"Under construction" may be a sign of progress to many, but bare soil at a building site poses a serious threat to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries if allowed to wash away in a rainstorm.
State rules require land cleared for development to be "stabilized" to prevent such erosion, but environmental groups contend local enforcement of sediment and erosion control laws is weak, and the state needs to become more involved. Even state reviews conducted in the past year found minor to serious problems with enforcement by municipalities.
The activists cited a recent survey they conducted of construction sites around Baltimore that found erosion controls lacking on more than 60 percent of the land cleared for development. That's an improvement over what a similar survey found last year. But activists say many sites still have exposed soil prone to being flushed into storm drains and water ways.
"This is a really important source of pollution that's also really easy to prevent," said Richard D. Klein, an environmental consultant who coordinated the survey.
But budget-pinched inspection staffs are overworked, he said, and the fines for violations are so low that it's cheaper to pay the penalties than do what it takes to reduce mud pollution.
Local officials defended their enforcement, and some questioned the survey's validity. A building industry representative, meanwhile, pointed out that even the environmentalists found compliance has improved since last year.
"The process is working," said Kathleen Maloney, lobbyist for the Maryland Building Industry Association.
Land scraped clean of vegetation is prone to erosion when it rains, and muddy runoff damages streams, rivers and the bay. Sediment can smother shellfish and bury fish eggs, prevent aquatic grasses from growing, and weaken the health of fish. It also can carry algae-stimulating fertilizer, oil and other toxic materials.
While about 30 percent of the sediment getting into waterways comes from natural erosion, the rest is attributable to human activity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Farming is the main source of sediment fouling the bay — because so much land is in agriculture — but construction sites produce 10 to 20 times more sediment per acre, according to EPA.
Erosion from construction sites can be largely prevented, environmentalists say. Those low black "silt fences" seen around construction sites prevent some of the mud pollution that can wash off a construction site if installed correcty and maintained. Developers also are required to cover any ground they're not actively working within a week with straw or mulch and to seed it with grass.
Those measures, along with putting gravel at construction site entrances, can reduce pollution by 90 percent or more, Klein said.
The state gave local governments the job of enforcing runoff controls at construction sites.
The state reviews released at The Baltimore Sun's request found progress in correcting problems in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties. Howard was faulted in one instance for failing to crack down on mud pollution from an elementary school construction project.
The most serious situation was in Baltimore County, which was found in violation of state regulations last year by the Maryland Department of the Environment for multiple deficiencies in its erosion control enforcement, at least some of which were attributed to cuts in the number of inspectors. Facing threatened court action, the county pledged to improve its oversight and hired three inspectors, and state officials say they're now satisfied.
But the environmental groups involved with the recent site survey called for stronger enforcement. For the survey, volunteers from dozens of community and environmental groups checked 131 construction sites in the Baltimore area in June. Overall, they found that 37 percent of the cleared sites had a covering of grass or mulch. That's better than the average 23 percent overall soil stabilization rate found by a similar survey last year.
Some local officials disputed the survey findings, saying it's impossible to tell without examining a construction site's sediment and erosion control plan whether it's in compliance.
"We take stabilization seriously in Howard County, and we support timely stabilization," said Tom Butler, the county's deputy public works director. "But when you go around in a car and look at specific sites, the snapshot doesn't tell a full story."
But Klein defended the survey methods, noting that volunteers visited each site two or three times over three or four weeks, long enough to detect any progress in covering bare soil.
Erosion-control requirements vary around the region, the survey found, as does the degree of enforcement. For example, state regulations do not require that bare soil be stabilized where construction is underway, but Klein noted that Anne Arundel County has imposed that requirement in its jurisdiction.
Glenn Berry, Baltimore County's chief building inspector, said his staff can only enforce what's required by the state.
But Cathy Bevins, chair of the Baltimore County Council, said after seeing some sites with Klein that she thinks county erosion controls could be better.
"I just think we can do a little bit more,'' she said. "It all adds up."
The environmental groups also called for stiffer fines for violations. Local penalties range from $100 to $500 tops, the survey noted, while the state can levy fines of up to $10,000 per day for the same infractions. Some localities have cut inspectors and are making fewer inspections, the survey found, while the amount of fines collected has declined overall.
Enforcement also can take some time. In one case, it's taken years.
City officials recently issued a "correction notice" to stop erosion and cover extensive areas of bare soil at the Uplands residential redevelopment site in West Baltimore.
David Flores, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, said his group, Blue Water Baltimore, has complained repeatedly to the city over the past four years about the lack of erosion control measures there. He questioned why the state hadn't stepped in sooner. He noted that the $238 million mix of condominiums, apartments and homes is a city-sponsored development.
The MDE did fine an Uplands contractor $15,000 for erosion-control violations in 2009, when old apartment buildings there were being demolished. State officials found no problems at Uplands last year, though, when they inspected the site as part of their review of the city's construction site enforcement.
Virginia Kearney, MDE's acting water management director, said she couldn't address Flores' allegation that much of Uplands has been barren of vegetation for years and prone to muddy runoff. She said her staff relayed his recent complaint to the city. While state officials had concerns about conditions at some building sites during a review last year, Kearney said, "We're satisfied at the moment that they are implementing their program."
Rosanna LaPlante, who oversees erosion and sediment control for the city's Department of Public Works, said the Uplands developer recently was ordered to stabilize areas of exposed and eroding soil, though she didn't see any evidence of mud washing off the site. She said city officials had difficulty at first locating the parties responsible for erosion controls at the site.
Ivy Dench-Carter, vice president for Pennrose Properties LLC, master developer of Uplands, said she first learned of the site's erosion problems recently from a Sun reporter.
"We're waiting to get the corrective action notice, and then I will make sure that our contractor gets out there," she said. "We'll do what's necessary to come into compliance."