With Increased Nutrient Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Environmentalists Hope a New Law Will Cleanup Wastewater Treatment in Maryland

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 yearly analysis helps guide the program, a regional partnership between government agencies at all levels, environmental groups and academic institutions, to reduce nutrients and sediment levels to meet goals set for the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. Nitrogen and phosphorus, from sources including agriculture, human sewage and fossil fuel combustion, can cause algae blooms that often lead to respiratory and eye irritation in humans 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. It proposes 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. 

Bipartisan support for the legislation followed a string of reports highlighting severe understaffing in the Department of the Environment (MDE) 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.   

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.

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 February testimony by state Rep. Sara Love, a Montgomery County Democrat, in support of the new legislation, 42 percent of pollution control permits for municipal sewage plants, factory wastewater treatment facilities and other sources of pollution have expired, but were allowed to continue because the agency could not process timely renewal. In some cases, the permits had expired 10 and 15 years ago, with scant inspections and compliance actions that failed to check frequent violations. 

“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 Maryland governor leaves office later this year. His long-serving environment secretary, Benjamin Grumbles, stepped down late last month after seven years. Hogan appointed Grumbles’ deputy, Horacio Tablada, in his place. 

Environmentalists said they hope Tablada is not a temporary placeholder until a new administration takes over early next year. If so, they said, any momentum to enforce clean water laws, as the bill envisions by pumping resources into the department, could be lost. 

“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. The study estimated that MDE needed 187 percent more full-time employees than currently available and 93 percent more funding to ensure that the public has access to safe drinking water. 

“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. Around 91 additional staff would be needed to handle the workload and about 55 vehicles to carry out the inspections, Abbot added. MDE has estimated it would cost $9 million to improve staffing for inspections and to clear a growing pile of expired permits, some of which lapsed years ago.   

The change in political administration and departmental secretaries often involves a learning curve, said Kristen Harbeson, political director with Maryland League of Conservation Voters. 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. 

The bill attacks water pollution by ensuring that wastewater treatment permits are renewed on time so that the latest pollution control technologies can be incorporated earlier and more often, Isaacson said. Frequent inspections and automatic penalties would further discourage repeated 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 the public does not fully understand how many toxic and carcinogenic substances are being discharged into Maryland waterways, which he said is preventable through better permits and greater investment in pollution controls. “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.    

Under the new legislation, the MDE is required by Oct. 1 to submit a report to the governor and the General Assembly identifying the number of employees the agency needs to clear the backlog of permits continuing beyond their expiration and ensure timely renewals. By Dec 31, Schmitt said, the agency should request additional funding for the staff identified in the October report. 

Other statutory obligations include inspecting each wastewater treatment facility determined by the agency, or the EPA, to have repeatedly exceeded its pollution limits. Then, from July 1, 2023, the agency would be required to inspect at least once every 90 days every facility whose permit expired over a year ago. The law also requires the state regulator to clear all expired but operational permits by 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. 

The bill aims to fix such inaction by providing additional staff, she said, who can focus on inspections and enforcement actions. 

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