Maryland’s environmental chief vowed to make immediate reforms at his agency as he faced sharp questions Jan. 18 from state lawmakers frustrated with its performance over the past year.
Members of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee pressed Ben Grumbles for answers on the state’s shortage of drinking-water system inspectors; the lack of penalties handed down to chicken farms that run afoul of pollution controls; the agency’s failure last fall to warn of a sewage spill before more than two dozen people fell ill from eating contaminated oysters; and two separate instances in which major pollution violations went unnoticed until watchdog groups gathered evidence and reported their findings to the state.
Democratic Sen. Paul Pinsky, the committee’s chair, said the revelations suggest a pattern of disregard for the public’s wellbeing on par with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s oversight failures that contributed to the nationwide opioid epidemic.
“One of the issues that comes out consistently is it wasn’t an issue of the FDA controlling Big Pharma but Big Pharma controlling the FDA,” Pinsky said. In Maryland’s case, he said he wants to make sure that the Department of the Environment is “controlling the sector that they are supposed to protect rather than that sector controlling them.”
Grumbles pledged to push forward several changes, including hiring dozens of new staff members in the Water Supply Program and significantly increasing the number of inspections conducted at chicken farms this year.
The MDE secretary also took personal blame for the agency’s belated order in November to shut down shellfish harvesting in St. George Creek in St. Mary’s County after a sewage spill. The local water and sewer utility followed protocol by immediately reporting the overflow of more than 25,000 gallons of diluted but untreated sewage, officials say. But the MDE failed to formally act on the information for more than two weeks.
In the meantime, a St. Mary’s oyster farm had unwittingly harvested more than 7,000 oysters from its leased bottom in the creek and sold them. As a result, 27 people in Virginia reported getting sick after eating the raw oysters.
“I accept responsibility for a breakdown, the failure in communication,” Grumbles said. “Our enforcement people were aware of and noted the spill, the infrastructure leakage problem. It didn’t get properly communicated to the hard-working folks who run our Shellfish Sanitation Program.”
The agency has since taken steps to make sure that a similar mistake doesn’t happen again, he added.
A common refrain during the nearly two-hour hearing was that the agency’s enforcement divisions are understaffed and overworked.
A consultant for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted an analysis of the MDE’s workload, finding that its drinking water inspectors conduct approximately 240 inspections per year, nearly four times as many as their peers typically do in other states. At the time of the analysis, there were 27 vacancies out of a staff of 71 full-time positions.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh contended that the lack of staff has contributed to another problem: a decline in the number of certified operators at the state’s 3,300 public drinking water suppliers. The analysis, conducted by the business consulting firm CADMUS, found that 72% of water systems had a certified operator in 2020, down from 84% in 2015.
The state was supposed to submit its response — which the EPA called a “resource investment plan” — in October. But Frosh said it has failed to do so, leaving the public in the dark about what measures the state agency intends to take. Grumbles later told the committee that the MDE has turned in “phase one” of the plan and is currently working on the second.
The situation is so dire that the state risks being ceding responsibility of its drinking water program to the federal government and losing the $21 million in federal contributions toward running the program, CADMUS warned.
“This is an embarrassment to the state,” Sen. Clarence Lam, a Howard County Democrat, said. “It’s like the department is barreling down the highway at full speed with four flat tires.”
Grumbles said that much of the decrease in staffing was caused by a “silver tsunami” of retirements during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The MDE has since brought the program’s staffing level up to 68 people, with the goal of reaching 102 in the coming months. CADMUS recommended 126.
A similar staffing shortage plagues the agency’s oversight of the Eastern Shore’s chicken industry, critics say. An Environmental Integrity Project report last year found that state inspectors are visiting fewer farms than they once did, falling from an average of 218 a year from 2013 through 2017 to 134 per year from 2018 through 2020, with that decrease predating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Grumbles promised to add two inspectors to the current staff of three and increase the number of inspections by 50%, drawing praise from the group that authored the report.
“This is good news for the Chesapeake Bay that MDE will be increasing its inspection staff and has pledged to significantly boost its inspections of the poultry industry,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. Schaeffer, the former director of civil enforcement at EPA, also testified during the hearing. “However, more needs to be done,” he added, “including more routine penalties for chronic violations of pollution control laws to protect waterways and public health.”
One of the ways that MDE will accomplish the increase in inspections will be to conduct “video inspections,” Grumbles said. Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat, questioned whether such a system would work, saying that farmers could simply “show what they want to show” with their cameras. Grumbles responded that MDE staff would direct farmers in real time on what to shoot.
Senators also sought explanations for why environmental groups — and not MDE inspectors — brought to light recent pollution violations at a pair of Baltimore sewage treatment plants and at a chicken-rendering facility in Dorchester County. “We have enough humility to recognize that we’re not the only eyes and ears in the field,” Grumbles told the committee.
But his detailed defense of his agency’s recent actions rang hollow with at least one lawmaker.
“At the end of the day when we pass laws, it’s the law-enforcement entity whose responsibility it is to enforce those laws,” said Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore City Democrat. “We continue to hear these statements that seem to suggest that you have intention, that you’re making best efforts and maybe you accept responsibility. But it’s only after getting caught.”
by Jeremy Cox