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City, two counties ordered to curb storm-water pollution

Baltimore city, Baltimore County and Prince George's County have been directed by the state to step up their efforts to reduce polluted runoff fouling local streams and the Chesapeake Bay. But environmental groups contend the mandates are too vague and weak, raising the possibility they may go to court to challenge them.

The Maryland Department of the Environment ordered the three large jurisdictions to take a variety of similar actions over the next five years to curtail storm-water pollution, including reducing litter in water ways and retrofitting 20 percent of their streets, parking lots and buildings to catch or treat runoff.

The orders came in new, long-overdue storm-water permits issued by the state, which update what local officials must do to curtail pollution discharged into streams, rivers and the bay from their storm drain systems.  Anne Arundel County is in line to get a similar permit by year's end, the department said. Permits affecting Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford and Howard counties are also in the works.

The new runoff controls called for are expected to be costly, which was the reason why state lawmakers required the city and the state's 10 largest localities to start collecting storm-water management fees this year. The fees have proven to be controversial, with critics deriding them as a "rain tax," and lawmakers are expected to debate whether to reduce or repeal them when the General Assembly convenes next month.

"We need to shift the spotlight from the rain," Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers said, "and focus on keeping our landscape clean and directing runoff into areas where the water can soak into the ground, eliminating erosion and preventing pollution from entering our waterways."

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 bay.  Storm-water is the only source of bay pollution still increasing in the face of a long-running multi-state cleanup effort, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a statement accompanying release of the new permits, Summers said they "take bold steps toward cleaning up runoff pollution" and significantly advance storm-water controls.

Environmentalists, though, said they were disappointed and frustrated that the state did not require more, contending that the permits lack many specifics, including enforceable goals and timetables for action. David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, warned that "we will not achieve water quality improvements and Bay restoration milestones without strong permits that the MDE actually enforces."

A broad array of environmental groups had urged the state to beef up its requirements after the city's draft permit was released more than a year ago. They wanted numeric limits set on pollutant levels, broader monitoring of stream quality and specific goals and timetables for action. They also urged the state to require the city and counties to use the most effective storm-water controls, rather than rely on storm-water ponds and other outdated measures that often cost less.

Some local officials, worried about the costs, urged the state to take those into account in setting its requirements.  City officials have estimated that meeting bay cleanup mandates could cost $250 million over the next decade or so and warned that up to 70 percent of the city's residents may be unable by 2030 to afford to pay their water and sewer bills as rates escalate to pay for repairs and retrofits.

State officials issued the permits largely as drafted, maintaining that the documents comply with the federal Clean Water Act and are enforceable. They also noted that the new storm-water cleanup requirements are more than 3 1/2 years overdue, and suggested any remaining weaknesses can be addressed when the permits come up for renewal in five years.

Anyone dissatisfied with the permits has 30 days to seek a judicial review. Given the recent court ruling overturning the permit MDE issued nearly four years ago to Montgomery County, similar legal challenges may be forthcoming on these new permits.  In the Montgomery case, a Circuit Court judge agreed with environmentalists that the state should have set specific limits on county storm-water discharges.

MDE spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said state officials disagree with the November ruling by Circuit Court Judge Ronald B. Rubin, but have yet to file an appeal.



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