Maryland's environmental agency slapped $497,500 in penalties on 17 landlords yesterday for lead paint violations -- the latest example of how the O'Malley administration is stepping up enforcement of pollution laws.
In recent weeks, the Maryland Department of the Environment also hit Constellation Energy with $100,000 in fines for air pollution violations at three coal-fired power plants. The agency sued an Eastern Shore farmer for ripping up wetlands and penalized a builder $60,000 for allowing erosion to foul a protected marsh.
Also, Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson ordered the reopening of 63 other pollution violation cases that weren't being actively pursued under the Ehrlich administration.
"We have a renewed emphasis on enforcement," said Wilson, a former MDE administrator let go by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2003 and then hired by Gov. Martin O'Malley in January to the agency's top job.
"It's a core function of the agency -- we have a lot of laws on the books, and they need to be enforced," Wilson said. "It's a matter of public health and environmental protection, and it creates a level playing field for regulated entities."
Yesterday, MDE announced $497,500 in penalties against landlords in Baltimore City, Carroll and Prince George's counties and elsewhere for lead paint law violations in apartments they rent. Last month, the department sent out news releases publicizing $525,000 in lead paint fines against 21 other landlords.
"We feel strongly that highlighting enforcement actions will be a deterrent to people who might not have thought their actions would hurt the environment," said Robert Ballinger, spokesman for the MDE.
Penalties were rare
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that neither he nor the former governor would comment about changes at the MDE. Kendl P. Philbrick, who was Ehrlich's environment secretary, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Last year, in response to questions about why the MDE wasn't enforcing air pollution rules at power plants, the agency issued a written statement saying that it wouldn't be practical to enforce all violations and that "not every exceedence or violation warrants an enforcement action."
Ehrlich often mentioned his environmental record, especially the "flush tax" that pays for improvements to sewage plants. But he also appointed former power industry officials to key roles in his environment agency, which lobbied against air pollution laws and rarely punished power plants for violations.
The Sun reported in May last year that MDE had chosen not to seek penalties for 14,579 opacity violations since Jan. 1, 2003, at three coal-fired power plants owned by Constellation Energy, as well as 13,664 violations at three generators run by the Atlanta-based Mirant company.
Opacity is the darkness of smoke from power plants. Opacity violations are a rough indication of the amount of microscopic soot particles pouring out of smokestacks, which can cause heart attacks and hospitalizations for asthma.
Last month, the department imposed a $100,000 fine on Constellation Energy for years of violations of opacity limits from the stacks of its H.A. Wagner and Brandon Shores coal-fired power plants in Anne Arundel County and C.P. Crane plant in Baltimore County.
The MDE's actions this spring go beyond air pollution. In April, the agency advised Baltimore to close Swann Park because of high levels of arsenic in the soil that had been left by a long-closed pesticide factory next door. The MDE gave Baltimore and New Jersey-based Honeywell International 30 days to come up with a plan to clean up and monitor the park.
The agency, long faulted by environmentalists for ignoring wetlands violations, also moved to punish a property owner for the destruction of 70 acres of protected marshes on the Eastern Shore. The state filed a lawsuit in April seeking millions of dollars in fines from the owner of a Caroline County horse farm who allegedly filled wetlands to create pasture.
Among several other actions in recent months, the agency on May 10 imposed a $60,000 penalty against a developer, P.F. Summers Inc., and a contractor, Bay Country Enterprises, for allowing runoff from a construction site into wetlands in St. Mary's County.
Thomas Combs, project manager at Bay Country Enterprises, said builders at the Woods at Myrtle Point subdivision made a "terrible mistake" by allowing a water line to leak, washing the equivalent of about 50 dump trucks of sand into wetlands. Workers shoveled the sand out and cleaned up the mess, and the company was hoping to avoid a fine, he said.
"We've been told there's a change. We have a new administration ... and we have heard that they are coming down hard," said Combs. "I think there should be more of a spirit of cooperation. I don't think [penalties] are going to help the environment. I just think it will make everything cost more."
The environment agency has an ally in the new attorney general, Democrat Douglas F. Gansler, who campaigned on a promise to make polluters pay. "Gone are the days when people are willing to drive by smokestacks and see nasty black soot oozing from the tower," Gansler said.
Eric Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who is director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington-based watchdog group, said O'Malley and Gansler are living up to their campaign pledges to enforce environmental laws.
"I think they mean business," Schaeffer said. "They let the big companies know that this is the law and it's got to be complied with. I think there is a lot of public support for that in Maryland."
Since taking the helm of the MDE in January, Wilson, who coordinated "smart growth" programs under former Gov. Parris Glendening, has made personnel changes at the top of the agency to help alter its focus. Two former Constellation Energy officials appointed by Ehrlich are gone.
The O'Malley administration has picked career MDE environmental regulators for most top positions, including Robert M. Summers, longtime head of water programs, as the agency's No. 2 official under Wilson. MDE veterans George S. Aburn Jr., Horacio A. Tablada and Virginia F. Kearney are heading up the air, waste and water divisions, respectively.
"Governor O'Malley chose some great environmentalists to lead his state agencies, and it looks like they are really going after the polluters," said Dawn Stoltzfus, deputy director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.
One of Wilson's first major acts as secretary was to order a study to determine if her agency has enough employees to enforce all the environmental laws and regulations. The MDE has 132 inspectors keeping track of pollution from 198,184 regulated businesses and government entities.
According to state figures, a 16 percent reduction in the enforcement staff over the past seven years has coincided with an almost doubling in the number of sites they're supposed to be monitoring. Wilson said the study will help her determine whether MDE needs more money to hire more inspectors, or whether it needs to set new priorities for enforcement.
Gansler said he has advised his attorneys, who represent the MDE, to go after opacity permit violations at power plants that were ignored in the past. "There were thousands and thousands of uncontested violations involving opacity in these plants," Gansler said. "You either look the other way or make them fix the problem."
In addition to getting hit with a $100,000 penalty, Constellation Energy has agreed to install $9 million in pollution control equipment. A similar enforcement action is being pursued against Mirant.
Kevin Thornton, a spokesman for Constellation, said there's a "different environment" involving enforcement with O'Malley and Gansler in office.
Said Thornton: "There has been a shift, and we want to be in compliance."
Read our environment blog at baltimoresun.com/bayblog