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Maryland's Oversight of Local Runoff Pollution Control Efforts Falls Short

StormwaterCITY OF PALO ALTO CAThere are lots of things we can do to clean up the Bay, but the most basic step is to simply enforce environmental regulations already on the books.

The sad fact that this sometimes does not happen in Maryland with regard to urban and suburban runoff pollution -- the only major source of pollution that is increasing in the Chesapeake Bay -- was revealed today's edition of The Baltimore Sun.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has not reviewed any local government’s enforcement of runoff pollution control laws since 2006, despite the fact that the department by law is required to conduct the reviews every three years, the newspaper reported.

MDE has not checked on Carroll County’s efforts to control polluted runoff from new development in 22 years –- since 1992, according to The Sun. Baltimore County’s stormwater enforcement program hasn’t been reviewed by the state since 1994, and Baltimore City’s since 1995. (MDE's response to this report is at the bottom of this article.)

"We can pass whatever [rules] we want and have them written on paper," Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told The Sun. "But if counties aren't following them, we have negative impacts."

In Baltimore County, Richard Klein, president of an environmental consulting firm called Community and Environmental Defense Services, conducted a review of county records that found the county has granted more than 360 waivers exempting developers from stormwater control standards required by a 2007 state law, The Baltimore Sun reports.

This suggests MDE should be looking at Baltimore County more frequently and more closely, and other counties as well.

To be fair, MDE is badly understaffed and underfunded in many areas. So it often does not have adequate personnel to fulfill all of the numerous requirements of state and federal environmental laws and regulations.

Jay Sakai, Water Management Director for MDE, addressed this issue in The Sun article when he said his agency should scrutinize local enforcement more frequently, but noted, "Our resources are quite small."

Governor Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly should make sure MDE has the funding it needs to perform the enforcement tasks that Maryland’s laws and regulations require.

But sometimes money is not the only problem for state agencies, and priorities and practices need to change to tackle urgent problems with limited resources.

Polluted urban and suburban runoff is an urgent problem for not only the Chesapeake Bay, but also for all of our local streams and waterways -– including Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor, which is often marred by floating trash that is a blight on the city’s reputation and economy.

The recent Sun article shone light on a very specific way Maryland can and should do better to improve important local waterways like this.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo of runoff at top from EPA)


Note: In response to The Sun article, Dr. Robert Summers, Maryland Secretary of the Environment, wrote the following letter:

 Under the leadership of the O’Malley-Brown Administration, Maryland has made great strides toward improving the quality of Maryland’s natural environment. The State of Maryland has and will continue to lead the region in working to reduce polluted stormwater runoff. Recognizing that this runoff is responsible for a significant percentage of the pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, Maryland is aggressively addressing this issue along many fronts, including passage of the landmark Stormwater Management Act of 2007, issuance of new municipal stormwater permits that take bold steps toward cleaning up runoff pollution and tighter limits on sprawl development.

For those reasons, a recent Sun article (“Bay Advocates say state lax in monitoring county stormwater controls,” Jan. 3) disappoints. The article focuses on the status of triennial reviews of county stormwater control programs -– but those formal reviews are just one of several ways in which the Maryland Department of the Environment interacts with local jurisdictions and monitors progress on this important issue.  When the picture is considered in its whole, it is clear that Maryland is fully engaged in local efforts to reduce this pollution source.

The federal Clean Water Act-mandated “MS4” stormwater permits issued to municipalities and counties and the Watershed Implementation Plan required under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL (pollution loading limits) allow MDE to provide close oversight  of local stormwater  programs by requiring local jurisdictions to submit annual reports describing the size and scope of their stormwater program, funding and staffing, pollution prevention efforts,  monitoring and documentation of progress toward meeting water quality goals.  MDE works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce compliance with all permit provisions. As part of this State-federal coordinated effort, EPA has audited all of the MS4 jurisdictions within the last two years and has even issued financial penalties where it has found program deficiencies. As MDE moves forward with the next generation of permits for Baltimore City, Prince George’s and Baltimore Counties, regulatory oversight over the counties is being further strengthened with clearer, more stringent permit language.

Since the passage of the Stormwater Management Act of 2007, which established Maryland as a national leader in sustainable development by requiring the use of low- impact approaches for all new development, MDE has worked closely with local counties and municipal government governments to implement this new law.  Although the Sun article suggests that MDE’s oversight of local jurisdictions has been lax with respect to the new law, in fact the Department has made implementation of the Act a high priority. MDE worked with local governments to develop new regulations to implement the Act, provided model ordinances to ensure consistent implementation across jurisdictions,  updated our stormwater design manual with detailed standards and specifications for low-impact development practices and provided technical guidance for local government and private-sector  engineers and developers. We have devoted extensive resources to providing technical support to local governments that are charged with ensuring that all private development meets the new standards.  This past fall, we held a series of very well-attended forums  with local county stormwater officials from across the state to assess their experiences in implementing Maryland’s new stormwater requirements and provide guidance to improve the programs.

To be sure, continued and consistent oversight of county stormwater programs is a critical element in our on-going efforts to restore our watersheds. However, triennial reviews are only one tool in the toolbox, and focusing on this single area misses the broader point:  We need to shift the discussion away from misguided notions that stormwater utility fees are a tax on the rain, and that the State’s only role is that of an enforcer. We are seeing, as a result of this administration’s unrelenting focus on building a Smarter, Greener, Growing Maryland, tremendous progress on the environmental front that is coming by way of innovation, new partnerships and a new green economy. Each of us has a role to play in our efforts to protect and clean our water. Maryland continues to be committed to continuing to work as hard as possible to protect this valuable resource.

Robert M. Summers, Ph. D.


Maryland Department of the Environment


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I agree with keeping trash and toxins out of the Bay. This article, however, doesn't explain the legal requirements it advocates. It merely advocates more and more funding for enforcement. This is an obvious shortcoming.

I just heard Tom Pelton's Environment in Focus on NPR Wednesday April 27. He interviewed a farmer on one of the islands in the Chesapeake. The farmer complained about erosion, but claimed he did not notice any measureable rise in average water level. Yet Mr. Pelton blamed the erosion on rising water levels.

How and when were these islands in the Chesapeake formed? Williamsport, PA on the west branch of the Susquehanna River was the center of the logging industry in Pennsylvania in the 1800's and early 1900's. Their museum shows photos of clear-cut mountains and valleys. Without the trees to stabilize the soil, the rains washed the topsoil into the streams, creeks and river; so much so that the river became unnavigable due to the thick mud making its way to the Chesapeake Bay. When the mud flows reached the bay, the silt settled out, forming the islands we see today. The erosion of these islands is just the process of returning to the way it was before mankind settled the Chesapeake drainage area.

Dams on the Susquehanna have allowed the silt to settle out, resulting in clearer water reaching the Chesapeake. However, once each year, Pennsylvania is allowed to open their dams to wash out the accumulated silt. This silt all at once ends up burying the shellfish on the floor of the Chesapeake, but is insufficient to replenish the islands.

Yes the erosion problem of the islands is due to mankind, but only in that mankind was responsible for the creation of these islands to begin with.

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