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Op-ed

Maryland’s environmental horror show, zombies included | GUEST COMMENTARY

Valley Proteins Inc. is a meat processing factory located east of Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore. It takes refuse from the poultry industry to produce protein mush that it sells as food for pets and other animals.

While the plant’s water-pollution control permit expired back in 2006, Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE) has administratively extended this outdated permit for 15 years, allowing the facility to continue operating — despite repeated illegal discharges of fecal bacteria, ammonia, phosphorus and other pollutants into the Transquaking River. During three months in the summer of 2020, for example, the plant dumped 25 times the legal limits of ammonia into the Transquaking, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay. Finally, in mid-December, amid growing political pressure, Valley Protein was forced to suspend operations because of numerous pollution control violations.

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How was this rendering company, polluting rivers and streams, allowed to remain open with an expired permit? Because in Maryland, under Gov. Larry Hogan’s leadership, “zombies” have been able to stalk our lands and lurk in our Chesapeake Bay.

By “zombies,” I mean zombie water pollution control permits issued by MDE that have expired and been “administratively continued.” Through this maneuver, the resuscitated permit doesn’t require any updating to incorporate the most recent pollution-control technology — as required every five years by the federal Clean Water Act.

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In our state, 42% of the pollution control permits for municipal sewage plants, factory wastewater treatment facilities and other pollution sources (198 of 466 total) are “zombies” that just keep shambling along, allowing more pollution to pour into our waterways than the law otherwise allows according to EPA records examined by the Center for Progressive Reform in December 2021.

It should be the first job of any government to protect its citizens from such horror stories. Unfortunately — and currently — our government is not. These companies and facilities spewing dangerous chemicals into our water systems are neither reviewed nor vetted on a regular basis.

Shockingly, the first response of Governor Hogan’s MDE was not to crack down and impose fines and pollution control requirements on Valley Protein or its Virginia-based parent company, which wants to expand the plant. Instead, MDE offered the company $13 million in taxpayer funds, normally reserved for building public sewage treatment plants, to instead build a private wastewater treatment facility just for Valley Protein.

This proposed funneling of public funds to a private corporation with a hair-raising environmental record drove me to speak out on the senate floor, along with State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, against this Hogan hustle. After further public outcry and threat of a lawsuit from clean water organizations, MDE eventually backed down, withdrew the taxpayer funding, and then, just last month, said it would impose penalties and issue an updated permit.

But this wasn’t the first time MDE fell down on the job. Recent nightmares with the agency extend far beyond expired permits and weak enforcement. In its oversight of water pollution, the enforcement actions MDE took in fiscal were the fewest in almost two decades, according to MDE annual reports.

One odious example: In September, Blue Water Baltimore reported that Maryland’s largest sewage treatment plants — Baltimore’s Patapsco and Back River wastewater plants — were plagued by chronic failures that spilled millions of gallons of bacteria-laden wastewater.

In October, the Environmental Integrity Project issued a report that scrutinized MDE records and found that 84% of 184 poultry operations inspected by the state between 2017 and 2020 had violated their state water pollution control permits. But only 2% of these operations — four total — were penalized by the state, three of them for just $250. The result: Eastern Shore rivers surrounding the poultry houses remain choked with unhealthy levels of phosphorus pollution and algae.

Governor Hogan’s MDE has adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach to environmental enforcement and it is time, past time, we not only speak out against it, but take action to reverse it.

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To do this, I am introducing legislation this session that will require MDE to crack down on “zombie” permits and require more inspections, particularly if a permit is expired or administratively extended, or in significant noncompliance.

This won’t solve all our problems, of course, but it should drop the curtain on a few of the worst environmental horror shows that currently haunt Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, is Chair of the Maryland Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. His email is paul.pinsky@senate.state.md.us.


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