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Report cites declining pollution enforcement at MDE

Maryland’s Department of the Environment has been falling down on the job when it comes to holding polluters accountable for their violations of rules meant to protect our waterways, according to a new report by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups.

The report, released Wednesday by the Chesapeake Accountability Project, is based on data from the Department of the Environment and shows a dramatic decline since Gov. Larry Hogan took office in the number of inspections and enforcement actions..

It also shows a declining number of inspections of industrial facilities, construction sites, sewage treatment plants and other sources of water pollution.

Katlyn Schmidt, of the Center for Progressive Reform, says the numbers have been falling for some time.

“We've seen a downward decline and a number of different indicators that point to MDE’S enforcement levels,” she said. “And we've seen that decline sort of happen steadily over a 20-year period and then more dramatically in the last six years under Governor Hogan.

The report also shows MDE’s inspection arm took 67% fewer enforcement actions over the last six years than it did over the previous six years, identified a record low number of significant violations and recorded more than two-thirds fewer instances of helping polluters come into compliance.

Eliza Steinmeier, of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, called that a dangerous trend.

“At a time when our environment is more important than ever, these trends indicate really the de-prioritization of enforcement of the very laws that are designed to protect Maryland's waterways and in our communities,” she said.

Courtney Bernhardt, of the Environmental Integrity Project, said water pollution enforcement needs to be strengthened as the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed struggle to reach their clean-up goals.

She said the bay isn’t getting better, “and it's facing pressure from increased urban development and additional pollution sources with climate change impacts looming on the horizon.”

The report found that facilities such as sewage treatment plants have been allowed to continue operating without renewing expired permits or had them automatically renewed. It found 153 so-called “zombie” permits. More than half of them had expired and been allowed to continue for several years.

Doug Myers, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it is important to update those permits on a regular basis because changing environmental conditions—continued development, intense heat and storms—requires changes in what a facility is allowed to discharge.

“So, a zombie permit that is administratively continued for a year, two years, five years. 10 years is a great concern because we think that is degrading water quality,” he explained. “And we have some pretty good evidence that water quality degradation is occurring as a result of discharges not being adjusted.”

Schmidt, of the Center for Progressive Reform, said part of the problem is a lack of resources.

“MDE’s budget continues to shrink over the years,” she said. “It makes up less than 1/5 of 1% of the state's overall budget. And we think that plays a large factor in the overall enforcement levels at MDE.”

The report found that between 2002 and 2022, MDE lost one out of every seven staff members.

The Chesapeake Legal Alliance’s Steinmeier said department staffers talk regularly to her about their problems.

“And part of what they're telling us is there's very competitive positions at counties and at the federal level, and the state positions are not as competitive in terms of compensation packages,” she said.

MDE issued a statement saying it has not had a chance to read the report and comment, but insisting the department has never wavered in its commitment to compliance and enforcement.

The statement called attention to recent actions against the Verso Paper Mill and the Morgantown coal-fired power plant in Western Maryland, as well as Baltimore’s sewage treatment plants.

It said the department would “continue to take aggressive enforcement actions and seek stiff penalties when warranted.”

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