Water pollution inspections, enforcement see ‘dramatic’ decline in Maryland, report finds

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Over the past two decades, the number of water pollution inspections in Maryland has trended downward, according to a new report, as has the number of corrective actions taken against facilities that broke the rules — by, for instance, dumping excess contaminants into state waterways.

Environmental groups like the Center for Progressive Reform have been watching the story unfold for years, said policy analyst Katlyn Schmitt. But during the last several years, the groups noticed even more “dramatic” declines under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration.

So, with a 2025 Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline looming, the groups — part of a coalition called the Chesapeake Accountability Project — decided to put the numbers down on paper, comparing the Hogan administration to previous ones.

When it came to taking enforcement action against water polluters, the Maryland Department of the Environment under Hogan was more light-handed than any other dating back to 2001.

Between fiscal year 2016 and 2021, the department took 67% fewer such actions than it did between fiscal year 2010 and 2015, under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley. Enforcement actions can include issuing a stop-work order, requiring corrective actions, issuing a fine or referring violations to the attorney general’s office for potential legal action.

Between O’Malley and Hogan, the total value of water pollution-related fines collected by the department dipped from an average of $1.7 million a year to about $950,000 a year, according to the Chesapeake Accountability Project’s report. Dating back to 2001, the state collected an average of about $1.1 million per year from such fines, when adjusted for inflation.

“There are different priorities that different administrations take when using enforcement to curb pollution,” said Courtney Bernhardt, director of research at the Environmental Integrity Project, which is part of the accountability project. “In the past, like decade or so, some Republican campaigns have run on kind of an anti-environmental platform.

“We don’t see that clearly from Hogan, but we did see that in national politics with a lot of President Trump’s messaging about deregulation and making life easier on businesses to get up and running.”

In response to the report, Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson said in a statement that the agency “has not been afforded the courtesy of a pre-review,” so it could not provide a specific response to the data.

“Any objective reporting of MDE’s enforcement record would also highlight some of the significant and impactful actions over the last several years to stop water and waste pollution,” Apperson’s statement read.

That includes the state’s decision in 2019 to file suit against a shuttered Allegany County paper mill over pollution concerns and its move in 2016 to have a court review Virginia’s plans to allow coal ash ponds to drain into a creek near the Potomac River, Apperson said. In 2020, the state also sued the Environmental Protection Agency over Pennsylvania’s lackluster progress toward Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.

Still, the accountability project’s report says, the number of water pollution inspections under Hogan have declined to their lowest levels since 2001. From 2001 to 2003, at the end of Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening’s administration, an average of nearly 8,000 water pollution inspections took place each year. The numbers peaked early during the O’Malley administration, in fiscal year 2007, and then began to decline. O’Malley’s administration averaged about 5,000 inspections a year. Hogan’s has averaged just under 3,000.

The report also tracked declines in staffing and funding at the Department of the Environment over time. Between fiscal year 2002 and 2022, the department lost one out of every seven positions and its budget shrunk by about a third, adjusting for inflation.

At the same time, increasing development in Maryland has placed growing pressure on the department, said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which also is a member of the accountability project. It means there are more permits to handle — and more pollutants.

“I don’t think the response in the funding and the hiring of those positions for enforcement and compliance have kept pace,” he said.

Under the Hogan administration, MDE’s Water and Science Administration also found fewer significant water pollution violations, the report found.

From 2001 to 2021, for instance, regulators flagged an average of 135 significant violations each year. During O’Malley’s administration, as many as 330 such violations were found in a year. Under Hogan, MDE has averaged about 66 a year, including as few as 38 in 2021.

In Maryland, the environmental groups said, there’s little evidence that there are fewer water pollution violations occurring. For one thing, the bay continues to receive middling health scores on annual report cards published by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Last year’s grade was a C.

The accountability project pulled the data from the MDE’s public annual reports, Schmitt said, focusing on six key programs within the Water and Science Administration. Those annual reports, typically more than 100 pages long, include information on all of the department’s programs, from lead poisoning prevention to dam safety.

“We thought through: How could we make this information public and in a way that was digestible for folks?” said Schmitt, the report’s lead author.

The impacts of the declines in staffing, inspections and enforcement have played out in real time, environmental groups say.

When the accountability project conducted its review, more than 150 Clean Water Act permits — which are supposed to be issued anew to facilities that discharge pollution every five years — were expired or had been allowed to continue without reevaluation.

On several recent occasions, too, local nonprofit groups have caught pollution issues before state inspectors. In May, Blue Water Baltimore flagged high bacteria levels near the Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant in Baltimore, prompting inspections that revealed millions of gallons of partially treated sewage were flowing into the Patapsco River. The Maryland Department of the Environment has since sued the City of Baltimore over the violations.

“The lack of Water & Science Administration enforcement and inspection activity creates a void that nonprofits have incredibly been forced to step into to hold violators accountable,” the report read.

The department’s actions have come under scrutiny during this year’s General Assembly session.

During a January hearing in the Maryland Senate that yielded intense questioning from legislators, Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles pledged to increase staffing in his department’s drinking water office, and bolster the number of inspections conducted at poultry farms. It came after two studies documented problems in those areas.

On Wednesday, the Chesapeake Accountability Project urged legislators to set aside additional funding for staffing at the department, and pass a bill that would limit MDE’s ability to administratively continue permits.