OCEAN CITY, Md.– It is extremely unlikely that oil from the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico will make its way into Maryland’s waters, but the spill could affect some of the region’s migratory birds and fish.
That was the consensus shared Tuesday by officials at Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s roundtable discussion on the local effects and lessons learned from the spill.
Complex currents should keep the oil out of Maryland, but if anything from the Gulf does make its way this far north, it will be in the form of tar balls, or “hard, crusted” remnants” of oil, said Dr. Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
“This is a wake-up call to us all,” said Boesch, who is a member of a commission that President Obama appointed to study and prevent future oil spills. While he said that Maryland’s waters would not likely fall victim to large, catastrophic blowouts like the one in the Gulf, pipelines and barges that transport oil could leak into the state’s waterways.
There is a lot at stake financially and environmentally in Maryland’s waters.
“We have many migratory shorebirds who will be queuing up and heading south for the winter in the Gulf area,” said John Griffin, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. They include terns, skimmers, egrets and blue herons, he said.
Griffin also said that migratory fish such as marlin might be affected.
The governor’s team agreed that the catastrophic spill in the Gulf is a warning for officials and environmental experts.
“We are benefitting and learning from the lessons … in the Gulf,” said Shari Wilson, Maryland secretary of the Environment.
O’Malley discussed in detail with his team the emergency preparedness plans in place in Maryland. They rely on cooperation between the government and private companies to effectively use booms and vacuums to collect and treat water in the event of a spill.
–by Allison Frick
ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – The Chesapeake Bay faces “death by a thousand cuts” unless regulators can reduce the amount of nutrients, metals and other pollutants carried into its rivers by stormwater, said environmental activist Tom Schueler.
Stormwater is the fastest-growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
“The last three decades of steady suburban and exurban growth has greatly increased the amount of land that’s been paved over or the amount of turf cover that goes with it,” said Schueler, coordinator of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network, an environmental advocacy group.
Development in the Chesapeake Bay watershed – more roads, roofs and driveways – all prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the soil. Increasing amounts of pollutants flow off these developed lands and into streams and creeks.
Schueler said nutrients, trace metals, oil and grease are some of the pollutants carried in runoff.
He said tougher standards for new development – to reduce sediment and pollutant runoff – need to be put in place, and enforcement of industrial permits needs to be stepped up to prevent pollutants from coming into contact with rainwater.
He added, “If we don’t get serious in the bay watershed to have tougher standards, more enforcement, more frequent inspections and greater accountability, we’ll lose this resource.”
–By Allison Frick
On April 6, the intense debate that had been raging in Annapolis about whether the state’s new stormwater regulations were too hard on developers came to a controversial end when a Maryland legislative panel approved some relaxed regulations.
The House-Senate Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review approved the emergency changes to the regulations put forth by the Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE), which had stirred heated debate among developers and environmentalists.
Developers and local officials were worried that the new regulations would impede development by imposing high costs on developers. Some environmental groups expressed concern that the weakened restrictions approved on April 6 would put the Chesapeake Bay at greater risk.
The hearing lasted for three hours, and as a result of the vote to approve the relaxed regulations, many construction projects will be held to old building standards. Local news reports covered the hearing and the reactions of individuals on either side of the debate:
- Baltimore Sun, “Easing of storm-water pollution rules approved,” by Tim Wheeler
- The Capital, “Vote ends messy stormwater debate,” by Pamela Wood
- WBAL Report, “Lawmakers Reach Deal on Stormwater Regs,” by Robert Lang and AP
- WTOP presentation of the Frederick News Post story, “Builders, Realtors Hit Hard in Frederick,” by Ed Waters Jr.
Some states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are falling behind in reviewing permits designed to curb stormwater pollution, according to Environmental Protection Agency reports.
Stormwater is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. It is a serious problem because so much soft ground with plant cover that once absorbed and filtered pollution out of rainwater has been covered by hard surfaces such as roads, roofs and parking lots. These impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the ground. Instead, it runs into the streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
In order to control the environmental impact of stormwater, the Environmental Protection Agency set up a permitting program to regulate stormwater runoff called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Permits issued under this program control facilities whose discharges go directly into lakes, rivers and streams from identifiable agricultural, domestic or industrial sources. For example, runoff from municipal sewage treatment facilities and construction sites are both regulated by NPDES permits.
Many states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are behind in updating the permits that control what kind of discharges and how much of them a facility or company can allow to run off a work site and into waterways.
After the state issues a NPDES permit, it is good for five years. At the end of that five-year period, (180 days before its permit expires) a facility must apply to have its permit renewed. When a complete application for renewal is received, but not officially re-issued by a permitting authority, it becomes “administratively continued.” Put simply, the permit becomes backlogged (this can also include facilities waiting for their first NPDES permit).
The EPA measures how effectively states keep up with backlogged permits by tracking their “percent current rates,” which is the number of facilities with current permits divided by the total number of facilities.
Facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that release one million gallons of runoff per day, individual major permit holders, and those that do not produce as much runoff, individual minor permit holders, both have 90 percent current goals.
Virginia has the highest percent current rates in the bay watershed. Its rate for major permits is 99.3% and 98.3% for minor permit holders. EPA reports indicate that West Virginia has the lowest percent current rate for minor permit holders, at 56.3%. It show s that Delaware, at 65%, and Maryland, at 69.5%, have the lowest percent current rates for major permit holders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Overall, none of the percent current rates fall below 50% for states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Most percent current rates for both major and minor permit holders are between 70 and 90%, leaving an estimated 20-30% that are backlogged or “administratively continued.”
When it rains it pours—or at least nitrogen and phosphorus do—into the streams that feed the Chesapeake.
Stormwater runoff is the fastest-growing source of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay. When land is developed, rich dirt and vegetation that once absorbed and filtered rainwater are covered up by turf grass and impervious surfaces. That means the roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, roofs and cars, lawns and golf courses that we encounter on a daily basis all contribute to the problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the nitrogen and phosphorus bearing sediment, debris and chemicals found in stormwater discharges to be a type of point source pollution.
At first consideration, this might seem counterintuitive, but in reality it is a simplified explanation of the entire problem. A point source pollutant is one that comes from a traceable, identifiable location like a pipe or ditch. When it rains in developed areas, excess water flows along curbs towards, or directly into drains and gutters. From there the water goes into nearby streams, which lead to the bay.
Although not all stormwater runoff is considered point-source pollution, most discharges are regulated as such under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Maryland, like most states, has the authority to implement the NPDES program and enforce its own stormwater regulations. Currently, the EPA has direct authority in just some states.
The NPDES permitting program covers Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems also known as MS4s (regulates the pipes and storm drains that are not part of sewage treatment plants and that carry stormwater to tributaries) as well as Construction and Industrial activities that have major impacts on waterways.
So the answer to the question, what’s the point of storm water regulations in effect today? Well, it’s quite simple really, to control the point-source pollutants.
On Monday, March 22, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released draft guidance for management of federal lands within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This guidance was mandated in President Obama’s May 12, 2009 Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration.
Section 502 of the order states, “The Administrator of the EPA shall, within 1 year of the date of this order and after consulting with the Committee and providing for public review and comment, publish guidance for federal land management in the Chesapeake Bay watershed describing proven, cost-effective tools and practices that reduce water pollution, including practices that are available for use by Federal agencies.”
The Chesapeake Bay Program explains that the draft guidance presents specific practices for reducing water pollution that will bring the government closer to its Clean Water Act goal of making the bay once again “fishable and swimmable.” The suggestions are specifically addressed to federal land managers, but can also be implemented by state and local governments. The guidance recommends agricultural practices for federal lands that reduce the delivery of phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment to the bay and its tributaries. It also discusses the impact of nonpoint source pollution and makes recommendations about development on federal lands. The guidance suggests the use of green infrastructure for on-site use of stormwater to reduce pollution.
The public has 30 days to comment on the guidance. Comments will be accepted online or by mail and incorporated into the public docket. The comment period ends April 23, 2010 at 11:59 p.m.
Debate over how to reduce pollution from storm water is intensifying in the Chesapeake Bay region as federal agencies are setting new pollution limits for the bay’s tributaries. Here are some resources to help frame the debate:
Each year, on or before October 1, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is required, under Title 1, Subtitle 3 of the Maryland Environmental Article, §1-301(d), to release a thorough report that documents enforcement activities “conducted by the Department during the previous fiscal year.”
The report has been released annually for the past 13 years, and the most recent report covers Fiscal Year 2009, from July 2008 through June 2009. The report is extremely detailed and has a very specific format. It is divided into three sections and in its entirety reflects the performance results for regulatory programs overseeing the environment and the amount of money collected by these programs in the form of penalties. There are 28 areas of enforcement and 15 programs covered in the report (see page 19 of the report).
Most enforcement actions are taken by the Air and Radiation Management Administration (ARMA), the Waste Management Administration (WAS) and the Water Management Administration (WMA). The report defines the regulatory authority of these administrations in the following way:
1). Air: air pollution and radiation programs.
2). Waste: oil control, solid and hazardous waste management, sewage sludge utilization, scrap tire recycling, lead poisoning prevention, natural wood waste recycling, and Superfund remediation programs.
3). Water: This includes drinking water, tidal and non-tidal wetlands, wastewater discharges, coal and mineral mining, oil and gas exploration and production, water appropriation, waterway and floodplain construction, dam safety, stormwater management and sediment and erosion control programs.
Money collected by the different programs (within these three main administrations) in the form of penalties is deposited into seven major state funds: the Clean Air Fund, the Oil Disaster Containment, Clean-Up and Contingency Fund, the Nontidal Wetland Compensation Fund, Hazardous Substance Control Fund (handles identifying, monitoring, and controlling the proper disposal, storage, transportation, or treatment of hazardous substances), money recovered from responsible parties under Environmental Title, §7-221 (covers parties that release or threatened to release hazardous substances), the Sewage Sludge Utilization Fund and the Clean Water Fund.
This year in total, the MDE oversaw 117,421 entities and reported that the total number of enforcement actions taken by environmental programs increased by 7 percent over Fiscal Year 2008. The report also stated that MDE inspected 17% more sites.
Enforcement and compliance actions are separate for the three main administrative bodies, although most regulate through inspections, audits and spot checks. Officials generally allow companies to correct minor violations, but more significant violations discovered after inspection or recurring minor violations leads to penalties, injunctions, corrective orders, or criminal sanctions.
Penalties collected last fiscal year from environmental violators totaled $6,516,601. This was an increase of $2,546,326 from Fiscal Year 2008. A press release from MDE explains that a “$4 million settlement with ExxonMobil Corporation for the release of more than 25,000 gallons of gasoline at a service station in the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County,” is included in that sum of collected penalties.
Despite these successes, there is an underlying problem expressed in this year’s report: “MDE’s increased enforcement activity has created a much larger workload for the attorneys assigned by the Office of the Attorney General to MDE.” The report compares Calendar Year 2007, in which roughly 340 enforcement cases were referred for legal action with the 816 cases referred in 2009. The report states that because staff cannot keep up with this increase in cases, there were 325 cases that had not been addressed as of January 1, 2010. Furthermore, the report shows that there were 51,587 sites inspected in Fiscal Year 2009 and 157.4 inspectors for all three regulatory administrations.
Graphic Credit: MDE FY 2009 Annual Enforcement and Compliance Report
The Critical Area Act of 1984 was passed to protect the Chesapeake Watershed by preserving the land closest to the bay and its tributaries. The law established the Critical Area Commission, which is responsible for developing and implementing statewide regulations that preserve water quality, protect the flora and fauna of the bay and guide land use policies for local governments within what is called the Critical Area of the watershed.
The Commission defines this Critical Area as “all land within 1,000 feet of the Mean High Water Line of tidal waters or the landward edge of tidal wetlands and all waters of and lands under the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.”
The Commission has revised the standards governing buffers in the critical area. As defined by Title 27 of the Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays, a buffer “…means a naturally vegetated area or vegetated area, established or managed to protect aquatic, wetland, shoreline, and terrestrial environments from man-made disturbances.”
The Commission’s new regulations will go into effect on Monday, March 8, 2010. The revisions to Title 27 maintain the original definition of a buffer, but set revised standards of compliance for buffer establishment, planting and mitigation, and management plans. Basically, they have adjusted the standards for the size of a buffer, what type of vegetation and how much must be planted on a buffer zone and how individuals applying for permits will manage and preserve the established buffer.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources is extremely optimistic that the new measures will “…improve water quality and protect wildlife habitat.”
The Clean Water Act is central to restoring the Chesapeake Bay. It was passed in 1972 and the goals of the act are clearly outlined in Title 1, Section 101 of the law, which reads, “The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”
As the EPA explains, the Clean Water Act regulates everything from direct pollutant discharges into waterways to preservation of wetlands and issues relating to municipal wastewater treatment facilities, nonpoint source pollution and runoff.
The law also states, “It is the national goal that wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.”
In Hedrick Smith’s Frontline documentary, Poisoned Waters, Will Baker of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation explains that the Chesapeake watershed is at a turning point, on the verge of being unable to offer a place for recreation, provide food or maintain aesthetic value linked to tourism and state pride. Smith’s documentary outlines the political history that is behind the inconsistency with environmental cleanup. The Clean Water Act set goals for 1983 that have still not been met in 2010.
Smith explains that severe degradation of the nation’s waterways led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 under the Nixon administration. Smith interviews former EPA Administrator, William Ruckelshaus who says, “We had to issue standards and enforce them.”
Smith explains that the public was interested in the environment during the 1970s, and that as a result, significant political progress was made. The Reagan administration adopted a policy of deregulation during the 1980s, and transformed environmental regulation into a cooperative, voluntary program. The experts in Smith’s documentary identify this political shift as the root of the ineffective cleanup efforts still taking place today.
President Obama has already made strides towards stricter regulation. He issued an executive order in May 2009 reiterating the importance of protecting the Chesapeake Bay and calling for stricter enforcement of programs outlined in the Clean Water Act. In Part 3, Section 301. Water Pollution Control Strategies, Obama calls for “using Clean Water Act tools, including strengthening existing permit programs and extending coverage where appropriate.”
History indicates that stricter regulation leads to better results where the environment is concerned, but the questions remain: Will this political action happen in time to save the Chesapeake? And is there enough public interest to bring about this change?