Gov. Wes Moore said Thursday he is committed to filling vacancies as quickly as possible at the Maryland Department of the Environment, the state’s troubled regulator of drinking water and wastewater treatment, which has been plagued by staff shortages and extensive backlogs of expired pollution control permits.

For years, environmentalists and advocates have called for rebuilding the state’s primary environmental enforcement agency, whose staff numbers plummeted and performance deteriorated under the administration of former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who served for eight years.

In his budget proposal for fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, Moore, a Democrat, has included 43 new positions at MDE and $3.7 million in funding for the agency to clear a backlog of expired pollution discharge permits and to help rein in industrial pollution harming Maryland’s waters. Another 24 positions are for workers focused on the regulation of drinking water.

“Governor Moore has made it clear that improving Maryland’s environment is a major priority,” Moore’s spokesman said in a statement. “Gov. Moore’s proposed budget sets clear goals on reducing vacancies in the state government.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The go-ahead for new staff at MDE follows months of contentious wrangling between the MDE leadership under the Hogan administration and state legislators, who said the agency was dragging its feet on hiring and permitting and inspections reforms, which are required by legislation.

The 43 positions related to regulatory and enforcement reforms address requirements in the legislation. The 24 additional positions included in the budget are for the agency’s Water Supply Program, along with $1.7 million in funding to ensure enforcement of drinking water standards. The move is intended to shore up inspection of water treatment plants and distribution systems, and reviewing water appropriation permits, according to budget documents.

Parts of Baltimore, primarily the city’s underserved west side, fell under a boil-water advisory in September following the detection of E. coli in the city’s drinking water system.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Prior to the outbreak, state environmental officials had been forced to take over operations at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant after “catastrophic failures” resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond its permitted limits. Similar problems had plagued the city’s wastewater treatment facility, Patapsco, which — with Back River — is the subject of litigation filed by Blue Water Baltimore, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

In June, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that Back River and Patapsco contributed significantly more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the bay that could jeopardize the efforts to reduce sediments and nutrient levels to meet goals for 2025.

“Gov. Moore heard the message while he was campaigning,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland League of Conservation Voters. “Throughout Maryland, people have talked about poor service from the agencies, not being able to get responses, and the lack of enforcement. He has recognized that this has got to be a top priority to get state agencies up and running.”

She said the Hogan administration chose to not allow the agency staff to take clear positions or testify on bills, and in some cases not to even respond to requests for information, which constrained the policymaking process.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Evan Isaacson, senior attorney and director of research for the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said the positions for the agency’s Water Supply Program are in response to the dire findings in an EPA report released last May that concluded the state was failing in its drinking water regulation.

The Chesapeake Accountability Project, a coalition of four environmental groups, reported last March that “MDE took 67% 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% 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, were found to be the lowest in almost two decades, while the number of violations kept climbing.

The state legislature responded by passing the legislation to improve MDE’s performance by requiring the department to submit its staffing plan and budget to the General Assembly by Oct. 1. The legislation, which became law in July, also provided penalties ranging from $250 to $10,000 for violations, among other enforcement actions.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

MDE ultimately submitted a staffing report to the state legislators in October that said that the agency needed 86 new positions to shore up its enforcement and regulatory performance. State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democratic lawmaker from Prince George’s County, who was one of the main supporters of the July legislation, dismissed the request as inflated, saying MDE routinely asked for more positions than it actually needed so that its requests effectively became too expensive to approve.

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.

More From The Banner