Environmental groups have gone to court in an attempt to force state regulators to strengthen orders given to Baltimore City and three of Maryland's largest counties to curtail their storm-water pollution.
A hearing was scheduled in Prince George's County Circuit Court Friday morning on the first of three legal challenges by local and national environmental groups to storm-water pollution permits issued since late last year by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The groups, represented by Earthjustice, a national nonprofit environmental law group, contend that the state agency violated state and federal law by failing to impose specific pollution limits, cleanup deadlines and more extensive stream monitoring requirements on Prince George's.
Similar challenges also have been filed by Earthjustice to permits issued to the city and Baltimore County, which are to be heard later. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has filed a separate legal challenge to the storm-water pollution permit the state issued to Anne Arundel County.
The groups argue that the state-issued permits are so vague they are unenforceable, and without more teeth they will allow pollution problems to continue. The shortcomings will leave local waters unsafe to swim in and unable to support fish, crabs and shellfish, the groups contend, and will hinder restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.
State officials have defended what they call "next generation" pollution-control permits that they say significantly strengthen storm-water cleanup efforts in Maryland's largest communities. The permits require each locality to retrofit 20 percent of its streets, alleys, parking lots and buildings over the next five years to prevent polluted runoff. Local officials must develop "enforceable implementation plans" for meeting water-quality standards, according to a release on MDE's website.
The groups argue that by leaving the details of what each locality must do until later, the state risks delays and shortcomings in reducing storm-water pollution, a significant and growing threat to cleaning up the bay.
Urban and suburban runoff, which washes litter, dirt, fertilizer and other pollutants into storm drains, is the source of about 15 percent of the pollution causing algae blooms and dead zones in the Chesapeake. Storm water is the only source of bay pollution still increasing in the face of a long-running multi-state cleanup effort.
A Montgomery County judge last year ordered state regulators to beef up a storm-water pollution permit it had issued four years ago to Montgomery County. Judge Ronald B. Rubin found the permit lacked "specific, enforceable standards, benchmarks and deadlines" and that the permit's requirement to restore runoff controls on 20 percent of the county's pavement was "simply too general." The state has appealed that ruling.
Meanwhile, in a recently disclosed assessment, the Environmental Protection Agency found shortcomings in Maryland's storm-water control efforts, both in new development projects and in established communities. The assessment, completed in March, was obtained by the Baltimore Sun.
The agency found the state Department of the Environment lacked enough staff to properly oversee how local governments were regulating storm-water controls required in new construction and redevelopment. It noted the department's longstanding failure to review each locality's efforts every three years, as required by state law.
The EPA said the state also was too shorthanded to keep tabs on localities' efforts to reduce polluted runoff from existing buildings and pavement. And in a finding that appears to echo environmentalists' complaints, the federal assessment called for state regulators to include "more-enforceable schedules" in the storm-water pollution permits it issues to localities.
In a review of Maryland's bay restoration efforts, EPA called last month for the state to sign an agreement by June 30 to address the storm-water control shortcomings it had found. MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said Thursday that state officials were still discussing the assessment with federal regulators, but have developed a "work plan." On the lack of staffing, he said the department recently hired two new employees and an administrator to work on storm-water issues and is seeking to fill seven vacancies in that program.
"Maryland continues to lead the region in working to reduce polluted stormwater runoff," Apperson asserted, both with "strengthened" municipal stormwater permits and tougher runoff-control regulations for development and redevelopment that he said made the state a national leader in sustainable development.
"The EPA assessment helps to point us in the direction to do even better," the MDE spokesman said, "and we are committed to doing just that."