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October 21, 2011

Study finds MD lags in polluter penalties, permit fees

Maryland is often accused by business groups of going overboard on environmental regulation.

But according to a new study, the state actually lags behind its neighbors and the federal government in a couple key categories - the size of the fines it can levy for pollution violations, and the fees it charges businesses and local governments for seeing that they don't foul the Chesapeake Bay or local waterways.

The Center for Progressive Reform, a pro-regulation think tank based in Washington, argues in a report released today (10/21) that Maryland lawmakers have handcuffed the state's environmental regulators by not authorizing them to impose stiffer penalties on polluters.

The group also contends the state could do a better job protecting the state's waters - and paradoxically, reduce regulatory delays - by charging higher fees for permits to discharge wastes and storm runoff into streams and rivers.

The report was to be presented at a daylong forum at the University of Maryland Law School on how to hold Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states accountable for their obligations to restore the degraded estuary.

Rena Steinzor, a UM law professor and the center's president, argues that with state and federal budgets squeezed, it's unrealistic to expect much more money can be directed at the cleanup effort in the near term.

"There aren't federal mega-bucks coming for the Bay," she said in an interview. But she added that "we can't sit by twiddling our thumbs" and let the restoration effort stall. "In times like these," she concluded, "the most effective approach is to use deterrence via enforcement."

The center has contended before that the Maryland Department of the Environment has fallen behind in its ability to safeguard the state's waters. The latest report points to the state's chronic failure to levy stiffer penalties against polluters. The maximum state fine is $5,000 per day.

The Environmental Protection Agency, by contrast, can levy penalties of up to $37,500 per day, and the federal agency is legally required to assess penalties with an eye to recouping whatever economic benefit a polluter may have gained by skirting the law.

On fees, the center contends, the state isn't collecting enough to pay for reviewing and overseeing all the permits it is asked to issue. In 2010, MDE collected $2.1 million in fees, it says, and spent $7.2 million to support the department's Water Management Administration.

Neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia both charge fees to municipalities for overseeing their discharges of wastewater and storm water, the report notes. But Maryland lawmakers have forbidden the department from charging local governments fees.

If MDE raised its fees, it could afford to hire more inspectors and permit reviewers, Steinzor said, which should actually cut down on the amount of time it takes for the state to process a permit application.

State Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers was to speak at the forum. His spokesman, Jay Apperson, said state officials haven't seen the center's report yet, but don't agree with all its conclusions.

 "We have a wide range of administrative, civil and criminal penalty authority, and right now we are satisfied that our penalty authority is adequate," Apperson said in an email. As for fees, Apperson said state officials are reviewing the fees they charge for permits but haven't decided whether to seek increases in any.

For more information, go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 5:31 AM | | Comments (2)
        

Comments

In a state that has many more protective laws on the books than neighboring West Virginia, I am shocked the fine scale is so low. West Virginia may have weak environmental laws, but when laws are broken the fines are $25,000 a day. A current law suite against a WWTP in Berkeley County could have fines as high as 400M. To give an example of Permit delay in MD, the Westernport WWTP has been running on an expired permit for 5 years (6yrs next April). It is the largest polluter in western MD and receives the majority of its waste from New Page, a pulp and paper producing industry. MD's environmental protection is great in theory, but deficient in execution.

They have a point, MDE is understaffed. It costs businesses a great deal of money waiting for projects to be reviewed. An increase in fees that are already very low, would be more than offset by shorter review times. Every day it takes to review plans can cost a developer thousands and thousands of dollars. I don't believe the fees have an escalation for inflation, so they have been fixed since they were last set, which was how many decades ago?

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for Baltimoresun.com. She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.
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