On 50th Anniversary of Clean Water Act, MD is Failing Landmark Law; Advocates Demand Improved Enforcement

Despite Promise of “Fishable, Swimmable” Waters by 1983, 80% of MD Rivers and Streams are Unsafe for Swimming  

Note: A ZOOM press conference will be held at 11 am EST on Oct. 18 at this link.  Passcode 064211.  An in-person interview and photo opportunity will be held at 2 pm at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at the Downtown Sailing Center, 1425 Key Highway.

BALTIMORE – On the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, a coalition of clean water advocates and elected officials criticized Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Administration for plummeting enforcement of the landmark environmental law and called on the next governor do more to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. 

Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Blue Water Baltimore, the Potomac Riverkeeper, the Environmental Integrity Project, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, Center for Progressive Reform, the NAACP Maryland State Conference, State Senator Paul Pinsky, Del. Sara Love, and Attorney General Brian Frosh held a press conference to demand that the Maryland Department of the Environment increase its inspections of chronic polluters, end a backlog of expired permits, and hire more staff to reverse a steep decline in enforcement. 

“The outgoing administration has jeopardized both our state’s environment and public health,” said Senator Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), Chair of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. “There has been little oversight and enforcement leading to eroded public trust. We need these practices to be reversed with a new administration.” 

The federal Clean Water Act – a landmark environmental law – was passed by Congress a half century ago today, on Oct. 18, 1972. The law set a goal of “fishable, swimmable” waters across the U.S. by 1983. But today, 50 percent of U.S. river and stream miles that have been studied are so polluted they are classified as “impaired,” meaning they cannot be safely used for swimming, fishing or other purposes, according to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project, “The Clean Water Act at 50. 

In Maryland, 80 percent of 5,315 river and stream miles examined by the state have so much fecal bacteria they are unsafe for water-contact recreation, according to state figures. And 71 percent of the 1,105 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay that have been assessed for fishing are impaired. 

“The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, yet recent data show that the cleanup plan for the Bay will not meet the upcoming deadlines,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Our local communities are demanding more from our state regulators: they should enforce our clean water laws.” 

Despite the continuing water quality problems in Maryland, the number of water enforcement actions taken by MDE has been declining over the last two decades. The number of water pollution enforcement actions in fiscal 2021 (75) was less than half the annual average of 168 going back to 2001, and inspections were also down by half. 

In March, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law, sponsored by Senator Pinsky and Del. Love, that requires the understaffed MDE to hire enough employees to conduct monthly inspections of all polluters in significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act and clear its backlog of hundreds of outdated and weak water pollution control permits.  

The law was supposed to take effect on July 1, but so far, the lawmakers and allies say they’ve seen no progress by the Hogan Administration. 

“Not only are communities burdened by pollution due to MDE’s failure to do its job, but these communities are also the same ones who bear the costs of cleanup,” said Delegate Love (D-Montgomery County).   “It’s been 50 years since the passage of the Clean Water Act. We shouldn’t have to wait until people get sick or community organizations report violations to get MDE to do its job.”  

Attorney General Brian Frosh said: “Marylanders should not have to worry whether their water is safe to drink or whether the Chesapeake Bay or the local river is so polluted that it is unsafe to swim.  Understaffing and a steady decline in inspections and enforcement actions have hindered our efforts to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act.  On this 50th Anniversary, we must recommit to improving the health and safety of our beautiful Chesapeake Bay and Maryland’s other natural treasures.”   

On October 10, EPA Administrator Michael Regan publicly acknowledged during a meeting of Bay region governors that the Bay states will likely fail to meet the 2025 cleanup goals of a 2010 restoration plan called the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL. 

The most recent assessment of the Chesapeake Bay health by EPA’s Bay Program found that only 30 percent of the Bay and its tidal tributaries met water quality standards in 2018-2020, a 3.5 percent decrease from 2017-2019. The abundance of adult female blue crabs in the Bay dropped 39 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to the Bay Program’s “Bay Barometer.” 

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science graded the estuary’s overall health as a 50 out of 100 in 2021, not much improved from the 48 out of 100 score when its assessments began almost four decades earlier, in 1986. 

Pollution spills and permit violations have been chronic problems at Maryland’s largest sewage treatment facilities, Baltimore’s Back River and Patapsco wastewater treatment plants. For a video by Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Blue Water Baltimore about the problems at the Back River plant, click here.


Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said: “Given the current dysfunction in Congress, it would be impractical to try to update the Clean Water Act on its 50th birthday to tighten the rules for farm runoff, although that would be a gift to waterways everywhere.  The important news is that the law already has powerful tools to clean up our waterways. We just need the courage to use them, especially to demand accountability for industrial meat production companies in Maryland and elsewhere that produce enormous amounts of waste.” 

David Reed, Executive Director of Chesapeake Legal Alliance, said: “The Clean Water Act is a powerful tool to protect clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. The community groups that we represent play a vital role in enforcing the law and holding polluters accountable. But we cannot do it alone. We know that we must also have a state agency with sufficient funding and staffing to fulfill its obligation under the Clean Water Act.” 

Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper, said: “Clean water enforcement under the Hogan Administration has dropped dramatically while MDE has become beholden to the polluters the agency now serves. MDE is responsible for allowing dozens of sewage overflows in the Potomac River last year that contaminated oysters and got over a dozen people sick.” 

Tony Bridges, Executive Director of Blue Water Baltimore, said: “The Clean Water Act is a groundbreaking piece of legislation that gives the power to the people: the power to protect their waterways, to stand up against polluters, and to hold their leaders accountable.  Accountability is the heart and soul of the Clean Water Act, because even a law as good as this one only works if it’s backed up by adequate enforcement.” 

Katlyn Schmidt, Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform who authored the Chesapeake Accountability Project’s 2022 Maryland Enforcement Scorecard, said: “Over the past twenty years there has been a general decline in enforcement levels at MDE. This downward trend accelerated more dramatically in the last six years under the Hogan Administration. In fiscal year 2021, the water administration took 55 percent fewer enforcement actions compared to the 20-year enforcement average. This is problematic because the number of enforcement actions taken is one of the more direct measures of how well the agency enforces our clean water laws.” 

Staci Hartwell, Climate and Justice Committee Chair of NAACP Maryland State Conference: “Maryland’s black and brown residents are getting sick and dying from toxins in their water and sadly from political indifference to their plight and blatant corporate greed. Their neighborhoods are being used as dumping and proving grounds for toxic, polluting industries. Now these communities are organizing and using the Clean Water Act to enforce the law because our state and local agencies have failed them.”  

Matt Pluta, Director of Riverkeeper Programs at ShoreRivers, said:  “While it’s wonderful that the Clean Water Act gives individual citizens and groups tools to defend local water quality, more needs to be done by the State of Maryland to ensure that fishable, swimmable waters are actually being achieved, and that polluters compromising those standards are held accountable.”  

Media contacts:

Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org; 

Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, (mobile) 202-423-0504 or Betsy@waterkeeperschesapeake.org 

Chris Landers, Blue Water Baltimore, (410) 357-1407 or clanders@bluewaterbaltimore.org 

Fritz Schneider, Potomac Riverkeeper Network (301) 728-4811 or fritz@prknetwork.org