Maryland environment secretary pledges to increase staffing amid legislators’ concerns during Senate hearing

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Maryland’s secretary of the environment pledged to raise staffing levels in parts of his department Tuesday following reports that documented issues with its inspections of drinking water systems and poultry farms.

The updates came during a wide-ranging hearing Tuesday in the Maryland Senate, during which Secretary Ben Grumbles was questioned about a laundry list of environmental issues in the state: from a recent sewage spill in Southern Maryland that sickened two dozen consumers of contaminated oysters to long-standing pollution woes at an Eastern Shore chicken rendering plant.


Regarding understaffing issues at the drinking water office, highlighter in an Environmental Protection Agency report that came to light in December, Grumbles said 68 staffers are on board and that there’s a goal to hit 100 staff members as soon as possible.

That’s a considerable jump from 2020, when the EPA reported there were 34 full-time staffers inspecting the state’s public water systems, down significantly from a few years earlier. At that time, each inspector had to handle roughly 240 water systems, as opposed to the national average of 67, potentially endangering the department’s ability to prevent a water crisis comparable to that of Flint, Michigan, the EPA found.


“You can call it the silver tsunami, or whatever. In that program in particular we’ve seen some retirements,” Grumbles said. “So this is an area of continuous vigilance.”

Grumbles also pledged a 50% increase in inspections of chicken farms during 2022, following a damning report in October from the Environmental Integrity Project. That report found that inspections at poultry operations had fallen 40% since 2013 and that while about half of the farms inspected between 2017 and 2020 improperly handled animal waste, fines against them were rare.

“This is good news for the Chesapeake Bay,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “However, more needs to be done — including more routine penalties for chronic violations of pollution control laws to protect waterways and public health.”

To meet its goals, MDE also may make greater use of video inspections, wherein inspectors ask facilities to show them particular things on camera rather than in person, Grumbles said.

“We need to have more inspectors, and we’re committed to that and also to relying on these off-site, video-enhanced inspections as well, to help ensure that the regulated community knows that we are overseeing their compliance and that we will continue to step in,” Grumbles said.

Staffing issues in the department’s Hogan era were perhaps the biggest flashpoint at Tuesday’s hearing, as legislators expressed worries that pollution and contamination problems could be going undetected.

“It’s like the department is barreling down the highway at full speed when you know you have four flat tires,” said Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat representing parts of Baltimore and Howard counties.

Staffing declines have impacted other Department of the Environment offices, including the pollution inspectors for rivers, streams and other bodies of water. That group saw a 14% decline from 2015 to 2020.


The number of in-person inspections has dipped slightly as well. Department officials visited 32,000 sites in fiscal year 2020, down from 55,000 in fiscal 2019 and 68,000 in fiscal 2018. Officials have attributed 2020′s numbers to issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent months, nonprofit groups have sometimes flagged water pollution problems in the state, including an illegal discharge from a vinegar factory in Baltimore, discovered by Blue Water Baltimore. Drone footage obtained by Eastern Shore-based ShoreRivers captured discharge coming from Valley Proteins, a Dorchester County factory that turns chicken carcasses into dog food.

“We have enough humility to recognize that we are not the only eyes and ears in the field, and that’s why we embrace — whether it’s Blue Water Baltimore or ShoreRivers or another NGO,” Grumbles said. “We gather information and sometimes that can be information we already have and it’s corroborating.”

“But that implies we might have to rely on NGOs, nongovernmental entities, to protect the public, rather than the department,” countered Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat and chair of the Senate committee — Education, Health and Environmental Affairs.

The Valley Proteins plant is considered a poster child for the issue of “zombie permits,” a reference to the fact that it had been operating under a water pollution permit that technically expired in 2006. As many as hundreds of other industrial sites across the state could be in a similar position, operating under old pollution controls thanks to administratively continued permits.

Pinsky cited concerns that staffing issues could be slowing the permitting process, endangering the public. He asked whether Grumbles has directly requested additional inspectors from Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. Grumbles demurred, saying he would need to check with department staffers, but stated that MDE is prioritizing updating the permits of highly polluting facilities.


“Our strategy has been to identify those administratively continued permits that present the greatest risk,” Grumbles said. “We are continuing to do that and focused particularly on those where there’s significant noncompliance.”