Two lawmakers demand answers from state environmental regulators. The Hogan administration says they’ll have to wait

Sen. Paul Pinsky and Del. Sara Love are incensed the MDE has done nothing to staff up under a new state law. An MDE spokesman says the agency is “committed to protecting and restoring our environment.”

Published on: August 29, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 29, 2022 1:29 PM EDT

Wastewater at Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant near Baltimore.

Two Maryland legislators say they are angry and frustrated by the failure of the state’s Department of the Environment to comply with new legislation requiring the agency to hold polluters accountable by increasing staff, strengthening enforcement and improving oversight.

The Democratic lawmakers, state Sen. Paul Pinsky of Prince George’s County and state Del. Sara Love of Montgomery County said the bill, which became a law on July 1, also required MDE to clear its chronic backlog of expired wastewater treatment permits, increase inspections of wastewater facilities flagged for violations and penalize polluters.

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

Pinsky and Love held a conference call with MDE Secretary Horacio Tablada and other top officials in late July. “I was disappointed in the lack of progress,” Love said. “There were a lot of nice words said. But it didn’t appear that much had actually been done.”

In a follow up to the July call, Pinsky and Love sent a letter to Tablada on Aug. 9 with 13 questions about stormwater inspections and other key issues and asked for a response by Wednesday. But Pinsky’s office received a one-line reply, saying MDE won’t have a response until early September.

Pinsky said there was no indication from the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that the department was making any additional budgetary request for increased staffing, which he called “incomprehensible.”

“And even if they did ask for it, I have low expectations that the governor will comply,” Pinsky said. “I expect foot dragging for the next five months which will be in keeping with what we’ve seen for seven years.”

Hogan’s office declined comment on Thursday.

Jay Apperson, deputy director for MDE’s office of communication, said later on Thursday in a statement that the department is making progress on the actions required under the legislation. “Over the past year, MDE has had multiple conversations with the sponsors of the legislation regarding the bill’s specific provisions and have discussed our plan for implementation,” Apperson said. “Additional information will be shared in our response letter to the legislators.”

He said that MDE works with facilities to ensure they are in compliance with all requirements. “But we will impose financial penalties on polluters when needed,” he said. “We are committed to protecting and restoring our environment while providing businesses with clear expectations and a level playing field among the regulated entities.”

In their letter, Pinsky and Love pressed the MDE on when its last on-site inspections had come at the Back River and Patapsco Wastewater treatment plants, in light of catastrophic failures at the facilities, owned by the city of Baltimore. Both plants, the largest wastewater treatment facilities in the state, were cited earlier this year by the MDE for spilling millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Chesapeake Bay.

The legislators asked why they had not been updated on a monthly basis about steps the agency is taking to bring major polluters into compliance. They asked where on its website was the list of significant polluters posted, as required. And they wanted to know how many new staff had been added since July 1, noting that the MDE had indicated it would need “nearly 100 staff” this fiscal year to implement the law at a cost of about $9 million overall.

The letter also inquired about, among other concerns, the status of monthly inspections MDE is supposed to undertake and if the department has a plan in place to deal with “the loss of experienced inspectors and other compliance personnel” in view of retirements and departures.

Pinsky called the questions “pretty basic” and said it wasn’t clear to him why the department needed more time to answer. “This inaction will set us back even more. And we have already been set back for over seven years,” he said, referring to the length of the Hogan administration.

“I’ve come to set a low bar with my own expectations for this administration. And they’ve never let me down,” said Pinsky. Governor Hogan “became popular because he stood up to President Trump. But I have said repeatedly, that’s a pretty low bar.” He added that Hogan opposed all the environmental initiatives that he eventually took credit for. “I think he’s an opportunist,” Pinsky said,

Love said the legislation ensures water safety for all Marylanders. “It’s really terrifying, the level of contaminants and pollutants that have been found in the waterways all across the state,” she said. “And MDE was not doing its job in ensuring that Marylanders had clean water.”

Part of the reason, she said, was that the department lost a huge number of staff under the Hogan administration who have not been replaced. “They’ve made us a lot of promises and we just haven’t seen it,” she said, adding that she will be talking to Pinsky to lay out next steps to nudge MDE to fulfill its commitments under the law.

Bipartisan support for the legislation followed a string of reports highlighting severe understaffing in the Department of the Environment (MDE) under Hogan. “MDE took 67 percent fewer water quality enforcement actions during the Hogan administration compared to the previous six years,” the Chesapeake Accountability Project, a coalition of four environmental groups, reported in March. 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 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 acute staff shortages and lax enforcement, Love said, have imperiled the state’s waterways, which feed the public drinking water systems.

Quoting from a 2021 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, Love noted in a June interview that “there was a direct corollary between pollution flowing into our waterways and MDE not enforcing its permits, and people across the state saw that firsthand.”

Betsy Nicholas, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said that the agency is not making an effort to fill the capacity gaps the legislation is designed to address, and that the inaction is putting Maryland communities in harm’s way. “The state is now moving backwards on meeting the goals of the Chesapeake Cleanup Plan due to the rampant violations that are exceeding health safety limits by more than 1,000 times,’’ she said.

MDE’s job is to protect the residents of Maryland, Nicholas said, but for far too long the agency’s focus has been to provide ease and service to regulated industries. “While technical support and compliance assistance are certainly important, it is also essential for this agency to stand up for Marylanders and hold polluters accountable,” she added.

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.