Several regional environmental groups have filed suit against the Maryland Department of the Environment, arguing the latest iteration of its stormwater permit covering hundreds of industrial facilities statewide is insufficient.
In three separate suits filed Friday and Monday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, the nonprofits argued that Maryland officials failed to adequately consider factors such as increased rainfall due to climate change while drafting the new permit — and that it won’t do enough to slow pollution flowing into state waterways.
The new stormwater permit, which updates an older version instituted in 2014, covers about 1,400 industrial facilities that aren’t required to have individual permits for water pollution. The list includes landfills, scrap yards and coal-handling facilities.
The permit outlines best practices for controlling rainwater on industrial sites, which can become contaminated by pollutants and run off into nearby bodies of water. The previous permit expired at the end of 2018, but has remained in effect.
After a public comment period, the new permit was finalized by the state last month, and it is poised to take effect Feb. 1, barring court action.
In a statement, Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the department stands by its permit, arguing that it “meets environmental and legal requirements.”
“This permit went through many stakeholder meetings and has been reviewed by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to meet federal requirements. MDE hopes to work with the petitioners and review their concerns,” said Apperson, adding that MDE has yet to receive the official court documents.
The environmental groups — including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Blue Water Baltimore — want a court to remand the permit back to the agency, forcing it to reconsider certain elements.
The permit doesn’t institute pollution limits for stormwater, or take into account the needs of impaired Maryland waters such as the Chesapeake Bay, the environmental groups argued in a news release. It also relies on outdated rainfall data, which doesn’t account for an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms locally, according to the groups.
The permit also doesn’t tack on enough additional requirements for industries operating in poor communities and communities of color, the environmental groups say.
The new permit does require businesses operating in those areas to submit an annual report to the state, but that report is already required of all facilities covered under the permit. Only the submission to the state is new.
Since many industrial sites are concentrated in poor, urban areas, the deficiencies in the new permit will affect those communities disproportionately, the groups argue.
“We are taking action today not only for the streams and rivers that must be protected from excessive pollution, but on behalf of the people in Baltimore who are living on the frontlines of this issue every day,” said Alice Volpitta, Baltimore Harbor waterkeeper with Blue Water Baltimore, in a news release.
Blue Water is being represented by the Chesapeake Legal Alliance, alongside the Gunpowder Riverkeeper. Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network are represented by the Environmental Integrity Project. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is representing itself.
The environmental groups also argue that the permit writers failed to consider problems with noncompliance under the old version of the stormwater permit.
A study by the Chesapeake Accountability Project found that, between 2017 and 2020, about 24% of industrial sites inspected by the state were following the requirements of the old permit. Hundreds of facilities were out of compliance, but the department pursued enforcement actions for only six of them.
Since the permit covers such a large array of industrial sites — and there won’t be individual public hearings for sites applying for coverage — the environmental groups felt it necessary to push for more stringent standards, said Patrick DeArmey, an attorney with the Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
In addition, the stormwater flowing off the sites is untreated, and has become one of the fastest-growing sources of Chesapeake Bay pollution, he said.
“Unlike the pollution that comes out of pipes at factories or wastewater treatments, toxins from industrial stormwater run directly off of these facilities, flowing untreated into the surrounding neighborhoods before washing through storm drains into the nearest waterway,” DeArmey said in a news release. “This is why it is critical to strengthen the protections in this permit.”