A worker walks past broken sewer main pipes in Baltimore Highlands after a massive spill into the Patapsco River following Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
A worker walks past broken sewer main pipes in Baltimore Highlands after a massive spill into the Patapsco River following Hurricane Irene in August 2011. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Lawmakers and representatives of Maryland's county and municipal governments sparred Tuesday over a pair of bills in Annapolis that would raise the fines for sewage spills which annually dump millions of gallons of untreated waste into local waters and the Chesapeake Bay.

One measure, SB289, sponsored by Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, would boost the maximum administrative penalty for a water pollution violation from $5,000 to $10,000 per day.


The other, SB302, put in by Simonaire and Sen. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, would also raise the maximum civil penalty from $10,000 to $20,000, while requiring the Maryland Department of the Environment to publish on its Web site an annual tally of the amount of sewage spilled and fines collected.

Simonaire explained to his fellow members of the Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee that he introduced the bills out of frustration with regular reports of sewage overflows, sewer line ruptures and wastewater treatment plant malfunctions that he said resulted iln "hundreds of millions of gallons going into our local water ways."  He noted that by this time last year, there had been a single 50 million gallon spill into the Patapsco River, while in August of 2011 there were more than 100 million gallons spilled.  Big fish kills in Arundel creeks last spring were the byproduct of big spills the year before, he asserted.

Glassman said stiffer penalties and more publicity of sewage spills seemed only fair when the state is cracking down on septic systems and tightening regulations of farmers.

"We simply are not going to make pregress when losing that amount of seage into the bay,'' he said.  Joining him to support the bill was Valerie Connelly of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

But representatives of the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League, whose members operate sewage plants, opposed the increases, arguing that such penalties lead to higher taxes or fees for local taxpayers or reduced government services.

"We're already struggling with our wastewater treatment plants...with no help from the state," said Candace Donoho, legislative director for the municipal league.   She and Leslie Knapp of the counties group contended that the state already is plenty aggressive about fining local governments for sewage spills.

Donoho said municipal officials complain the fines they have to pay just go into an MDE "slush fund" and that any increase in penalties would do nothing more than generate more revenue for the state.

Sen. Ronald N. Young, a Frederick County Democrat, sympathized, saying from his experience as a local official years ago sewage overflows are caused by weather conditions beyond anyone's control.

"I don't know of any jurisdiction that has intentional released a big sewage spill," he said.

According to a fiscal note prepared by the Department of Legislative Services, MDE has become more aggressive since 2009 in fining local governments for sewage spills. The agency has collected about $1.1 million since July of that year for overflows.

Data available online at MDE show there were 1,775 sewage overflows reported last year, including 39 overflows of one million gallons or more.  That's down from 94 overflows of at least one million gallons in 2011.  A third of last year's large overflows were blamed on Hurricane Sandy, which hit in October.

The drop in big spills last year prompted Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, to ask if the state's enforcement actions might not be having an effect.