing dynamics of the private sector weighing in to do many of the inspections means we've lost some employees.”

He said it is sometimes difficult to find and keep qualified people for these kinds of jobs in the Washington metro area, where federal agencies and environmental consulting firms pay better than the state.

But he promised to increase the work force and the number of inspections.

“I'm committed to ensuring that the number of inspections we do increases by 50% over the calendar year.”

Part of that increase could be accomplished by using remote, video inspections, he said. Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chair of the committee, called that “a little bit terrifying,” rather than reassuring.

“Right now, people in this Zoom Room can see my lovely…awards behind me,” she said “But what if all around me behind me is a hot mess. Nobody would see that. And folks will show what they want to show.”

She asked Grumbles how he would have any confidence in what people were showing his inspectors.

Grumbles said the use of videos predated the COVID pandemic and has the full support of EPA. He said an operator of a poultry facility, for example, would have a camera and be directed by the inspector from a desk.

“The regulator would be telling the operator, ‘Okay, I want you, I want you to go to this piece,” he explained. “So I want to see if you are implementing the nine controls that are called for in the CAFO permit. Or I want to see how you’re storing the manure.”

It wouldn’t be a substitute for onsite inspections, he said, but “an increasingly valuable tool.”

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.