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AG Supports Bill Giving Department of the Environment More Enforcement Authority over Water Violators

AG Supports Bill Giving Department of the Environment More Enforcement Authority over Water Violators

AG Supports Bill to Give Department of the Environment More Enforcement Authority Over Water Violators
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), introduced a bill that would allow the Maryland Department of the Environment, to impose greater penalties on those who break state water laws. Getty Images photo by Win McNamee

After raising concerns about the Maryland Department of the Environment’s ability to ensure safe drinking waters and enforce water pollution permits, Attorney general Brian E. Frosh (D), is asking for legislation that would allow the department impose greater penalties on those who break state water laws.

This is after Frosh wrote a Let me knowTo Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (Republican) in December about a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that highlighted a serious gap between the available staffing and what is required to run MDEs water supply programs. Lawmakers interviewed Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles last month about a series of environmental oversight issues, including the recent sewage spillage in Southern Maryland and the absence of inspections at poultry farms.

Grumbles said he would increase the staff in the department. Frosh was contacted by Grumbles who stated that the EPA report didn’t tell the whole story as the department experienced more staff turnover and retirements since the COVID-19 epidemic.

We now have a severely depleted agency. Many jobs have been lost, and staff levels, especially in inspections, are at dangerously low level, Frosh informed the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Wednesday. These failures leave us questioning whether drinking water quality or the amount of effluent coming from polluters.

Frosh’s bill does not attempt to address the critical shortage of staff at MDE. Frosh stated that the bill would not fix the MDE’s critical understaffing issues. Instead, it would give the department all the tools necessary to hold polluters and other water-violators accountable.

Frosh stated that if the agency has to replenish the staff resources necessary to inspect permits or enforce the law, they should have the tools necessary to do so.

Senate Bill 221MDE would be able to seek additional administrative and civil penalties against private corporations, individuals, and municipalities that violate safe drinking waters regulations, wastewater facility polluting permits, tidal restrictions, and dam safety regulations. It would also require all operators of wastewater and drinking water facilities to report to the state every year.

Frosh explained that administrative penalties are generally less severe than civil penalties and provide faster relief than those which are adjudged in court.

MDE was last year NotedA total of 15,827 enforcement activities were taken, with almost 15,000 of these actions being the result of the lead poisoning prevention programme. The enforcement of the lead poisoning prevention program saw a significant increase last year, compared to the 6,581 enforcement actions MDE took for 2020.

Although the bill does nothing to directly address the issues of MDE staffing, it indirectly creates positive cycles as the money collected through penalties would go into a fund that support staffing and personnel at MDE. Robin Clark Eilenberg from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation told the committee.

Andrea BuieBranam, a water environmental compliance specialist at MDE, stated in an interview that she spends most her time training new staff members because so many people leave. She said that this makes it difficult for her to complete her own work, which includes visits to wastewater treatment plants and writing reports. She stated that it will be difficult to stop people leaving the company and offer a competitive wage. We are not always fully staffed.

Eilenberg stated that the vast majority enforcement actions are currently handled by administrative penalties. These are less severe than civil sanctions. Eilenberg suggested that the bill would require MDE to notify the Attorney Generals Office of any administrative enforcement actions. This would prevent MDE from relying on administrative penalties.

Eilenberg stated that MDE must also be required by the bill to take into account the economic benefit that the violator derived from not complying with it. In other words, the greater the profit, the harsher the penalty should become. She said that citizens should be able to participate in administrative hearings.

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Eilenberg stated that we need to improve the state’s enforcement capacity after the hearing. A penalty can potentially alter the future actions a business entity. However, it also serves to warn all other entities that it is one of the most powerful tools we have. [to enforce state water laws].

While business organizations supported the bill, they claimed that the penalties for violating it are too harsh. Angelica Bailey, director for government relations at Maryland Municipal League told the committee that the bill would allow employees of municipal wastewater to be held personally responsible.

We are fully aware of the need for a purposeful violator to be held responsible, but human error sometimes occurs and a large personal penalty is not fair.

Just a few hours after the hearing, the Attorney Generals office announced it had filed a ComplaintMDE in the circuit against Valley Proteins, a Dorchester County chicken rendering plant. The permit for the plant, which expired in 2006, was a “zombie permit”. It had pollution violations that included unauthorized discharges and unintentional releases of wastewater and sludge. After scrutiny by environmental groups, state inspectors and Valley Proteins, the plant was temporarily shut down in December.

Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles released a statement saying that the Valley Proteins facility’s recent compliance record showed a pattern of poor operations and poor decision making that may threaten our water quality and air quality. MDE has a duty to take fair and timely enforcement action when significant violations are detected. This is to ensure environmental accountability as well as to prevent future violations.

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