Carroll County has agreed to pay a $40,000 penalty after a federally led inspection found the county had failed to properly protect its streams and waterways from polluted stormwater runoff.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this week it had reached a settlement with the county, in which local officials agreed to pay the fine and correct federal water pollution violations found more than two years ago.
The agency accused the county of failing to identify all the outfalls where stormwater runs into streams and rivers, not inspecting construction sites often enough, failing to check all county facilities for runoff controls and not providing a hotline for residents to report illegal discharges into storm drains.
"We want to be sure that these municipalities are properly managing stormwater," said Michelle Price-Fay, chief of the discharge permit enforcement branch in the EPA's Philadelphia regional office.
Runoff can damage streams, she noted, causing erosion and fouling the water with pollutants and toxic materials.
The agency is making an effort to check on local stormwater controls in Maryland and neighboring states, Price-Fay explained, because of the role runoff plays in polluting the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA fined Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Harford counties in 2010 for similar failures.
Thomas S. Devilbiss, Carroll County's deputy director of land use, planning and development, played down the significance of the shortcomings cited. He said the team of inspectors from the EPA and the Maryland Department of the Environment did not find any actual pollution occurring, just administrative problems with documenting how the county was riding herd on stormwater runoff.
"This was a tough one to swallow because we run a very good program here," Devilbiss said. "Nothing's perfect in the world. If it takes a little longer to do some inspections — if it slips by — most of the time that's not a significant issue. But the things they found they found, I'm not disputing."
Federal regulators originally cited the county last year for eight violations, with a maximum penalty of $177,000, but narrowed their complaint to four alleged violations in settling the case. County officials had challenged the accuracy or significance of several findings.
Inspectors pointed to two cases where county staff did not check construction sites every two weeks, saying the county failed to make sure building projects kept rain from washing mud into streams. They also pointed to a case where the county failed to threaten court action when problems found at one site went uncorrected for seven months.
In a letter replying to the EPA's findings, Devilbiss called the tardy inspections "isolated incidents" and the slow enforcement "a rare occurrence."
The federal agency also pointed out that the county had not taken steps to prevent stormwater runoff from two closed landfills, and that potential pollution problems were seen at an active landfill and at the county's maintenance facility. Inspectors noted that excessive use of herbicide at the county's regional airport had denuded a hillside, making it vulnerable to erosion.
Devilbiss wrote that the county promptly corrected issues at its own facilities, including a "significant reduction" of herbicide to control vegetation.
"We have made changes to our program and done some things beyond the inspection," he said in an interview.
The case played out amid a controversy over Carroll County's refusal to comply with a new state law requiring it to levy a stormwater management fee on property owners. Maryland lawmakers in 2012 ordered Baltimore City and the state's nine largest counties to impose fees to help pay for expanded stormwater pollution control efforts. Opponents decried the fee requirement as a "rain tax."
County officials won the state's approval to skip the fee, promising to set aside general tax revenues for stormwater projects. Maryland lawmakers inserted a waiver from the fee requirement for Carroll and Frederick counties in budget legislation adopted this year.
"I find it interesting that this was all going on while they were trying to get their little carve-out and portrayed themselves as the poster child for stormwater management," said Alison Prost, Maryland director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
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Devilbiss said federal and state inspectors found no fault with the county's plan for financing its stormwater pollution control efforts. But Price-Fay said her agency's review had not dealt with that issue.
Prost said this week's announcement indicates to her that "there is much more work to be done" both by the state and the county on stormwater. She said the permits that the state issues to local governments spelling out stormwater control requirements need to be stronger and more transparent "so that we're not waiting five years into a permit before we discover there's a problem."
Carroll County's stormwater permit was seven years old — two years past its expiration date — when the inspection occurred. The state has not conducted its own review of Carroll's stormwater program since 1992, despite a state law requiring it be done every three years.
Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the MDE, said state officials keep tabs on the county by reviewing its annual reports on what it's doing to prevent stormwater pollution and ensure runoff controls on development.
Reviews have been curtailed because of limited staff, he said, but the agency is in the process of adding more resources to oversee local efforts.
The MDE released a new draft stormwater permit for Carroll County on Friday, which would require it to treat more runoff from existing streets and parking lots, work to keep litter from getting into streams and apply stricter stormwater controls on new and redevelopment projects.