Free pass for Md. polluters?

From how we live to where we can live, Marylanders have been expected to make an increasing number of personal sacrifices for the cause of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay over the last two decades or more. Many have been small (whether laundry detergent contains phosphates or not now seems inconsequential), while others, including the cost to homeowners and businesses of greener, more advanced sewage treatment or storm water control systems, have been substantial.

But are the state's most egregious polluters — those who truly thumb their noses at laws protecting the nation's largest estuary and knowingly spill noxious materials into the bay and its tributaries — held as accountable?

A report released this week by the nonprofit Center for Progressive Reform raises the troubling possibility that they are not. The evidence? A review of a decade of enforcement actions on the state and federal levels reveals that Maryland and federal authorities rarely push for criminal prosecution of those who violate the Clean Water Act.

Admittedly, there are any number of ways to deal with such violations. Often, they are enforced purely as a matter of civil law, with fines or other administrative remedies. And in the vast majority of cases, that's probably adequate.

But surely the prospect of a criminal sanction, including incarceration, would have a far more deterrent effect than a modest fine. Those who see pollution merely as part of the cost of doing business — a dollar and cents calculation about the bottom-line expense of a fine (if caught) versus the cost of proper disposal of waste material, for instance — would be given pause.

Are local authorities too reluctant to bring out the big guns? It's hard to tell for certain from the data presented in the study authored by Rena Steinzor, the center's president and a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. But the case is certainly compelling. Prosecutions are rare, usually a handful per year, and they are particularly uncommon when they involve farming, urban runoff and sewage treatment plant violations.

Professor Steinzor notes that one explanation may be the disbanding of the environmental crimes section within Maryland's U.S. Attorney's Office at the end of 2001, when prosecution of homeland security-related cases became a far greater priority. Another may be the general reluctance of federal courts to impose incarceration in water pollution cases.

Yet it may also be that some elected officials simply don't have the stomach for it. An ongoing private lawsuit seeking to enforce Clean Water Act standards on an Eastern Shore poultry farm raised the hackles of Gov. Martin O'Malley and others in Annapolis. Prosecuting a big oil company over a spill is one thing; expecting a family farmer to keep manure out of a stream is apparently another.

Of course, political conservatives like to frame every U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement effort as an abuse of authority. Yet if regulations are not adequately enforced, there's little hope of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, despite the public's overwhelming desire for that outcome — and its demonstrated willingness to make personal sacrifices.

What the report recommends is not necessarily to add more regulations to the books or even haul more citizens into court, but merely to enforce the law adequately. Once polluters understand what might happen to them if caught, they are less likely to violate. It may also require spending a bit more money on prosecutors and support staff at the state and federal levels.

This would certainly be a good time to take such corrective action. The EPA is continuing its effort to enforce higher pollution standards on states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — the Total Maximum Daily Load, known informally as the "pollution diet." If polluters have no fear of getting caught, or of facing serious consequences if they are, it's difficult to see how the diet will bring about its desired effect.

Most Maryland residents are much more conscious of the Chesapeake Bay and likely take far more steps to reduce their environmental impact than their forebears were. But those efforts will be wholly inadequate to the cleanup task if authorities decide to let criminal polluters slide. As for those who don't care to risk jail, there's always an alternative as clear as clean water — don't break the law.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Hogan can protect farms and open space
    Hogan can protect farms and open space

    Congratulations to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on his inauguration. Mr. Hogan ran a terrific campaign, and we all look forward to his leadership on one of the most important roles, safeguarding the lands and waters of this beautiful state.

  • The Hogan environmental agenda
    The Hogan environmental agenda

    In appointing former Harford County Executive David Craig to head Maryland's planning department last week, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan acknowledged he's sensitive to criticism of anti-sprawl policies collectively known as "smart growth." He promised to "take a look at" the complaints of local...

  • Ship ballast a major source of pollution
    Ship ballast a major source of pollution

    The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was gracious in giving the polluted waters of the Chesapeake Bay a D-plus. It should have been an F-minus ("Bay grade remains D+ despite improvements," Jan. 5). A major culprit involved with the bay's increased pollution is the shipping industry.

  • Big Chicken must help pay for bay cleanup

    Dan Rodricks was right on the mark that Maryland's next governor needs to address pollution from agriculture and "consider some common-sense ideas for dealing with the phosphorous runoff." ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13).

  • Excess phosphorous is killing the bay

    In the days following Dan Rodricks' column "Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor" (Dec. 13), your paper has been flooded with letters opposing the phosphorus management tool (PMT) regulations and opposing Mr. Rodricks position. On the surface it would seem that both letters in...

  • Mr. Hogan picks the wrong 'first fight'

    When farmers' own records show they are spreading far more phosphorus on their fields than is needed to fertilize their crops and studies have demonstrated conclusively that nutrient runoff from those same fields is killing the Chesapeake Bay, attention must be paid. Yet Maryland's incoming...

  • The truth about poultry and pollution

    A letter published in The Sun on Dec. 19, "Rodricks wrong on Bay pollution," asserted that a report by the Environmental Integrity Project that columnist Dan Rodricks quoted was wrong because it stated that poultry farmers on Maryland's Eastern Shore are polluting the Chesapeake Bay by...

  • Rodricks' definition of a 'green governor' is way off

    Columnist Dan Rodricks' definition of a "green governor" is way off the mark. There is nothing green about a poultry waste incinerator, which Mr. Rodricks is urging Gov.-elect Larry Hogan to fast-track on the Eastern Shore ("Larry Hogan has a chance to be a green governor," Dec. 13).

Comments
Loading