MD Legislature Approves Bill Attacking “Zombie” Water Pollution Permits

Bill Requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to Clear Backlog of Outdated Permits by End of 2026

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, April 11, 2022

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

Annapolis, MD —  In a victory for reducing water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland lawmakers passed legislation requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment to update a backlog of more than 200 outdated or expired water pollution control permits, nicknamed “zombie permits.”

Many of these permits for wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities expired several years ago and incorporate old pollution control technology and weak standards, thus allowing them to continue to discharge large amounts of pollution into the state’s waterways without reviews of the permits every five years, as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

The passage of the legislation (HB 649) requires MDE to clear its backlog of outdated permits and update them by the end of 2026. The approval was applauded, on the final day of the General Assembly session, by the Mid-Atlantic Clean Agriculture Coalition, which includes the Environmental Integrity Project, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Assateague Coastal Trust, Center for Progressive Reform, Chesapeake Legal Alliance, and Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

“The Chesapeake Bay’s waters have been drowning in pollution in part because of outdated permits and declining enforcement by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and it’s high time lawmakers did something about it,” said Courtney Bernhardt, Research Director for the Environmental Integrity Project. “This bill should force MDE to strengthen its water pollution controls and increase its inspections, which will be a step in the right direction.”

Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, said: “It’s a state’s responsibility under the Clean Water Act to protect public health and the environment by controlling what is discharged into our waterways. Residents and groups like ShoreRivers and Blue Water Baltimore can step in and enforce permits under the Clean Water Act. But they shouldn’t have to. This bill ensures that the state does its job instead of the lack of investment and enforcement we’ve had for the past several years.”

Gabby Ross, the Assateague Coastkeeper, said: “This is great news for both the Chesapeake Bay and our coastal watershed.  With a number of facilities in violation and discharging into our waters, this bill will really help clean up the bad actors that have been significantly impacting our water quality.”

Katlyn Schmitt, policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform, said: “We see this legislation as a strong start toward correcting a pervasive problem in Maryland: declining enforcement of water pollution permits and regulations. We’ll be following the state’s actions closely as MDE implements the bill’s requirements.”

The legislation addresses a decreasing number of enforcement actions taken by MDE’s water administration by establishing more rigorous inspection and reporting requirements. A March report by the Chesapeake Accountability Project found that MDE took 422 water pollution enforcement actions between 2016 and 2021 under Gov. Larry Hogan, significantly lower than the 1,280 enforcement actions between 2010 and 2015, during the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The bill states that starting in July, MDE must inspect, at least once per month, facilities determined to be in “significant noncompliance” with state or federal water pollution control laws. Then, beginning July 2023, MDE must inspect each facility or site operating under an administratively continued permit for more than a year at least once every 90 days. The bill’s goal is to have all of these “zombie” permits updated by 2026.

MDE is also required to maintain a list on its website of all companies and municipalities that are in “significant noncompliance” with their water pollution control permits, and send a link with the list and updates to each state senator and delegate every month.

“This bill will increase accountability and is a step in the right direction to ensure compliance in permitting, which is long overdue,” said Maria Payan, Senior Regional Representative for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.

According to the report in March by the Chesapeake Accountability Project, there were 153 water pollution control permits in Maryland that are either expired or administratively continued, 114 of which have been in such a state for over a year. Of these, 22 permits had been either expired or administratively continued for five or more years.

“If MDE had not delayed in renewing these permits, some pollutant discharges to waterways from these facilities could have been prevented,” states the report.

Over the last year, several high profiles failures of environmental enforcement in Maryland have made headlines.  Baltimore’s two sewage treatment plants, on the Patapsco and Back River, illegally discharged millions of gallons of sewage into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, triggering outrage and a state takeover of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in March.

In October, the Environmental Integrity Project released a report revealing that 84 percent of the poultry operations on the Eastern Shore inspected by the state from 2017 to 2021 had failed water pollution control inspections, but that the state had fined only 2 percent of them.

In November, 25,000 gallons of untreated sewage overflowed into the St. George Creek in St. Mary’s County, causing dozens of people to get sick from tainted oysters.

All of these incidents contributed to pressure on lawmakers to pass HB 649, which was approved by a 97-26 of the House on March 31 and by a 37-10 vote of the Senate the same day. The bill now heads to Governor Hogan’s desk. With his approval, it will become effective on July 1, 2022.

A related bill also approved by lawmakers was HB 1200, which requires companies or municipalities seeking pollution control permits from the state to report to MDE data on the race and income of people living around the facility to help determine if the pollution would cause an environmental injustice to a community that is already overburdened.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization, based in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, that is dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.

The Center for Progressive Reform harnesses the power of law and public policy to create a responsive government, a healthy environment, and a just society.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake fights for clean water and a healthy environment by supporting 17 Waterkeepers throughout the Chesapeake and coastal regions as they protect their communities, rivers, and streams from pollution. https://waterkeeperschesapeake.org