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.

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