Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said Thursday he is committed to filling vacancies as quickly as possible at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the state’s troubled regulator of drinking water and wastewater treatment, which has been plagued by staff shortages and extensive backlogs of expired pollution control permits.
For years, environmentalists and advocates have called for rebuilding the state’s primary environmental enforcement agency, whose staff numbers plummeted and performance deteriorated under the administration of former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who served for eight years.
In his budget proposal for fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, Moore, a Democrat, has included 43 new positions at MDE and $3.7 million in funding for the agency to clear a backlog of expired pollution discharge permits and to help reign in industrial pollution harming Maryland’s waters. Another 24 positions are for workers focused on the regulation of drinking water.
“Governor Moore has made it clear that improving Maryland’s environment is a major priority,” Moore’s spokesman said in a statement. “Gov. Moore’s proposed budget sets clear goals on reducing vacancies in the state government…”
In a related development earlier this week, Maryland lawmakers joined Baltimore city and county officials in announcing state legislation that would create a task force aimed at modernizing the region’s drinking water and wastewater facilities, which currently operate under half-century-old agreements.
The go-ahead for new staff at MDE follows months of contentious wrangling between the MDE leadership under the Hogan administration and state legislators, who said the agency was dragging its feet on hiring, and permitting and inspections reforms, which are required by legislation, HB649, passed in July.
“The money is for the new positions to implement HB649,” a spokesman for MDE said.
The 43 positions related to regulatory and enforcement reforms address requirements in the legislation. The 24 additional positions included in the budget are for the agency’s Water Supply Program, along with $1.7 million in funding to ensure enforcement of drinking water standards. The move is intended to shore up inspection of water treatment plants and distribution systems, and reviewing water appropriation permits, according to budget documents.
Parts of Baltimore fell under a boil water advisory in September following the detection of E. coli contamination in the city’s drinking water system, which mostly hit underserved areas on Baltimore’s west side.
Prior to the outbreak, state environmental officials had been forced to take over operations at Baltimore’s Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant after “catastrophic failures” resulted in sewage discharges above and beyond its permitted limits. Similar problems had plagued the city’s wastewater treatment facility, Patapsco, which—with Back River—is the subject of litigation filed by a nonprofit, Blue Water Baltimore, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.
In June, the Chesapeake Bay Program reported that Back River and Patapsco contributed significantly more nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the bay that could jeopardize the efforts to reduce sediments and nutrient levels to meet goals set for the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.
“Gov. Moore heard the message while he was campaigning,” said Kim Coble, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland League of Conservation Voters (LCV). “Throughout Maryland, people have talked about poor service from the agencies, not being able to get responses, and the lack of enforcement. He has recognized that this has got to be a top priority to get state agencies up and running.”
She said that the Hogan administration chose to not allow the agency staff to take clear positions or testify on bills, and in some cases not to even respond to requests for information, which constrained the policymaking process.
“It is the first right step and we’re seeing the difference already,” Coble said. “So, I think we’re going to see improvements in our ability to pass good policies and laws immediately.”
Evan Isaacson, senior attorney and director of research for the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said that the other 24 positions for the agency’s Water Supply Program are in response to the dire findings in an EPA report released in May last year that concluded the state was failing in its drinking water regulation.
The study, which analyzed the Maryland Water Supply Program implemented by MDE, said: “Due to declining resources, increasing demands, and the need to make cutbacks in areas considered lower-priority, MDE may not be able to meet the minimum requirements needed to maintain primary enforcement responsibility (or primacy) and risks losing primacy of the federal drinking water regulations in Maryland.”
The Chesapeake Accountability Project, a coalition of four environmental groups, reported in March last year that “MDE took 67 percent fewer water quality enforcement actions during the Hogan administration compared to the previous six years.” 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 Management 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 state legislature responded by passing the legislation to improve MDE’s performance by requiring the department to submit its staffing plan and budget to the general assembly by Oct. 1. The legislation, which became the law in July, also provided penalties ranging from $250 to $10,000, for violations, among other enforcement actions.
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MDE ultimately submitted a staffing report to the state legislators in October that said that the agency needed 86 new positions to shore up its enforcement and regulatory performance. Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democratic lawmaker from Prince George’s County, who was one of the main supporters of the July legislation, dismissed the request as inflated, saying MDE routinely asked for more positions than it actually needed so that its requests effectively became too expensive to approve.
“The 67 positions in the Moore Administration’s budget is promising, but what is particularly interesting is that this is the first year that the General Assembly will have the authority, per a
new constitutional amendment, to increase the appropriation for certain items in the budget,” Isaacson said.
He added that the amendment is in line with the authority in most other states. “And given that most of those 67 new positions being created are in direct response to the law the General Assembly just passed last session, legislators will have some interest in making sure that the funding is accurate and reflects the intent of the new law to ensure the Department of the Environment has what it needs to give effect to the Clean Water Act,” he added.