‘State of the Chesapeake Bay’ Report Shows Lack of Enforcement in Maryland Led to Significant Increase in Pollution

The Chesapeake Bay Program released the annual State of the Chesapeake Bay report last week, analyzing the Bay’s health and its current threats. This year’s report found Maryland fell short on targets to reduce pollution, largely stemming from Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE)’s failure to inspect and enforce existing laws, and from wastewater treatment facilities operating in violation of discharge permits.

In Maryland, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment from agriculture, sewage, and fossil fuel combustion, flow into the Chesapeake Bay, increasing nutrient levels in the water. Maryland has laws and regulations in place to prevent excessive pollution, such as discharge permits that limit the amount of pollution wastewater treatment plants can release. 

However, the Chesapeake Bay Program reports that Maryland’s wastewater treatment facilities have been operating in violation of these permits and contributed to significant increases in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution last year in the Bay. According to the report, Maryland’s overall progress was negative because of the wastewater sector—nitrogen pollution increased by six percent, which amounts to 2.8 million pounds.

This increase in pollution was completely avoidable, and also presents a significant risk to public health. The state allowed Maryland’s two largest wastewater treatment plants to dump millions of gallons of bacteria and nutrient-laden wastewater daily into rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay for more than a year, resulting in a significant increase in nitrogen pollution in the Bay. 

This is a stunning example of why Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Blue Water Baltimore, ShoreRivers and a broad coalition of groups worked with Sen. Paul Pinsky and Del. Sara Love to pass a bill in 2022 that requires MDE to clear the backlog of more than 200 outdated or expired water pollution control permits, nicknamed “zombie permits”, and update them by 2026. It also requires MDE to inspect facilities deemed in significant noncompliance with their discharge permits once per month.

States have authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate pollution discharging into our waterways. What was missing in Maryland – and in other states – is the investment necessary to ensure equitable protections and enforcement. The Baltimore communities experiencing the wastewater treatment plants’ gross violations are already underserved and overburdened by pollution. MDE’s blind eye to the violations resulted in a direct threat to these communities’ public health and economic well-being.

Looming Supreme Court rulings this week on power plant oversight and next summer on regulation of waterways could limit federal power of enforcement on environmental issues. This makes Maryland’s enforcement of pollution permits even more vital. With uncertainty about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s future ability to enforce regulatory action, the burden is on states to protect our communities, natural resources, and collective future.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake and our partners will serve as a watchdog to ensure MDE increases inspections and pursues violations. In addition, Waterkeepers Chesapeake is partnering with Blue Water Baltimore, Gunpowder Riverkeeper, and Baltimore County to conduct trainings and develop tools to equip community members so they can also make sure pollution violations don’t continue. For the sake of vulnerable communities and the Bay, MDE needs to do better.

Learn more about the wastewater treatment plants by visiting Blue Water Baltimore’s website: https://bluewaterbaltimore.org/blog/whats-happening-at-baltimores-wastewater-plants/