The Maryland Department of the Environment says that it needs nearly 90 new employees to achieve targets set out in a recent law that requires the agency to reduce a backlog of expired emissions permits and hold polluters accountable by increasing inspections and penalizing violators.

The new law took effect in July and required the MDE to inform legislators by Oct. 1 about its staffing requirements to shore up its enforcement and regulatory performance. Environmentalists say both have plummeted under the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, a moderate Republican. The agency informed the governor’s office and the General Assembly of its staffing requirements.

The law stipulates increased inspections of wastewater facilities flagged for violations and penalties ranging from $250 to $10,000, among other enforcement actions, depending on the amount of daily discharge and the number of failed inspections.

In its staffing report, the agency said that it will need to conduct “close to an additional 800 inspections per month, or 9,600 inspections per year” to effectively run its compliance program. It estimates that around 675 wastewater discharge permits plus 105 groundwater discharge facilities are in significant noncompliance.

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At the time the legislation passed in March, the report said, almost 247 wastewater discharge permits managed by MDE’s Water and Science Administration (WSA) were operating beyond their expiration dates — in some cases for several years. The WSA manages the compliance program and the wastewater program, which reviews permit applications.

The MDE’s Land and Materials Administration, which consists of the Animal Feeding Operation, Oil Control Program, Solid Waste Program and Mining Program, reported that more than 500 of approximately 865 individual and general permits it manages had expired and needed to be reissued.

Of the 86 new employees that MDE’s report said it needs to meet the law’s targets, 37 are requested for the compliance program and 34 are needed to staff the wastewater program.

“It just tells us yet again how understaffed the Maryland Department of Environment is and the MDE needs to put in their budget requests so they can staff up because it’s about our water safety,” said state Del. Sara Love, the Montgomery County Democrat who was the main sponsor of the bill.

She said that the MDE has not boosted staffing as then-Secretary Ben Grumbles had promised last January, nor has it followed staffing procedures set forth in the legislation. “They’re just not doing their jobs, and having talked to some people at the MDE, I know they’re making some efforts at the top but they really need to redouble those efforts,” she said.

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Love added that the incoming administration will have to put forth a budget for expanding the agency, which the General Assembly would have to approve. But it’s important for the MDE to submit its budget request now, she said.

Hogan leaves office in January after the completion of his second term.

Not everyone is convinced that MDE needs to expand its staff so significantly.

“I don’t think we need all those positions that they have asked for,” said state Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, who has previously expressed frustration over what he called the agency’s foot dragging. He said that he did not trust the state regulator to make an accurate assessment, explaining that departments frequently inflate numbers for additional staff so that the hires become too expensive to approve.

Pinsky was also critical of the 9,600 annual inspections a year that the MDE’s report said would be needed for adequate compliance action. “This is just silly,” he said.

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Instead of citing “inflated numbers,” Pinsky said, the agency was supposed to review the actual number of expired permits and bring facilities — such as wastewater treatment plants that were discharging large quantities of pollution into the state’s rivers — into compliance.

Jay Apperson, MDE’s deputy director of communications, said the department developed its estimates carefully. “We arrived at that estimate by looking at and identifying the current number of permits that are affected by the legislation and the frequency with which facilities not in compliance must be inspected as required by the bill,” Apperson said.

He said that the department will continue to prioritize sites to be inspected based on noncompliance, as required. “Also we are using our environmental justice screening tool to prioritize compliance in communities impacted by environmental concerns or overburdened by pollution,” he said.

Apperson said that the budget-related information will be available during the 2023 General Assembly session.

The agency had earlier estimated that it would cost almost $9 million to hire around 100 new staff to implement the law.

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In an email to state legislators earlier this year, the MDE’s chief of staff, Tyler Abbott, said that to meet the timelines set out in the bill, the agency would need to perform about an additional 10,500 inspections yearly. “This equates to around 91 additional staff members to handle the workload, as well as would require about 55 vehicles for inspection transportation,” Abbott said.

Bipartisan support for the bill followed a string of reports highlighting severe understaffing in the MDE under the Hogan administration, as well as increased wastewater pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Accountability Project, a coalition of four environmental groups, reported in March that “MDE took 67 percent fewer water quality enforcement actions during the Hogan administration compared to the previous six years.” The department’s budget, the report said, had been reduced to half of what it was two decades ago.

Water-related inspections dropped by 39 percent under Hogan, the nonprofit groups reported. Similarly, the number of enforcement actions last year by MDE’s Water Management Administration, which oversees around 3,300 public drinking water systems, was found to be the lowest in almost two decades, while the number of violations kept climbing.

“We need an agency that’s focused on holding polluters accountable. And right now, because they’re not inspecting and enforcing is allowing these violations not only to go on for a long time but to continue to get worse,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, an environmental nonprofit.

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“Our water quality continues to get worse not because Marylanders haven’t invested in clean water,” she said, “but because there are a few extreme violators out there. And the MDE is not doing anything to stop them.”

Nicholas said that this disproportionately affects lower-income communities of color, whose water and sewer bills have increased dramatically because they’re paying to get toxic contamination out of their water. “And that,” she added, “is just simply unfair.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tyler Abbott's name.

Aman Azhar is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who covers environmental justice for Inside Climate News with a focus on the Baltimore-Maryland area.

This story is published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.