Maryland doesn’t have enough inspectors to ensure safety of drinking water systems, EPA report says

A Maryland office tasked with ensuring the safety of 3,300 public drinking water systems has too few inspectors who are too overworked to do their jobs, according to an EPA report that came to light Wednesday.

The state employed 34 of the inspectors as of last year, 27% fewer than four years earlier. The drinking water safety office, part of the Maryland Department of the Environment, would need to hire more than 80 additional inspectors and other technical staff to adequately handle its growing workload, an EPA consultant found.


Attorney General Brian Frosh called on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s office to address the staffing shortage “to prevent public health crises like the tragedy we saw in Flint, Michigan,” where drinking water contamination caused widespread illnesses and lead poisoning.

In a letter to Hogan’s office, Frosh, a Democrat, said the state was supposed to develop a plan to address the staffing shortages and share it with EPA by the end of October.


“That date has now passed,” Frosh wrote. “If you have a plan, the people of Maryland deserve to know what it is.”

State environment department officials emphasized that the report is not raising concern about the quality of Maryland drinking water, and is one of many the EPA is conducting around the mid-Atlantic, spokesman Jay Apperson said in a statement.

While many employees at the drinking water program retired when the pandemic hit, he said, “a succession plan was in place and we are working on filling remaining vacancies.”

“The EPA report is a welcome critique on improving our operations to ensure that we continue our longstanding success in ensuring safe drinking water in the state,” Apperson said.

The report, written by consulting firm Cadmus, was completed in May but was not shared widely. Frosh’s office uploaded the document to its own website and released it to the public Wednesday.

It said the drinking water safety division had experienced a steady decline in inspectors because of positions eliminated after retirements, hiring freezes and poor recruitment. At the same time, the division’s workload has increased and is expected to continue to grow because of new responsibilities testing for pollutants known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS; lead in school water systems; Legionella bacteria in hospitals; and harmful algal blooms, as well as the addition of about 350 new water systems to state oversight.

If the state does not improve its regulation of the water systems, the EPA could take over control of those efforts, the consultant said.

“At one time, MDE had a robust drinking water program and was able to go above and beyond the minimum federal requirements of program oversight, implementation, and enforcement. Due to declining resources, increasing demands, and the need to make cutbacks in areas considered lower-priority, MDE may not be able to meet the minimum requirements needed to maintain primary enforcement responsibility,” the report said.


A state report provided to EPA in July said that, as of 2020, water systems across the state “maintain a high level of compliance” with federal safe drinking water laws. Data in the report show violations for any findings of contamination are rare, though monitoring violations are more common.

In 2020, about 100 systems had violations for lead or copper contamination, most of which were corrected. Three hundred water systems around the state failed to properly monitor for fecal coliform, while 168 systems had one or more violations for monitoring of inorganic contaminants such as mercury or nitrate.

The EPA report’s findings come amid mounting criticisms of the state’s environmental enforcement.

Hogan’s administration has for years described an approach that seeks to help polluters come into compliance with environmental permits and regulations, rather than immediately slap them on the wrist for infractions. But critics point to statistics from 2020 showing the fewest enforcement actions taken against water polluters in two decades and say the administration is not putting enough resources towards upholding environmental protection laws.

In August, the state environment department faced criticism for not detecting and acting sooner on major problems at Baltimore’s wastewater treatment plants, two of the largest in the state. The agency said it had not conducted in-person inspections since September 2018 at one plant and February 2019 at the other, though major problems were found at those times.

And then there was a recent case in which the state environmental agency failed to notify anglers, mariners and watermen about a sewage spill in the St. Mary’s River in Southern Maryland before some two dozen people in Virginia got sick from eating oysters harvested in the area. The department said it was the first instance of such a lapse and that it was working to fix any breakdown in its processes.


Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel County, said she believes staffing shortages are a major factor contributing to a lack of enforcement, and are widespread in state government. But she nonetheless called the revelations about the lack of drinking water inspections “shocking,” given that providing safe and healthy drinking water is among the most important government functions.

“I think every Marylander would agree it’s critical we have enough staff thoroughly inspecting healthy and safe drinking water,” Elfreth said.

Within the state environment department, staffing shortages are not limited to the drinking water safety division. In a division devoted to investigating the pollution of rivers, streams and other bodies of water, for example, the number of inspectors has fallen from a high of 62 in fiscal year 2015 to 53 in fiscal 2020.

Overall, state environmental inspectors are visiting fewer sites each year, something officials have blamed largely on the COVID-19 pandemic. They visited 32,000 sites in fiscal 2020, down from 55,000 in fiscal 2019 and 68,000 in fiscal 2018. The environment department is responsible for inspecting everything from coal mines to recycling centers to construction sites to reservoirs.

Responding to the criticisms, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said in an email: “There are always challenges, and enforcement numbers change from year to year, but we continue to take aggressive actions to hold polluters accountable and protect public health while continually working to improve our programs.”

Frosh said his office has butted heads with Hogan’s administration for years over their differing approaches to regulatory enforcement, with the attorney general raising concerns that state agencies have been referring fewer enforcement cases to his office.


But, he said, when it came to drinking water safety, he felt the need to raise the issue publicly.

“This isn’t a political issue,” Frosh said. “It’s a critical public health issue.”