The Chesapeake Bay Program reported on Wednesday that Maryland’s wastewater treatment facilities, operating in violation of discharge permits, contributed significant increases in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution last year in the bay.
The program is a regional partnership that includes government agencies at all levels and environmental groups. The goal of the program is to reduce nutrients and sediment levels in order to meet the Chesapeake Bay goals by 2025. The presence of phosphorus and nitrogen from human sewage, agriculture, and fossil fuel combustion can lead to algae blooms, which can often cause respiratory and eye irritation, and kill fish, marine mammals, and other wildlife.
The report, said Evan Isaacson, senior attorney and director of research at Chesapeake Bay Legal Alliance, an environmental nonprofit, “shows that Maryland’s overall progress was negative—nitrogen pollution increased by 6 percent, which amounts to a whopping 2.8 million pounds, in large part because of the wastewater sector that increased 46 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.”
The results come as Isaacson and other environmental advocates are closely monitoring implementation of new legislation July 1 aimed at reforming the state’s Department of the Environment and fixing what they consider a dysfunctional system for regulating wastewater treatment facilities.
The legislation—SB492/HB649—requires the state regulatory agency to increase staff, clear its chronic backlog of expired wastewater treatment permits, increase inspections of wastewater facilities flagged for violations and penalize polluters. The legislation proposes penalties of $250 to $10,000 for violations, depending on the amount of daily wastewater discharged and the number failed inspections.
The bipartisan support for the legislation was prompted by a string of reports about severe understaffing in the Department of the Environment under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that compromised regulators’ ability to identify, inspect and take action against polluters. Hogan’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
“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.
The nonprofit groups reported that water-related inspections fell by 39% under Hogan. 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.
Mark Shaffer, communications director for the MDE, responded that the Hogan administration continues to work closely with the bay partnership “to ensure the necessary progress toward the 2025 goals occurs.”
“Governor Hogan is a leader in bay restoration and has fully funded Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts for seven years in a row with investments exceeding $6 billion,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said one of the department’s top priorities has been upgrading and returning to “full operational compliance” two of the largest wastewater treatment plants in Maryland, Back River and Patapsco, both owned and operated by Baltimore City.
“MDE has taken regulatory action every step of the way including issuing corrective actions, suing Baltimore City and finally directing the Maryland Environmental Service to take action to ensure the Back River facility is operated in a manner that will protect public health and the environment,” he said. “MES has been onsite since April 2022 and monitoring data indicates continued reductions in pollution since that time.”
According to Sara Love (a Montgomery County Democrat), February testimony in support of new legislation shows that 42 percent of pollution control permits for municipal sewage treatment plants, factory wastewater treatment facility and other sources of polluting substances have expired. However, they were allowed to continue as the agency couldn’t process timely renewals. Some permits were issued 10 or 15 years ago. The permits were not subject to regular inspections and had not been subject to compliance actions.
“I lay the blame squarely on Gov. Hogan. It’s his administration and his responsibility to oversee the departments,” said Love, a member of the Environment and Transportation Committee. “It was all a direct result of a decline in staffing and that is Governor Hogan’s and his secretary’s responsibility, but the buck stops with the governor.”
The term-limited governor of Maryland will be retiring later this year. Benjamin Grumbles was elected as his long-serving environment secretary after serving for seven years. Hogan appointed Grumbles’ deputy, Horacio Tablada, in his place.
Environmentalists hope Tablada won’t be a temporary placeholder while a new administration takes office in the early part of next year. They fear that any momentum to implement clean water laws, which the bill envisions through the pumping of resources into the department’s budget, could be lost if this happens.
“There’s always uncertainty around the changeover, and with a new secretary towards the tail end. So, this could happen,” Love said, adding that the legislature and environmental organizations will have to keep the pressure on the administration so that the law is implemented.
Shaffer said that Tablada “strongly supports” environmental enforcement “along with Governor Larry Hogan’s customer service values and common sense approach in governance.”
The acute staff shortages and lax enforcement, Love said, have imperiled the state’s waterways, which feed the public drinking water systems. “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,” Love said, quoting a 2021 report by the Environmental Protection Agency.
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The report, “Analysis of Maryland’s Drinking Water Program Resources and Needs,” assessed the staffing and workload at MDE’s Water Supply Program (WSP) that manages public drinking water systems across the state. According to the study, MDE required 187 percent more full time employees than is currently available and 93 per cent more funding to ensure safe drinking water access.
“We estimate that there will be an additional 10,500 inspections needed to be performed yearly by MDE staff,” Tyler Abbot, MDE chief of staff, told the state lawmakers in March. Abbot stated that an additional 91 staff and 55 vehicles would be required to handle the work load. MDE estimates it would cost $9M to increase inspection staffing and to clear a growing number of expired permits that were lost years ago.
Kristen Harbeson is the political director of Maryland League of Conservation Voters. She said that changing in political administration and departmental secretary often comes with a learning curve. She said it is likely an uncomfortable place for Tablada, uncertain about whether he’s just filling in until the next administration decides whether to keep him, or bring in someone else.
The silver lining is that Tablada is a seasoned officer, Kristen said, who’s been with the agency before the Hogan administration took over in 2015. “He has worked under multiple administrations, both Republican and Democrat. So, hopefully, the transition for Secretary Tablada will not be as sharp as it would be for someone new,” she said.
“I would expect to see hiring announcements now and training of the new hires to begin in the coming weeks,” said Isaacson, the senior attorney at Chesapeake Legal Alliance, which lobbied lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in support of the new legislation.
Isaacson stated that the bill targets water pollution by requiring wastewater treatment permits to be renewed on time in order to allow for the incorporation of new pollution control technologies earlier and more frequently. Frequent inspections would discourage repeat violations. “I would expect that, starting next month,” he added, “we will be seeing a massive increase in the number of inspections being reported on the state’s online portal.”
Isaacson said that many toxic and carcinogenic substances are being released into Maryland waterways by the public, and that this can be prevented with better permits and increased investment in pollution control. “Sadly, a disproportionate burden from this pollution is being carried by the most vulnerable communities,” he added.
“For decades, environmental groups have been raising alarm bells about the large amount of outdated Clean Water Act permits in Maryland,” said Katlyn Schmitt, a senior policy analyst for Center for Progressive Reform. In the last year alone, she said there has been a number of Clean Water Act violations across the state, from wastewater treatment plants in Baltimore City, to a poultry waste treatment facility on Maryland’s Eastern Shore operating on expired 2006 permit, to an industrial waste yard operated by a company based in Columbia that had been operating without a permit for years, discharging into the Magothy River.
The new legislation mandates that the MDE submit a report by Oct. 1 to the governor, and the General Assembly, identifying the number and type of employees required to clear the backlog of expired permits and ensure timely renewals. Schmitt stated that the agency should request additional funding to cover the staff identified in the October Report by Dec 31.
Other statutory obligations include the inspection of every wastewater treatment facility found by the agency (or the EPA) to have repeatedly exceeded its pollution limits. The agency will be required to inspect each facility whose permit expired in the last year at least once per 90 days starting July 1, 2023. The law also requires that the state regulator clear all expired but operational permits no later than Dec. 31, 2026.
“We hope MDE prioritizes the implementation of this important new law and begins to fulfill the statutory requirements of the law in a few weeks,” Schmitt said.
“There seems to be a common misbelief that enforcing environmental laws is bad for business. But that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of environmental nonprofit, Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “A trillion-dollar economy in this region is built upon the health of our waterways, and just the beauty of living near the waters drives the economy of the Chesapeake region.”
When 25,000 gallons of untreated sewage leaked into St. George Creek in St. Mary’s County last fall and people got ill after eating contaminated oysters, Nicholas recalled, Grumbles, then the environment secretary, informed the state lawmakers afterwards that the agency didn’t act on the information about the incident for two weeks.
She said that the bill aims to correct such inaction by providing additional personnel who can concentrate on enforcement actions and inspections.
Source: Inside Climate News