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Concerned activists, lawmakers waiting for delayed data on Maryland's environmental law enforcement

State environmental regulators expect to be months late with reports detailing how actively they investigate polluters — a sign, some lawmakers say, that Maryland may not have enough resources to enforce laws intended to protect the Chesapeake Bay and public health.

A report due each October reveals how often the Maryland Department of the Environment cites businesses and property owners and how much it collects in fines, but this year's report isn't expected until early December.

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General Assembly leaders demanded a separate study this year accounting for how many inspectors the department employs and the workload each carries, but that data isn't expected until weeks before the legislature reconvenes in January.

The deadlines matter because the information is meant to be a factor as Gov. Larry Hogan prepares a budget he will propose to legislators in January, advocates and state delegates said.

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"If the information isn't there, how can the governor make good decisions about the budget?" asked Kristen Harbeson, political director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

State officials would not say why the reports are late but said environmental regulators have enough resources to do their jobs.

"The budget process is under way and the administration will have all the needed input from the appropriate agencies to ensure that Maryland's precious natural resources are preserved for generations to come," said Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan. "As always, the state enforces all environmental laws, and will continue to do so."

Recent reports have found that resources devoted to state-level environment enforcement have declined across the country, while the federal Environmental Protection Agency is not prosecuting polluters as often.

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Del. Brooke Lierman, one of the lawmakers demanding the state information, said the missed deadlines are a sign Maryland lacks resources.

"With the number of enforcement positions they have, I just don't know how it would be physically possible for their inspectors to be doing the level of enforcement required to reduce pollution or keep the bay clean or abate lead poisoning," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Data compiled by the Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington-based think tank that is among groups raising concerns about enforcement, suggest some enforcement resources have declined or are insufficient.

The number of inspectors the state employs to investigate major sources of water pollution has fallen by 30 percent over the past 15 years, for example, according to the center. The state Department of Agriculture inspects only 15 percent of more than 5,000 farms for possible nitrogen and phosphorus pollution because it employs fewer than 10 inspectors in its Office of Resource Conservation, according to the center.

The number of cases state officials refer to the attorney general's office for criminal investigation has declined by one-third since 2014, environmental groups found through a public information request.

Similar trends have been reported around the country. Forty states have reduced environmental regulators in recent years — as much as 9 percent in Maryland and 30 percent or more in Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, according to a Center for Public Integrity report published in October.

Federal prosecutions of environmental crimes have fallen by half in the past five years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an organization at Syracuse University that tracks federal enforcement, staffing and spending.

Hogan administration officials said the governor has increased funding for environmental compliance by 3 percent since taking office, to $9.6 million. Over the past two years, the Maryland Department of the Environment's budget has grown 14 percent to $331 million in the current fiscal year, they said.

While the budget has grown, the number of department employees has fallen from 958 to 934.

Maryland environmental officials say law enforcement is "a priority" and point to a recent case in which the owner of two power plants was required to pay a $1 million penalty and spend $1 million more on environmental projects. Maryland is also suing Volkswagen for breaking state air pollution laws and is moving toward using electronic reporting to monitor permit violations, spokesman Jay Apperson said.

"We will go after polluters and impose financial penalties when needed," he said.

The state levied $3.7 million in fines in fiscal year 2015, up from $3.6 million in fiscal 2014.

While the number of enforcement actions surged to 7,700 from 2,150 over that same period, that was largely because of a surge of about 5,000 actions regarding lead exposure.

The enforcement statistics on fiscal 2016 expected next month will represent the first full year of activity under the Republican Hogan administration. Fiscal 2015, which ran from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2015, included the final six months of the tenure of former Gov. Martin, O'Malley, a Democrat.

Critics of the state agencies and Hogan administration say they fear lax enforcement will allow problems to go undetected until they are too serious to be ignored.

"You're not immediately going to know there's a problem until the long run," said Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat. "If we're going to meet [bay cleanup] goals, it requires enforcement to make sure people are living up to their permits."

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